Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Primate of Poland (1901-1981)
The path of Stefan Wyszyński’s life can be divided into two main stages, the turning point of which is 1948 and the appointment of the Archbishop of Gniezno, the Archbishop of Warsaw and the Primate of Poland.
Most often, the period after 1948 is analyzed, which is understandable, when Stefan Wyszyński’s life intertwined with the history of the Church and Poland, and also co-created this history. Nevertheless, everything that Stefan Wyszyński experienced before, prepared him to be the primate in times that were particularly difficult for Poland and the Church.
Stefan Wyszyński was born in Zuzela on the Bug, in the then Russian partition in 1901, when Poland was not on the world map. He knew well what it means to lack your own statehood, lack of Polish language, history or geography at school. This influenced his thinking about the homeland, state and nation. He grew up in the patriotic atmosphere of his family home. He learned Polish history, culture, and love for his homeland from his father Stanisław, the village organist, and in a secret boy scout organization, in the Wojciech Górski junior high school in Warsaw (1912-1915), and then in the Men’s Commercial School in Łomża (1915-1917). He passed the homeland love exam many times, primarily when he held the office of the Primate of Poland, but also earlier, in the Warsaw Uprising, when, as a chaplain of the Home Army (code name Radwan III), he served in the hospital in Laski near Warsaw.
Stefan Wyszyński was only nine years old when in 1910 his mother Julianna died prematurely. This tragic childhood event left its mark on the spirituality of the future primate. Stefan transferred his love for his mother to the Mother of God. It was a long spiritual process, an important stage of which was the first mass celebrated on 5 August 1924, at Jasna Góra. Right here, and not in the home parish, to always have a mother, a mother who does not die. The crowning event of this process was the act of his personal surrender to Mary on 8 December 1953, i.e. during her imprisonment in Stoczek Warmiński.
Stefan Wyszyński was ordained a priest on 3 August 1924, in Włocławek, Poland, which was now free. Choosing a seminary in this city, he became involved with it for several dozen years. Before the war, Włocławek was a working-class city, thanks to which Father Wyszyński got to know the life and problems of workers well. Father Wyszyński, by nature involved in social affairs, was an assistant to the Christian Trade Unions in Włocławek, gave lectures at the Christian Workers’ University. He saw the problems of the working world through the prism of the Catholic social teaching, whose vision was completely different from that proposed by the communist movement. He learned the principles of Catholic social teaching, as well as the basics of political and economic doctrines during his studies at the Catholic University of Lublin (1925-1929), where, before going on a one-year study trip around Western Europe, he defended his doctorate in canon law.
In the interwar period, the future primate was a journalist, editor, columnist, and editor-in-chief of the magazine “Ateneum Kapłańskie” (1932-1939). Even then, he wrote about how communism is a huge threat to man, predicting that in the near future there will be a confrontation between Catholicism and godlessness, as he called the atheism introduced by communism, and that Catholicism will emerge victorious from this confrontation.
Bishop Wyszynski, the Primate of Poland
With such – very briefly presented – experiences, Father Stefan Wyszyński entered the post-war reality. In March 1946, at the request of the then Primate August Hlond, Pope Pius XII appointed Fr. Dr. Stefan Wyszyński as Bishop of Lublin, and two years later, on 16 November 1948, he signed a bull of nomination for the Archbishop of two great metropolises – Gniezno and Warsaw, and the Primate of Poland, equipped with special powers of attorney from the Holy See. The nomination in November 1948 was a major turning point in the life of Stefan Wyszyński.
He was appointed the new Primate of Poland by the dying Primate August Hlond, to the astonishment of the Episcopate – after all, he was the youngest in this group (he was 47) and the youngest in episcopal seniority. But Bishop Stefan Wyszyński himself did not want to accept this position at first. In a letter to Pope Pius XII on 1 January 1949, explaining the reasons for resistance, he wrote about himself that he was a man of “poor standing”: “It is true that I have the fearless faith of an open person, the love of an almost childlike heart, committment to the Church and the will to make any sacrifice. However, when I look at myself, I do not see prudence as necessary, education, experience, intellectual preparation.” And further: “Holy Father! The present times require a man who is fully and perfectly a man of God, ready for any sacrifice, strong in spirit, endowed with wisdom and Christian prudence, so that the signs of the Church, which today are connected with the fate of the Nation, are conducted as worthily as possible in these times.”
It is striking that the features that, according to Primate Wyszyński, should characterize a person at the head of the Church in Poland in these difficult times, were fully revealed in him over time. Among them, there are also others – farsightedness, humility and modesty, which can be seen from the tone of the letter, but also courage and moderation, and above all love, capable of heroic sacrifice.
He came to lead the Church, and over time he became someone more, the spiritual leader of the nation in an extremely difficult time – in the period of the People’s Republic of Poland, when Poland found itself in the sphere of influence of Soviet Russia, and Polish communists, stripping their countrymen of all rights and freedoms, were building a utopian system, because it was based on an erroneous concept of man. One of the goals was the atheization of society, the expulsion of the Church from the public sphere, subordination to the state, and in the times of Polish Stalinism, the physical destruction of the Church.
These political changes coincided with the first period of Stefan Wyszyński’s primacy (until his arrest in September 1953), when, trying to provide the Church with a minimum of independence in pastoral work, he decided that the Episcopate should sign an Agreement with the authorities, which the communist authorities broke from the beginning. Nevertheless, it made it possible to postpone a major blow to the Church, and as a result shorten the period of operation of the harsh law, which was the decree of the Council of State of February 1953 on filling church clergy positions. It was aimed to subordinate the entire clergy, including bishops, to the state. To this, the primate and the bishops could only say one thing: Non possumus. We can not. “We are not allowed to put the things of God on Caesar’s altars. Non possum.”
Jasna Gora Vows of the Nation
As a result, Primate Stefan Wyszyński, Cardinal, was arrested in January 1953. Three years of imprisonment – from September 1953 to October 1956 – were a difficult time for the primate, but spiritually very beneficial not only for him, but also for the Church and Poland. During his imprisonment, the primate wrote the Jasna Góra Vows of the Nation, which were made by about a million people on 26 August 1956, and the outline of the nine-year Great Novena, which prepared for the celebration of the millennium of Poland’s baptism in 1966. The pastoral program implemented in 1956-1966 was the largest and most important evangelization project since the Christianization of Poland. His goal was the religious and moral renewal of Poles, the strengthening of dignity and inner freedom, and, consequently, the survival and strengthening of faith, Catholic identity, and links with Western Christian civilization. This, in turn, was a condition for external freedom: “A free man can feel imprisoned in his own homeland. He then mobilizes all forces to lead to the freedom of the nation. If the effort of people endowed with freedom by the Creator becomes widespread, there is no force that would be able to overcome the collective, mobilized the will of free people. Sooner or later they will lead to the freedom of the nation. The cradle for the freedom of the nation is therefore the freedom of the human being”– said Primate Wyszyński in the 1960s. When 1966, the year of the millennium of Poland’s baptism, was ending, he wrote: “my life task is complete”. He knew that time would bear fruit, all you had to do was wait trustingly, entrusting yourself to Mary. Throughout his primatehood, he had in mind the words-testament of his predecessor, Primate August Hlond, who, when dying, said: “Work and fight under the protection of the Mother of God. The victory, when it comes, will be the victory of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Primate Wyszyński entrusted himself to Mary in 1953, and this act of surrendering himself to Mary for the freedom of the Church of Christ in Poland and in the world was proposed to Poles on 3 May 1966, in the year of the millennium. The Vows of the Nation, the Great Novena of the millennium of Poland’s baptism, were the spiritual foundation for the revolution of the spirit that broke out in August 1980.
The spiritual leader of the Poles
When in 1956 Cardinal Wyszyński wrote 300 years after King Jan Kazimierz, the nation’s renewed vows, he became the spiritual leader not only of the Church, but also of the Polish people. It became an interrex, following the example of the primates in the First Republic, who took over the government during the interregnum. And most Poles considered the period of the People’s Republic of Poland to be such a time, because the rulers were not chosen by the nation, but imposed.After the Church’s successful confrontation with the atheistic authorities in the millennium year, the primate became the only authority in the country whose opinion, especially from the mid-1970s, even the leaders of the People’s Republic of Poland had to reckon with.
The primate’s farsightedness, courage and moderation made him, in times of stagnation and doubt, revive the spirit of the nation, remind of the rights due to every human being. Not only the right to freedom of conscience and religion, but the right to life, to the truth in public life, to work, to decent pay, to free association, etc. However, in times of great social tension, in the so-called Polish months – October 1956, March 1968, December 1970, June 1976, August 1980 – to mitigate them so that brotherly blood was not spilled.
The sign of victory
During three years of imprisonment, Primate Wyszyński, forgiving the perpetrators of persecution, passed the test of Christian love every day.He also passed it when, having experienced two great world wars himself, in November 1965 he signed the address of the Polish bishops to the German bishops, which began the long process of Polish-German reconciliation. Thirteen years later, in September 1978, in the cathedral in Cologne, he predicted that the future of Europe depended on strengthening its Christian identity and whether it would be able to deepen its Christianity.
The sign of Mary’s victory, which August Hlond spoke about, was for Primate Wyszyński the election of Karol Wojtyła as the Polish pope in 1978, and then the first pilgrimage to Poland. Holy Mass at then Warsaw’s Plac Zwycięstwa (today: Piłsudskiego Square), which unleashed the spiritual powers of the nation.
Beatification of the Primate
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński died on 28 May 1981. His funeral on 31 May was a great religious and patriotic manifestation. He passed away as one of the greatest primates in the history of the Church in Poland, about whom John Paul II said: “God gives such a father, shepherd and primate once in a thousand years”. He himself sometimes confessed that these were years of sacrifice, suffering and humiliation.
The beatification process of Primate Stefan Wyszyński began in May 1989, in December 2017 a decree on heroic virtues was announced, and in October 2019 Pope Francis approved a miracle through the intercession of the primate.
The beatification of the Primate of the Millennium, combined with the beatification of mother Elżbieta Róża Czacka, took place on 12 September 2021 at the Temple of Divine Providence in Warsaw.The ceremony was presided over by the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Marcello Semeraro.
The fruit of the beatification was entrusting the academic community of UKSW to Divine Providence, through the intercession of Blessed Stefan Wyszyński, during the inauguration of the new academic year on 11 October 2021.
Dr. Ewa K. Czaczkowska