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I spend a few weeks each summer in Poland, where anniversaries are observed with special devotion. Poles have a lot of history to keep.

Anno Domini 1946, for instance, was a very good year for the Catholic Church in Poland. That was hardly to be expected, given how unimaginably bloody the previous years had been. Poland was crucified during World War II—John Paul would call Auschwitz the “Golgotha of the modern world”—and the Catholic Church was not exempt from the lethal atheism of the occupying Nazis and Soviets.

Some two thousand of Poland’s ten thousand diocesan priests were killed during World War II. After the war, the Polish Church faced the task of rebuilding Catholic life, now under communism, with 20 percent of its priests dead. But first, there was the matter of honoring the valiant Archbishop Adam Sapieha of Kraków, the stalwart prelate who refused to leave his city, even under the occupation of Hans Frank, the brutal Nazi commander. 

A formidable spiritual and civic force, Sapieha operated a clandestine seminary in his residence, the most famous alumnus of which was Karol Wojtyła. In February 1946, Pope Pius XII honored the archbishop of the “long night of the occupation” with the red hat. Beleaguered and brutalized, Kraków had a moment of joy to reflect on its heroism. 

Seventy-five years later, it is now clear that the new Cracovian cardinal was not the most important ecclesial appointment in Poland that year. February’s elevation of Sapieha was followed in May by the consecration of Stefan Wyszyński as bishop of Lublin and in November by the ordination of Wojtyła as a priest. Sapieha’s cardinalate honored the past; Wyszyński and Wojtyła would shape the Polish and global future. 

From Sapieha, who ordained him in his private chapel, Wojtyła learned what it meant for a bishop to be, in extreme circumstances, the defensor civitatis, the defender of the rights of the people against an aggressor. Sapieha, even under fearsome duress, with priests, professors, and ordinary people in his city being massacred, maintained the integrity of his mission. In the face of humiliation, he maintained his Christian dignity.

Stefan Wyszyński, the forty-five-year-old new bishop of Lublin, would not remain there long. In 1948, despite being the youngest bishop in the country, Wyszyński was appointed archbishop of Gniezno and of Warsaw, and named Primate of Poland. For thirty-three years the wily and courageous Wyszyński would battle the communists, negotiating what could be negotiated, but refusing to compromise on what could not be compromised. He battled too those in Rome who thought they knew better how to fight communism—whether those, under Pius XII, who thought him too flexible, or those, under Paul VI, who thought him not flexible enough. In both cases the Vatican diplomats were wrong. The young Wojtyła took note.

The primate was named a cardinal in 1953, but did not actually get the red hat from Pope Pius XII until 1957. He was arrested by Poland’s communist regime in 1953 and kept for three years under house arrest in various locations, sometimes cut off from all communications with Rome, his fellow bishops, or even his own diocese. He emerged triumphant in 1956, and for the next twenty-five years was such a colossus of the Church in Poland that the Holy See granted him special powers of governance throughout the nation. 

Until eclipsed by Pope John Paul II, Wyszyński was the greatest churchman of the twentieth century. Watching him as a young priest, and then alongside him as brother cardinal, Wojtyła learned how the piety of the Catholic faithful, channeled in mass processions and pilgrimages, could be a powerful evangelical and cultural force. 

Sapieha and Wyszyński were Wojtyła's two most important models for how to be a bishop, even though he would chart his own creative course. Providence has its ways, but without those two indomitable prelates, it is hard to imagine that Wojtyła would have changed the Church and the world as he did.

The day after the famous “be not afraid” homily at the inauguration of his Petrine ministry, the new Polish pope welcomed an audience of Polish pilgrims led by Wyszyński. The two of them locked in an emotional embrace, the new pope refusing to let the old primate kneel before him. That encounter became so famous that a statue of it occupies the central courtyard of the Catholic University of Lublin. 

“Venerable and beloved Cardinal Primate, allow me to tell you just what I think,” John Paul said on that occasion.

This Polish pope, full of the fear of God, but also of trust, is beginning a new pontificate, and would not be on Peter’s chair were it not for your faith which did not retreat before prison and suffering. Were it not for your heroic hope, your unlimited trust in the Mother of the Church! Were it not for Jasna Góra, and the whole period of the history of the Church in our country, together with your ministry as bishop and primate!

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Sapieha’s cardinalate, Wyszyński’s episcopal consecration, and Wojtyła’s priestly ordination. For good measure, the Polish parliament has declared 2021 the “Year of Stefan Wyszynski,” marking the 120th anniversary of his birth in 1901 and the 40th anniversary of his death in 1981.

The pandemic has delayed it by a year, but Primate Wyszyński will be beatified on September 12 in Warsaw. The Poles know their anniversaries, so many will note that it was on September 12, 1683, that King Jan III Sobieski of Poland won the Battle of Vienna, turning back the Ottoman Turks and securing the liberty of Christian Europe. “I came, I saw, God conquered,” Sobieski would say.

Seventy-five years ago, the day after being ordained by Cardinal Sapieha, Fr. Karol Wojtyła chose to offer his first Holy Mass in the St. Leonard crypt chapel of Wawel cathedral. The altar is just a few meters away from the tomb of Jan Sobieski. Would the new priest have known that seventy-five years later, on the anniversary of Sobieski’s greatest triumph, the new bishop of Lublin would be beatified as the greatest primate in the history of Poland, the David who would battle the communist Goliath?

Of course not. Anniversaries make clear the history that was hidden at the time: Nineteen forty-six was a new dawn for Polish Catholics and for the whole of Europe. 

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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Photo by Tsadee via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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