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When Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński is beatified on Sunday in Warsaw, this colossus of the postwar Polish Church will be principally remembered for his stalwart defense of Polish liberty under communist oppression. He paid a personal price for that, suffering three years of arbitrary imprisonment. 

The primate of Poland from 1948 to 1981 will be beatified along with his personal friend and spiritual companion, Mother Elżbieta Czacka. Mother Czacka, the foundress of a religious order, labored to support the blind; she had lost her sight as a young woman. The joint beatification will highlight Wyszyński’s commitment to the corporal works of mercy and his staunch advocacy of Catholic social teaching.

What some will likely overlook is Wyszyński’s role as a figure of Christian reconciliation. Due to a false caricature of conservative Polish Catholicism, and the false identification of mercy with liberal Catholicism, Wyszyński the reconciler does not fit the established storyline of an indomitable prelate rallying the piety of the people against the regime. Yet Wyszyński led reconciliation efforts with Germany, though this was not popular with the Polish people; he provided an admirable example of leadership in difficult circumstances.

Upon his release from prison in 1956, Cardinal Wyszyński launched the “Great Novena,” a nine-year program of prayer and pilgrimage in preparation for the millennium of Poland’s “baptism” in 1966. Wyszyński emerged as the undisputed father of the nation during these nine years; he is known to this day in Poland as the “Primate of the Millennium.” 

In November 1965, the Polish bishops sent letters to the episcopates of 56 countries, inviting them to send delegations to the millennial celebrations in Poland the next year. The letter to the German bishops was no mere formality. It reviewed at length the history of the two nations, including the recent atrocities of World War II. Wyszyński knew that history all too well; all of his seminary classmates—he was ordained in 1924—were either imprisoned or killed by the Nazis. Some 2,000 Polish clergy were interned at Dachau; 868 of them were killed there. But in the letter to their German brethren, the Polish bishops declared that they sought forgiveness and reconciliation. They concluded: “We forgive and we ask forgiveness.”

The Polish communists used this letter as a rare opportunity to divide the people from their pastors. They declared it an outrage that Polish leaders should be willing to offer forgiveness to Germans, much less ask for it. What did Poland have to be sorry for? The Polish communist regime proposed another message: “We don’t forgive. We will never forget.”

The regime stirred up great indignation against Wyszyński and the other Polish bishops, including the new archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła. Nothing happened of consequence in the Polish episcopate without the primate’s approval. The millennium was his primary pastoral project. Why would he risk his moment of greatest triumph on an unnecessary controversy? 

Wyszyński stood firm. He judged that reconciliation was necessary, and had religious and practical reasons for doing so.

Wyszyński had lived through both world wars. He served as a chaplain during the Warsaw Uprising. He knew that peace on Poland’s borders could not be achieved by diplomatic initiatives alone; reconciliation was needed. Mercy was needed, even if the “medicine of mercy”—St. John XXIII’s famous phrase from the opening of Vatican II—tasted bitter to Poles who had suffered so much. Indeed, it could be argued that the Polish bishops' letter to their German brethren exemplified the “spirit of Vatican II” better than anything else from that period.

Wyszyński led his people where they were reluctant to go, toward their former enemies to the west. The practical reasons demonstrated Wyszyński’s brilliance as a tactician. After the war, Stalin successfully moved Poland westward on the map. The “eastern third” of Poland became part of Ukraine and Lithuania—the Soviet Union proper. Poland would gain a new “western third” of former German territories. These were called the “western lands” or “recovered territories,” the latter name acknowledging that they had once been part of Poland.

West Germany did not recognize the new arrangement, and without an agreed-upon border, the Holy See would not recognize the dioceses in the “western lands” as Polish dioceses and appoint Polish bishops. Wyszyński could do little on the political front, but how there could be mutual recognition between the German and Polish nations if German and Polish Catholics could not reconcile?

Thus Wyszyński took the initiative, even at the cost of painful attacks from those who normally cheered him on. He did not argue that there was a symmetry in what Germany and Poland had suffered; Poland was more sinned against than sinning in that relationship. The German bishops acknowledged as much in their response. Yet Poles had not been entirely innocent over the long centuries, and to ask forgiveness has its own power to convert hearts.

The mutual German-Polish forgiveness, led by the Catholic bishops, did bear fruit. In 1970, West Germany did recognize the border, and in 1972 the Holy See was able to establish Polish dioceses to regularize ecclesial life. It was a spiritual application of gospel lessons that produced the diplomatic achievement. 

The “September pontificate” of Pope John Paul I is remembered now as the prelude to the election of John Paul II in October 1978, when the life of Wyszyński and every other Pole changed definitively. Yet it was that September that Wyszyński completed the encounter of mutual forgiveness, leading a delegation of Polish bishops to Germany, an official pilgrimage of thanksgiving for the graces of reconciliation. The German pilgrimage was the last time Wyszyński and Wojtyła would be fellow cardinals together as leaders of the Polish Church.

Wyszyński is remembered for having the courage and brilliance to do difficult things with popular support. His efforts at reconciliation with Germany show that he was also able to do courageous and brilliant things without popular support—the mark of a true shepherd.

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

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