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The Church—chiefly in Poland—marked the first feast day of Blessed Stefan Wyszyński this past Saturday, May 28, the date on which he died in 1981. In a time of increasing Christian persecution and conflict, Cardinal Wyszyński, beatified last September, is a model of both courage and reconciliation. He is a hero of mine. To my mind, had there not been a still more impressive Polish cardinal from Kraków, Wyszyński would be remembered as the greatest churchman of the 20th century.

The first observance of his feast day highlighted something else this year—the designs of a marvelous Providence. For May 28 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the day Wyszyński ordained Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, the Solidarity priest beatified in 2010.

Blessed Jerzy was brutally murdered by the Polish secret police in 1984. After the killing of Father Jerzy, there was no doubt about whether Polish communism, exposed as rotten to the core, would be defeated. It was only a question of when.

But that was not clear on May 28, 1972. Cardinal Wyszyński, primate of Poland, archbishop of Warsaw and Gneizno, did not know that he would die exactly nine years later. He did not know that among the 31 priests he ordained that day would be a heroic martyr who would be beatified even before his brother bishop in Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła. He did not know that his fellow cardinal would be elected pope six years later.

On that particular Trinity Sunday in 1972, the 70-year-old Wyszyński might have wondered what lay ahead. He had, by that time, already led the Polish church for 24 years. He had fiercely battled Stalinization following World War II, while remaining a shrewd and strategic pastor, not provoking catastrophe. The regime had done its best to do him in, imprisoning him for three years, 1953–1956. He emerged an even more formidable figure, leading a “Great Novena”—nine years of preparation—for the millennium celebrations of Poland’s baptism in 1966. 

By the 1970s, the Polish regime still harassed the Church, and continued to corrupt and impoverish Polish society, but a certain stability had set in. It appeared that Polish society could not defeat the Moscow-imposed communist regime, but it also appeared that Wyszyński could not be defeated. 

Indeed, the previous fall, the Polish regime had permitted Wyszyński and the Polish bishops to travel to Rome for the beatification of Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan missionary to Japan most famous for his sacrificial death in Auschwitz. That was a new normal; previously, Wyszyński and others had not been permitted to travel to the West.

On the occasion of Kolbe's beatification, St. Paul VI preached about the martyr as a son of Poland. “He was a Pole,” the Holy Father said.

As a Pole he was condemned to that unhappy concentration camp, and as a Pole he was willing to give up his life for that of a fellow countryman, Francis Gajowniczek. How many thoughts come to our minds at the memory of this human, social and ethnical aspect of the voluntary death of Maximilian Kolbe, a son of noble Catholic Poland! This nation's historic destiny of suffering seems to document, in this typical and heroic case, the centuries-old vocation of the Polish people to find in its shared passion a single, united conscience; a knightly mission for freedom achieved in the pride of the spontaneous sacrifices of its sons and daughters.

Wyszyński believed his mission as primate was to keep Poland faithful to that “centuries-old vocation.” As he listened to St. Paul VI preach, he might have been thinking about to whom he would pass on that mission, as he entered his eighth decade. 

Somewhere in Poland on that October day, Jerzy Popiełuszko, looking forward to his priestly ordination the following spring, might have wondered how the emblematic hero of Poland might shape his own priesthood. Likely he rejoiced in the day, but with no sense of foreboding. 

Providence can only be read definitively backward, as the Polish church did in October 1971, seeing in Kolbe “perhaps the brightest figure to emerge from the darkness and degradation of the Nazi epoch.” 

Reading Providence forward is another matter, and no one in the cathedral of Warsaw on May 28, 1972, could have imagined how the day would be remembered a half century later. The surviving members of the class of ’72 would gather for their golden jubilee, and reminisce about how God had worked in their priestly service, swapping stories and looking over old photographs. 

The photograph of Wyszyński ordaining Popiełuszko can now be found all over Poland, in churches, seminaries, and museums. For a country with a heightened sense of dates and anniversaries, May 28 has been added to the litany of providential interruptions in Polish history. 

Which is a consolation to the entire Church today, when persecution of Christians in the populous states of China, India, and Nigeria continues apace, when autocratic regimes in Latin America denounce bishops as enemies, when the conflict in Ukraine has aligned some prominent Christian pastors with a blasphemous war. 

Against such a bleak horizon, it seems impossible to hope that peace and liberty may prevail. But Providence is still at work, if hidden from our eyes. Perhaps somewhere the grace of fifty years ago, the grace of May 28, is being poured out again.

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

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Photo by Andrzej Iwański via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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