WINDSOR TERRACE — Auxiliary Bishop Witold Mroziewski recalls clearly how his middle school graduation in Poland was sad.
On the same day in 1981, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland, died of abdominal cancer at age 79.
Cardinal Wyszyński, history shows, championed the church in the face of communist totalitarianism, for which he got imprisoned for about three years. Former Polish President Lech Walesa called him the Solidarity movement’s spiritual leader and thus played a crucial role in Poland’s end of communist rule.
But the cardinal is also famously known as the mentor for a younger cardinal who went on to become Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Wyszyński’s death on May 28, 1981, fueled national mourning, much like another nation’s grief over the loss of a beloved monarch.
“I was 15,” said Mroziewski, an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Brooklyn. “It was a strange feeling receiving a diploma in an event that would in ordinary circumstances be celebrational. But something changed.
“You could tell that teachers, parents, and students felt like someone they knew personally had passed. The joy of completing schooling was mixed with the grief of losing someone important: a speaker of truth, of goodness, and of justice that Poland needed so much at the time.
“He guided Polish society through a dark age of enslavement.”
The nation’s parliament has passed a resolution declaring, “2021 — The Year of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński” and described him as “one of the greatest Poles of the 20th century.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of his beatification. Bishop Mroziewski planned to attend the June 7 event in Warsaw.
Still, the bishop, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Maspeth, Queens, maintains support for the cardinal’s cause for sainthood, as do parishioners.
Included is Hedwig Matuszewski, who, at age 11 in 1960, came with her family to the U.S. from Poland. She said she has known about the cardinal her entire life.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “I’m a huge supporter of him, considering all the hardships he went through. But he was the key figure who kept the church very, very vibrant, which held our country together.”
Cardinal Wyszyński’s life story highlighted Bishop Mroziewski’s seminary studies.
“I learned that as a child he attended church at a parish in the Diocese of Łomża, that he was the son of the organist, that his mother passed away when he was only nine years old,” Bishop Mroziewski said.
He also said the future cardinal, soon after being ordained at age 23, journeyed to Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, Poland’s national shrine for Mary, mother of Jesus. The shrine houses the iconic painting of “The Black Madonna,” depicting the Blessed Mother with her son.
There, young Father Wyszyński formally dedicated his priesthood and his life to Mary, Bishop Mroziewski said.
Some 20 years later, the priest became a chaplain for underground partisans battling the occupying forces from Nazi Germany.
Matuszewski, born a few years after the war, learned of its horrors from her parents. After Germany’s defeat, world powers agreed to divide Europe. Poland fell under the control of the Soviet Union, which brought communist dictators into power.
But no matter how hard they tried, the communists could not suppress Poles’ passions for their faith, especially Catholics.
Cardinal Wyszyński led the peaceful resistance with straightforward honesty, laced with respect and prayerful love for one’s persecutors. But for his outspokenness, he was imprisoned.
Still, Matuszewski said, Catholics refused to stop worshiping God, and adults taught their children to live the Gospel.
“We were very involved in church,” Matuszewski said of her childhood in Poland. “There was a church right near my home.”
She recalled how some of her teachers were not allowed to have church weddings, only civil ceremonies. But the young ladies ignored government officials and secretly married in the dead of night. They kept their marriages a secret so they wouldn’t risk losing their state-controlled teaching jobs.
“In the summer, young priests came, and they were very involved with us,” Matuszewski said. “We constantly heard from them about Cardinal Wyszyński and all the hardships he was going through. So I knew about him, as young as I was.
“We all had him on a big pedestal.”
Alina Kwasnicka added another perspective. She came to the U.S. at age 14 in 1962 and, as a young adult, joined Our Lady of Częstochowa & St. Casimir in Sunset Park. She currently serves as a trustee and council member for the parish.
Kwasnicka described how much of Poland’s geography is flat and easy to traverse. Consequently, Poland was invaded by many, including Medieval Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Ottoman Turks. Poles saw the restoration of an independent state after World War I. But the Nazis invaded two decades later; following their defeat, the communist puppet masters from the Soviet Union came.
“This is over a thousand years of history,” Kwasnicka said. “For about 125 years, Poland was not even on the map of the world (until) we came back in 1918.
“But God and the Blessed Mother were always with the kings and leaders, moving the church and nation. Cardinal Wyszyński understood this, and he understood it probably better than anybody else.”
And he was very diligent in sharing that knowledge with Polish youth, Kwasnicka said. Among them was Father Wladyslaw Kubrak, parochial vicar at St. Pancras Parish in Glendale, Queens.
He recalled being inspired by the cardinal several times while participating in an annual 230-mile pilgrimage from Warsaw to the shrine at Częstochowa. The Cardinal would show up at different points along the journey and happily visited with the youth.
“He always was open if you had any questions,” Father Kubrak said. “He shared with us his thoughts about the Blessed Mother, that we are the future, and we have to protect our faith, and we have to protect our values of the family. He encouraged us that we don’t give up, that we are young. And, that one day, communism would be over.”
Seminarians “clung” to the cardinal’s messages, Bishop Mroziewski said.
“His words were filled with spiritual fortitude which freed the mind during a time that was difficult, especially in Poland and the remainder of Central and Eastern Europe,” the bishop said.
He described how Cardinal Wyszyński kept notes in prison, which became a memoir.
“It taught many seminarians, including myself, how to grow one’s relationship with God and with their neighbor,” he said. “It also taught many other things, including love for nature, to friends and enemies alike.
“In short, yes, Cardinal Wyszyński had an incredibly profound influence on me and many others as both a person and a priest.”
Included was a man 19 years younger than Cardinal Wyszyński — Father Karol Józef Wojtyła of Krakow, the man who would become Pope John Paul II.
“John Paul II was younger, and he grew up under Cardinal Wyszyński,” Father Kubrak said. “We say, the Polish people, that there would not be John Paul II without Cardinal Wyszyński.
“He shaped our hearts, our conscience, and then our being, our love of Mary, our love of our country, our love to be who we are — our identity.”
Cardinal Wyszyński worked to put Wojtyła’s name before the communist dictators, who sought control over selecting top leaders in the church.
Wojtyła became a bishop, then archbishop, and eventually a “junior” cardinal of Poland under the senior leadership of Wyszyński. In 1978 Wojtyła was elected pope and thus became John Paul II.
Matuszewski has been a member of Holy Cross parish since arriving in the U.S. at age 11. She fondly recalled a photo taken after Cardinal Wyszyński tried to kneel before his former protégé, the new pope.
Instead, her two countrymen embraced.
“I think the cardinal was kneeling to kiss his ring, but it was as if the pope thought it should be the other way around,” Matuszewski said. “It was a touching moment.”
Kwasnicka said, “I have not experienced the presence of Cardinal Wyzsiński personally. I never met him. But I had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. Being within two feet of him, you could feel the special kind of thing emanating from him.”
“But,” Kwasnicka recalled, paraphrasing the pope, “he, himself, said, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Cardinal Wyzsiński. I needed his guidance, the spiritual guidance he gave me. It was what I needed.’”
Matuszewski said her fellow parishioners were very excited about Cardinal Wyszyński’s beatification. They began celebrating in 2019 with the special blessings of the homes. Holy cards distributed at the blessings urged prayers for the cardinal’s canonization.
Bishop Mroziewski added that the parish had Masses dedicated to Cardinal Wyszyński.
“We located a banner in the church with his image and words: ‘People say that time is money, I say that time is love,’” the bishop said.
Meanwhile, Polish Catholics patiently await the pandemic’s end so that beatification can resume.
Bishop Mroziewski predicted this cause for sainthood would get support from the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, the Friends of John Paul II Foundation in New York, and parishioners.
“I hope,” he said, “we will celebrate this event and pray for his canonization.”