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The Uncrowned King of Poland

Last week, the Vatican announced the approval of a miracle attributed to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, opening the path for his beatification. He was the archbishop of Warsaw and Gniezno, and primate of Poland, from 1948 to 1981.

He may be an unfamiliar figure nowadays, but in 1978, when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, many people shared the news by saying that “the other Polish cardinal” had been elected. Because “the” Polish cardinal at that time was Stefan Wyszynski.

How was Karol Wojtyla second fiddle? It’s because Cardinal Wyszynski had good timing (he was born 18 years before the Polish pope), faith, intelligence and courage. He was on the shortlist of enemies of both the Nazis and the communists.

He lived in hiding during the Nazi occupation, and during the Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation, he became chaplain of the insurgents. After the war, he was probably the main obstacle for Stalin’s plans to dominate Poland and all of Eastern Europe.

In 1948, he became archbishop of Warsaw. In 1950, he signed a secret agreement with the communist authorities that allowed the communist government to select each new bishop from a list of three candidates presented by the Polish episcopate. In one of the greatest ironies of the 20th century, under the agreement, the Polish communists selected in 1958 a name from a list of three candidates to be the new auxiliary bishop of Krakow: Father Karol Wojtyla.

During the next two decades, Bishop (and later Archbishop and Cardinal) Wojtyla would be the link between the Polish episcopate and the Vatican and the rest of the world. In January 1953, Pope Pius XII named then-Archbishop Wyszynski a cardinal.

Eight months later, the communist government sent him to prison and then house arrest for three years. Cardinal Wyszynski was the driving force of the church in Poland during the long battle against the communist dictatorship.

Under his guidance, the church became again the symbol of Polish culture and patriotism against a regime that most in Poland saw as Soviet puppets and traitors to their own country.

Cardinal Wyszynski was also the driving force behind the celebrations of the 1,000th anniversary of the Christianization of Poland in 1966. For that reason, he was called the “Primate of the Millennium.” The Polish bishops invited St. Paul VI to attend the celebrations, but the Polish government didn’t allow him to go. The celebrations, however, went ahead anyway, giving new energy to the church in Poland.

By the following year, 1967, help was on the way: A new, young cardinal was named: Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was now the “junior cardinal” of Poland and Cardinal Wyszynski’s second-in-command in the Polish church. The rest is history. In 1978, the young bishop selected by the Soviets’ Polish puppets in 1958 was elected pope and took the name of John Paul II. There is a picture from those days that is a summary of the life of Cardinal Wyszynski.

When he approached the new pope to kneel before him, his friend tried to stop him. They ended up embracing each other. The torch had been passed. Three years later, Cardinal Wyszynski was dead, and the Communist regime was starting to die in Poland.

Cardinal Wyszynski was a symbol of a persecuted church, and a symbol of resistance and wisdom. He knew when to fight and when to wait. He was criticized for his agreement with the communists, but the government that wanted to destroy the church elected Father Karol Wojtyla to be a bishop.

In a world where Christian persecution is an epidemic, and when we are inclined to criticize any effort that doesn’t fit our expectations, the life of Cardinal Wyszynski should be an inspiration for all of us.

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