Cardinal Stephan Wyszyński, often called the “Primate of the Millennium” led the Polish Catholic Church for more than thirty years, and along with it, survived some of its most challenging times.
He was born in Zuzela, a tiny village bordering on the Bug River (a funny name, but a waterway with immense significance as a dividing line, in the cultural, religious, political, and military senses) on August 3, 1901. Like much of Poland, the area was ping-ponged around from Russia to whatever version of Poland was in effect at the time, and as a result of the instability, even families like Wyszyński’s which could claim some minor upper-class or noble status, were penurious and lived hard lives. His mother died when he was nine, and he spent the next decade or so in school and then seminary, and was ordained on August 3, 1924, his twenty-third birthday.
He continued his studies and earned a reputation among his fellows as a dedicated and thoughtful priest. So dedicated and thoughtful that he had to leave his living in Włocławek when the Second World War broke out, as he’d come to the attention of the Nazis, who viewed him as a likely candidate for leader of a resistance movement, and as someone who had rather more influence than they liked with the local population.
He disappeared to a town near Warsaw, surfacing again as “Radwan II,” ministering to insurgents and the Polish underground resistance, and becoming known as a man who helped Jews trying to escape (many have testified since the war to his efforts on their behalf).
His canonical career after the war saw him elevated to the position of Bishop of Lublin in 1946, and Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw in 1948. Two years later, Archbishop Wyszyński signed an agreement with Poland’s Stalinist overlords separating the church from politics and education, and allowing the church some autonomy in the selection of Bishops (Karol Wojtyla was selected under the system, in which the church put forth three candidates, and the authorities allowed one to go forward). In the annals of “relations between the Soviet Union and the Catholic church,” Wyszyński’s accord is regarded as perhaps the most effective in terms of allowing some religious freedom in a country that, officially, allowed no such thing.
However, the political climate and position of the church in Poland continued to deteriorate, resistance from the faithful increased, repression by the authorities increased, and in 1953, the same year he was elevated by Pope Pius XII to the rank of Cardinal, Wyszyński was placed under house arrest. (The precipitating factors in this were probably his publication of “non possumus,” a letter to the Communist authorities stating that the Church had ceded all the ground it was going to, and that it would go no further, along with his refusal to sanction and punish priests who had fallen afoul of the regime.) He spent the next three years interned at a remote monastery with fellow detainees and prisoners, some of whom were brutally tortured and abused. It was not until the year after his release in 1956 that Wyszyński was finally allowed to travel to Rome for his formal investiture as Cardinal and Primate of Poland.
In 1966, Wyszyński persuaded the Communist authorities to allow the commemoration of one thousand years of Christianity in Poland, a celebration of the baptism of Poland’s first Christian prince, Mieszko I. However, the celebration was internal only–not only was Pope Paul VI enjoined from visiting Poland to join the festivities, but Wyszyński was prohibited from attending any overseas events acknowledging it. It was not until 1979 that a Pope visited Poland, a rapturous visit by that same Karol Wojtyla approved by the Communist authorities as Archbishop of Krakow fifteen years before, and ardently supported by his old friend Stefan Wyszyński for elevation to the Papacy.
In his message to the Polish people, Saint Pope John Paul II said this to his friend:
There would be no Polish Pope on this Chair of St. Peter . . . if it was not for your faith undiminished by prison and suffering, and your heroic hope.”
Cardinal Wyszyński stayed engaged in the spiritual and political life of his beloved Poland until he died. During the Solidarity revolution of 1980, he appealed to both sides to act with respect and responsibility towards each other. And on May 25, 1981, he spoke on the telephone to the Pontiff, who was terribly wounded, and still undergoing hospital treatment following an almost-successful assassination attempt twelve days prior. Wyszyński, suffering from abdominal cancer at the time, offered his own life to God in exchange for John Paul’s.
Three days later, he died.
On December 12, 2017, Pope Francis confirmed the “heroic virtue” of Stefan Wyszyński, and titled him as “Venerable.” It’s a step on the road to sainthood. A miracle awaits.