The history of Poland’s struggle for its Freedom throughout the 20th century is inseparable from the Catholic Church, a history full of great heroes and martyrs.
His childhood in the part of Poland occupied by the Russian Empire
One of those great heroes, Stefan Wyszyński, was born in the small town of Zuzela, in the Mazovian Voivodeship, on August 3, 1901, in the years when the name of Poland remained erased from the maps after the Third Partition of 1795. At that time, Zuzela was part of the Russian Empire. Stefan was the second child of a farming family that was Catholic and very devout. On the very day of his birth, he was baptized in the Church of the Transfiguration in his hometown. His family environment led him to deepen his faith and especially his devotion to the Virgin Mary. In 1910 the family moved to the village of Andrzejewo, where Stefan attended the local Primary School. Classes there were taught exclusively in Russian (Polish was banned from teaching). In that place, Stefan’s rebellious spirit was revealed for the first time, being expelled from the school for refusing to obey the dictates of his teacher. That same year his mother, on her deathbed, predicted that he would end up being a priest.
His ordination and his early years as a priest
Ten years later, in 1920 – two years after Poland regained its independence – Stefan entered the Włocławek Major Seminary, being ordained as a priest on August 3, 1924, just on the day he was 23 years old. His first mass was celebrated two days later in the Chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa, for which he had a great devotion since he was a child, at the Jasna Góra Monastery. Two months later he was appointed vicar of the Włocławek Cathedral and editor of the diocesan newspaper “Słowek Kujawskie”. A year later, in 1925, he began his studies in Canon Law and Economic and Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Lublin. He finished them in 1929.
The invasion of Poland and its persecution by the Gestapo
In 1930 Stefan published his first book, “The work of Cardinal Ferrari. Ideals and socio-apostolic works”, the first of more than a hundred publications that he wrote until 1939. A year later he was assigned as vicar to the parish of the Holy Family in Przedecz, and began to practice as a professor of Canon Law, Sociology and Social Sciences at the Włocławek Major Seminary. In 1937 he was appointed a member of the Social Council of the Primate of Poland. After the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, Stefan had to go into hiding after being hunted by the Gestapo, the political police of the Third Reich. He then began a heroic life that would be marked by persecution.
He was chaplain to the Armia Krajowa in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944
At this difficult time in Polish history, Stefan was not passive. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 under the pseudonym “Radwan III”, being chaplain of the “Kampinos” Group of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), the main organization of the Polish resistance against the German occupation of Poland. In addition, during the war he was chaplain for the blind in Kozłówka and Żułów, and also was in charge of the spiritual formation of the Secular Institute of Auxiliary of Mary of Jasna Góra. At that time, with Poland invaded by Germany, the Catholic Church became the main guardian of Polish identity, often from underground.
His appointment as Bishop of Lublin in 1946
World War II ended in May 1945, but Poland did not regain the Freedom so many Poles had fought for. Stalin established a communist dictatorship in the country. Although it was one of the mildest dictatorships, so to speak, of those established by the Soviets in the countries they occupied, the Catholic Church was going to have a very hard time. Stefan lived the beginning of that period in Włocławek, being canon of the Cathedral. In 1946 Pope Pius XII appointed him Bishop of Lublin, being ordained on May 12 of that year by Cardinal August Hlond, Primate of Poland, in the sanctuary of Jasna Gora. On his episcopal shield he put only two words: “Soli Deo” (God only), as a reminder that he was only seeking His glory, and not his own. At 45, Stefan became the youngest member of the Polish Episcopal Conference.
His appointment as Primate of Poland and the communist persecution
After the death of August Hlond in October 1948, his testament was read in which he asked Pope Pius XII to pass the office of Primate of Poland to Stefan. The Pope did so, appointing Wyszyński Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw and Primate of Poland on November 12, 1948. The communist persecution against the new Primate began immediately. On February 2, 1949, when he was driving to Gniezno, he was repeatedly detained by the Milicja Obywatelska (Citizen Militia), the police of the communist regime.
That same year, Stefan began to negotiate an agreement with the communist dictatorship that would grant greater freedom to the Polish Church and stop the repression against its members. The agreement, signed in 1950, caused misunderstandings and even a conflict with Pius XII, who believed that too many concessions had been made to the communist regime without consulting the Holy See. As soon as the agreement was signed, the dictatorship began to violate it.
The letter “Non Possumus” and his imprisonment for six years
On November 29, 1952, Pius XII granted Stefan cardinal status. As such he participated in four conclaves to elect as many Popes. In May 1953, the Polish Episcopal Conference, at the initiative of Stefan, published a letter addressed to the government, entitled “Non Possumus” (We cannot), denouncing the violation by the communist regime of the agreement signed with the Church in 1950. Four months after publishing that letter, the communist police arrested Stefan in Warsaw. At the time of his arrest, the Primate took only two things with him: a rosary and a breviary. During his imprisonment, Catholics from many countries around the world – including Spain – prayed for the liberation of the Primate of Poland. Stefan was imprisoned for six years, being released in October 1956.
A prelate constantly spied on by the communist dictatorship
After his release, Stefan reached a new agreement with the state more beneficial to the Church, which among other things allowed the re-teaching of the Catholic religion in schools, which had been banned. It should be noted that since his appointment as Bishop of Lublin in 1946, the communist dictatorship has constantly monitored Stefan with wiretaps and hidden microphones. Everything he did and said was carefully recorded.
Between 1957 and 1966 Stefan promoted the Millennium celebrations of the Baptism of Poland as a Catholic Nation, even scheduling a visit from Pope Paul VI that was finally not allowed by the communist dictatorship. As part of these celebrations, Stefan organized a pilgrimage of a copy of the painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa to all Polish parishes.
His strong ties to Pope Saint John Paul II
In 1958 Stefan asked Pope Pius XII for the consecration as auxiliary bishop of Krakow of a Polish priest whom he had met years before in Jasna Gora: Karol Wojtyła. The appointment came to him on July 4 of that year. Stefan didn’t know it yet, but his life was going to be closely linked to Karol’s until the last moment.
In 1972 the communist dictatorship retaliated against Stefan, denying him his passport and preventing him from traveling to Italy. In 1977 and 1978, proposals were made to award Stefan the Nobel Peace Prize: both were rejected. After the death of Pope John Paul I, in October 1978 Stefan participated in the conclave for the election of a new Pope. During it, Stefan approached his compatriot Karol Wojtyła, then Archbishop of Krakow, and said: “If you are elected, please do not refuse.” And indeed, Karol was Pope taking the name of John Paul II. During the tribute that the cardinals paid to the new Pope after his election, Stefan leaned down to kiss the pontifical ring like everyone else, but John Paul II got up, kissed the hand of the Primate of Poland and hugged him. A hug that was repeated the next day at the meeting of the new Pope with the Poles who had traveled to Rome to continue in conclave. John Paul II told Stefan:
“There would be no Polish Pope in the See of Peter, who today, full of fear of God, but also full of confidence, begins a new pontificate, if it were not for your faith, which did not shrink from prison and suffering. Your heroic hope, your total entrustment to the Mother of the Church, if it were not for Jasna Góra and the entire period of the history of the Church in our Homeland, which is related to your episcopal service and primate.”.
The fruits of his work in defense of Freedom in Poland
After the election of the new Pope, Stefan began talks with the communist regime to allow a visit by John Paul II to Poland, which became a reality in June 1979, becoming a stimulus for Polish Catholics and a breath of Freedom that it would lead to the formation of the Catholic union Solidarność. An initiative that also arose as a result of Stefan’s tireless years of struggle for Freedom, not only in Poland, but also by undertaking initiatives to help Catholics in communist Germany and Czechoslovakia.
He offered his life to God to save that of the Polish Pope
On May 13, 1981, the attack by Ali Agca against Saint John Paul II took place in Saint Peter’s Square, an assassination attempt from which he was miraculously saved. Upon learning of the attack, Stefan offered God his life in exchange for saving the Pope’s. Stefan Wyszyński died 15 days after abdominal cancer. In 1989, under the pontificate of Saint John Paul II, the process of beatification of Stefan began, which concluded yesterday with a beatification ceremony celebrated in Poland. Today Wyszyński is remembered as a great figure in the history of Poland, a man who defended Freedom and human rights, who remained firm in his faith despite the persecutions he suffered at the hands of nazism and communism, and who put the seeds that would bear fruit in the fall of communism in Poland.
Cześć jego pamięci!
Honor to his memory!
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