Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński was born in 1901 in eastern Poland, then part of Russia. In 1924, he was ordained a priest. He earned a Ph.D. in canon law and, during World War II, served as a chaplain with the Home Army, a Polish resistance organization. In 1946, he was ordained the bishop of Lublin and, in 1948, became the Primate of Poland. In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, the Vatican elevated him to cardinal.
Wyszyński initiated an agreement with the Communist government of Poland to guarantee the basic rights of Catholics. Contrary to his critics, this came from his sober analysis of the socio-political circumstances, rather than his sympathy to Communist ideology. When it became evident the state would not keep its promises, the bishops issued a new document known as “Non possumus,” highlighting the persecution of the church in Poland, especially state attempts to control the appointment of bishops. “If external factors would prevent us from appointing competent people to spiritual positions, we are determined to leave them unfilled, rather than to give the religious rule of souls to unworthy hands,” the Polish bishops wrote.
The letter was the last straw for Communist officials, who arrested the primate in September 1953. Cardinal Wyszyński spent more than three years in isolation in remote parts of Poland. Yet he refused government demands that he resign from his ecclesiastical office.
This time of trial provoked intense intellectual work and prayer. In prison, he wrote his beautiful diary, titled A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes. This book reveals his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her divine Son, which produced his patience and firm confidence in God. Suffering repression was an “honor,” he wrote. “I was afraid that I would not have a share in the privilege of other members of my seminary class,” who suffered or died in Nazi camps, Soviet gulags, or Polish prisons.
After his liberation in October 1956, Cardinal Wyszyński tried to normalize the relationship between the cfhurch in Poland and the government, believing Poland needed peace as a basic condition of social and economic development. He projected this peace into international relations. In 1965, he led the rest of the Polish episcopate in writing a letter to German bishops. “We forgive and ask for forgiveness,” they wrote, setting the basis for reconciliation between the two nations. The letter reflected the truly Christian attitude of the Primate of Poland, the country which was the first victim of Nazi aggression and which lost almost a third of its population during WWII.
Cardinal Wyszyński earned the nickname “Primate of the Millennium” by becoming the spiritus movens behind the celebration of the millennium of the baptism of Poland. This celebration, which concluded in 1966, was a moral triumph of Catholicism over the Communist rulers. Cardinal Wyszyński took part in the Second Vatican Council and imposed a conservative interpretation of its reforms on his parishes.
In August 1980, when the social tensions reached their height, he pacified the situation. “Above all, today’s difficulties require peace, stability, prudence, and responsibility,” said the cardinal on August 1980 at the national Marian shrine in Częstochowa, the spiritual capital of the anti-Communist movement. He underlined parental rights and upheld the family as the primary unit of social order, as well as the right to life. “The order of family life requires: liberty of religion, liberty of culture, security of family life,” he stated.
Primate Wyszyński understood his role in the church as bonus pater familias. In the economic difficulties of the 1980s, the cardinal warned Poles that the excessive desire for material goods would increase the national debt. He said a better future comes from honest work, which has both economic and spiritual dimensions. At the same time, he publicly reminded the government about basic property rights, the basis of human development. The worker deserves his wages,” he said during labor disputes.
Cardinal Wyszyński passed away in 1981. Pope Francis approved a decree for his beatification on October 3, 2019.
The Venerable Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński was a good shepherd. His authentic faith and courage to proclaim the truth and fight for the church even at the price of persecution should convince modern Christians, and especially church leaders, not to sacrifice the truths of the faith or social development on the altar of peace and quiet.