The passing of Archbishop Zycinski is a great loss for the Church

  • February 16, 2011
One of the brightest lights in the Catholic episcopate died suddenly in Rome on Feb. 10, at only 62 years old.

I just met Archbishop Jozef Zycinski once — almost 17 years ago now. It was July 1994, and he was then the bishop of Tarnow, a rural diocese just outside Krakow. I was a student on the celebrated seminar led by Fr. Maciej Zieba, the Polish Dominican, and his American friends, Michael Novak, George Weigel and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Bishop Zycinski came to speak to us about religion and public life in the newly liberated Poland.

It was an astonishing performance, as he made puns in English — one of the half-dozen or more languages that he spoke. He was a philosopher with a particular expertise in both cosmology and moral action, a priest unusually conversant in various disciplines other than theology. Tarnow in 1994 may well have been the most Catholic place on Earth. Everyone went to Mass, there were some 1,000 priests for one million people and the local seminary had hundreds of candidates.

He told us a story that captured the challenge of building a free and virtuous Poland. A proposal was before the Tarnow municipality to bring cable television to the region. The city fathers came to the bishop and asked him whether to permit it. Bishop Zycinski had no desire to see cable television in his diocese — he knew that it would erode the virtue of his people. Even a Polish bishop who grew up under a backward communism knew what Canadians learned long ago, namely that television is like original sin — it darkens the intellect and weakens the will.

At the same time, he knew that it should not be the bishop’s role to regulate television signals. In a free and virtuous society, the local civil authorities would take the best decision to protect their culture. Indeed, Bishop Zycinski knew that a Church that used its political power to prohibit cable television may well provoke a reaction against the oppressive hand of clericalism. Bishop Zycinski wanted to be an evangelist of culture, not its regulator.

Thus I met my first John Paul II bishop — a species rather rare in Canada at that time. It turned out that John Paul II bishops were also rare in Poland. And perhaps still are.

In the secular media, the John Paul II bishop was one that cracked the whip of orthodoxy, and almost all of his appointments were in that mould. The reality was different. John Paul II sought orthodoxy in his bishops — not always successfully, but it was a rather minimal condition. What he really wanted were pastors who could present the orthodox faith in a creative way to secular culture (in the west) or hostile regimes (the east). Such evangelists of culture were not easy to find. Men such as Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris were the standard bearers. In Canada it was only toward the end of John Paul’s pontificate that the John Paul bishops arrived.

In Poland, orthodoxy was not the problem, but dynamic creativity was. Before and after his election as pope, John Paul was viewed with some suspicion by the majority of the Polish clergy. He was their champion against the communists to be sure, but his insistence upon an evangelizing Church that renounced the power of political privilege was something altogether different. In 1991, when John Paul’s magnificent charter of the free society, Centesimus Annus, was published, it was received coolly in Poland. They thought their pope was rather too bullish on the possibilities of freedom.

Jozef Zycinski understood John Paul and followed him. He wrote for Znak and Tygodnik Powszechny, Polish enterprises which favour constructive dialogue with the worlds of science, literature and culture.

“He was a face of the Polish Church,” reflected Fr. Adam Boniecki, editor-in-chief of Tygodnik Powszechny. “Listening to him, many people breathed a sigh of relief that one can think in this way.”

John Paul made Zycinski a bishop at age 42 and in 1997 transferred the  48-year-old scholar to the archdiocese of Lublin, home of the Catholic University of Lublin, the intellectual heart of the Polish Church. In 2007, many hoped that he would be named archbishop of Warsaw, but he was considered rather a step too far for the Polish episcopate at the time. One would like to think it a certainty that he would have succeeded Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz in Krakow in a few years time. It shall not be. Poland has suffered a great loss; so too has the pastoral legacy of John Paul II. Zycinski was the type of bishop he wanted; there are not so many of them that their loss is not a serious blow.

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