The Temple of Divine Providence is both a church and museum. Photo by Adrian Grycuk/Wikipedia

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Centuries-old promise fulfilled in Temple

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  • September 8, 2021

Candidates for beatification don’t get to choose where they are beatified.

If it were so, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland from 1948-1981, would certainly have chosen the national shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. He chose to offer his first Mass after his priestly ordination there, and elected to be consecrated a bishop there too.

Wyszyński instead will be declared blessed Sept. 12 at a shrine which did not exist when he died in 1981 — but had been planned for more than a hundred years before he was born in 1901. Therein lies a tale of Polish national memory and the finger of God in history.

The Temple of Divine Providence is both a church and a museum, the latter commemorating the lives of St. John Paul II and soon to be Blessed Stefan Wyszyński, the twin colossi of the post-war Polish Church.

The tale begins on May 3, 1791. A reforming Polish parliament had passed a landmark constitution. It was the era of great constitutional reform, with similar actions in France, the United States and Canada. Two days later, the Polish king announced an initiative for a grand “votum” church — a thanksgiving offering to Divine Providence for the new constitution. That too was approved by the Sejm, the Polish chamber of deputies.

The achievement of 1791 was short-lived. In 1795, Poland itself disappeared from the map, carved up and occupied by its three neighbours: Russia, Prussia (Germany) and the Austro-Hungarian empire. The partition of Poland lasted more than a century until the end of the Great War in 1918.

In the 1920s the votive shrine was revived, with the added cause of giving thanks for Poland’s restored independence, and the miraculous defeat of Lenin’s Red Army, which threatened to strangle Polish liberty in its cradle. Yet the new Polish state was poor and had many pressing obligations. The shrine project was reaffirmed in principle but in practice did not proceed. In 1939 the Nazis and Soviets carved up Poland again, the latter not leaving until 1989.

Only in the 1990s, two hundred years after the original promise by the Polish king and Sejm, could the project proceed. This time the thanksgiving extended to the two latest fathers of Polish liberty, John Paul and Wyszyński. The Temple was funded largely by the Church and private donations; the state contributed about 10 per cent of the total, reflecting the original resolution of the Sejm. It was officially opened in 2016, the 225th anniversary of the 1791 promise.

In a land of 10,000 churches of venerable age, a classical design in modern style was chosen. Derided by many Varsovians as the “Lemon Squeezer” as it looks like a giant citrus juicer, it is truly monumental.

That Wyszyński will be beatified there is a dramatic way of confirming that Poland has kept its promise; Polonia Semper Fidelis (Poland Always Faithful) as the national motto puts it. Cardinal Wyszyński was a giant in keeping them faithful during the dark years of Soviet communism.

I was able to visit this temple in 2019 and again this summer. The expansive museum in the upper level is now complete, in the style of contemporary Polish museums, the best in the world at creating an experience rather than merely conveying information.

The museum commemorates both the Pope and the Primate. The exhibition is a summary of 20th-century Polish history as lived by its two most important citizens.

The most striking room in the museum is one filled with wooden pillars suspended from the ceiling, recreating the rural woods where the Polish communist regime imprisoned Wyszyński for three years, 1953-1956, for his resistance. The communists attempted to decapitate the Church by making its Primate a political prisoner; he emerged instead the undisputed father of the nation.

Yet the museum is not merely a triumphant look back. It concludes on an intentionally disturbing note. The final room looks at John Paul’s 1991 visit to Poland, the least successful of his visits home. Poles wanted to celebrate their newly-recovered freedom; John Paul chose the theme of the moral law, seeking to remind Poles that freedom was a great responsibility, a summons to virtue rather than a license to sin. The Holy Father’s message was not well received.

“When during my last visit to Poland, I chose the Decalogue and the commandment of love as a theme for the homilies, all the Polish followers of the ‘englightened agenda’ were upset,” said John Paul in 1994. “For such people, the Pope becomes persona non grata when (he speaks of sin and repentance).”

The museum puts those words in stark, bold letters at the centre of the final room: persona non grata. Could it be that the message of Poland’s two greatest sons is no longer welcome? The Temple and its accompanying museum is not only a celebration of the past; it is a summons to renew that fidelity in every generation.

Will Poland remain faithful? It will now have another heavenly exemplar to intercede for them.

(Fr. de Souza is founding editor of Convivium and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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