With the passing of Cardinal Swiatek, a glorious time in Church history closes

  • July 27, 2011

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek died on July 21, bringing to a close one of the most noble chapters in the history of the Church. He was 96 when he died, having been ordained a bishop at 76 by his eventual successor in Belarus. Made a cardinal at age 80, he served as archbishop of Minsk until he was 91. His was one of the heroic lives of our age.

I encountered the great cardinal only once, in Wroclaw, Poland, during the 1997 international Eucharistic Congress, and then at a distance. As part of the congress, dozens of bishops administered the sacrament of Confirmation to thousands of young people in an enormous Mass at the local arena. With such a large crowd it was a somewhat noisy affair, but there was total silence when Cardinal Swiatek addressed the newly confirmed at the end of the Mass. He spoke in Polish, but even without understanding a word I could see that his story was enormously powerful, with teenage eyes widening, and many filling with tears. He was telling them what it meant to be a Christian witness, to fight for the Church, to remain faithful. Imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for nine years, he did brutal labour by day and whatever clandestine priestly work he could by night, including offering the Holy Mass secretly, using a matchbox as a ciborium.

Released from the gulag in 1954, he returned to Pinsk, Belarus, where he faced the severe repression of the Church until the end of the communist empire in 1989. In 1991, Blessed John Paul made him archbishop of Minsk, even though he was already past the usual retirement age of 75. The great man would see victory in his old age.

Cardinal Swiatek is the last of the cardinal lions who kept the faith under brutal persecution during the dark night of communism. Great persecutions are not rare in the history of the Church, but few have produced such heroically faithful bishops as did Moscow’s communist empire. It was these suffering shepherds whose witness formed Blessed John Paul into the courageous pastor who would dismantle the wicked empire which imprisoned his brethren.

The Church in Belarus now prays that Cardinal Swiatek will join the choir of faithful confessors of the communist era in heaven.

Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, cardinal archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia, was condemned in a 1946 show trial by the Yugoslavian communists, and served five years in prison until international pressure forced Yugoslavia to release him. He was confined to his home parish until 1960, when he was killed by poisoning.

Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, major archbishop of Lviv, Ukraine, was sent to the Siberian gulag, and imprisoned by the Soviets from 1945 to 1963.

Cardinal Josef Beran, archbishop of Prague, Czechoslovakia, was imprisoned by the Czech communists from 1949 until 1963, eventually being exiled to Rome in 1965.

Cardinal Alexandru Todea was a Romanian bishop when he was sentenced by the communist regime to hard labour for life in 1952. An amnesty in 1964 allowed him to return home, where he lived 27 years under house arrest. Soon after the communist regime fell in late 1989, he was made archbishop of Fagaras and Alba Julia. He once offered the Holy Mass in a railway car with his hands and feet bound in chains, during a transfer from one prison to another.

Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty, archbishop of Esztergom and primate of Hungary, was tortured and condemned to life imprisonment in a communist show trial in 1949. In the short-lived Budapest uprising of 1956, he took refuge in the American embassy, where he lived for 15 years, until his exile in 1971. He died in 1975 in Vienna; his remains returned to a free Hungary in 1991.

Finally, there was, John Paul aside, the greatest churchman of the 20th century, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw, primate of Poland from 1948 to 1981. He was imprisoned for three years, 1953-1956, and the wily strategist negotiated the terms under which he would agree to be released. He badly outmanoeuvred the Polish communists and prepared the way for Karol Wojtyla to emerge as communism’s vanquisher. Cardinal Wyszynski is known in his homeland as the Primate of the Millennium for his leadership in celebrating the 1966 millennium of Polish Christianity, but the title is also suitable because men such as he are truly millennial figures.

The Church in central and eastern Europe, under the most ferocious persecution, produced not one, but several historic figures. Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger were formed by the generation of the lions. With Cardinal Swiatek’s death a glorious period in Church history closes, a period of difficult glory, the glory of Christ — and His Church — crucified.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)


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