Cardinal Wyszinski, Polish Patriot and
mentor to John Paul II
I had mentioned in the previous post that John Paul II at the beginning of his reign appointed liberals such as the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ to the Sacred College (and, in Martini’s case, to a key diocese, Milan) because John Paul seemed to have wanted to develop a consensus among the episcopate to support his planned “corrections” to the Vatican II course the Church was on. I also wrote that there was, at least in Martini’s case, another agenda item and that was to move the liberal Jesuit out of the leadership role in the two leading Roman theological faculties: the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Martini was “kicked upstairs” as it were from academia where he had a very definite liberal influence to the busy life of the leader of a huge diocese that demanded all his attention. This second reason, while perhaps the more pressing, doesn’t overshadow the first, however. The elevation of Americans Roger Mahony and Joseph Bernardin and the French Henri de Lubac are other cases of liberals being advanced to positions of power and influence in the first ten years or so of John Paul’s pontificate.
John Paul, as Karol Wojtyla, had been a participant in the Second Vatican Council, in the first three sessions as the auxiliary bishop of Krakow and in the final session as the Archbishop of that city. He was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Council and its agenda, however. It is important to keep in mind that from the time Wojtyla was nineteen his country had been under the thumb of two of the most ruthless totalitarian regimes of the 20th century—the Nazi occupation of Poland from 1939-45 and the Soviet dominated Communist government that succeeded the Nazi regime and which fell only in 1989. As difficult as the Communist years were for the Church, the Nazi occupation was actually worse. The Poles—and the Polish Church—survived only by forging an unshakeable unity of the Polish people around the Church and the Church around the Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. Because this consolidation of People and Church depended on the total identification of Polish Culture and Identity with their Roman Catholic faith where the Church was Poland and Poland was the Church, there was great resistance to any change lest the change provide a crack in the impenetrable façade of Catholic Polonialism/Polish Catholicism. Liturgical changes were minimal and certainly the pre-conciliar pieties were preserved intact. Ecumenism and inter-religious relationships were somewhat of a moot point in Poland. There were few, almost no Protestants. The Orthodox were identified with the Russians and relationships were cool at best with no desire to build ties with a Church that was seen as “Russian.” And the Jewish population had been all but wiped out in the Nazi years—not, incidentally, without the support of many of the Polish people for whom anti-Semitism was part of their Catholic faith. The Social Justice message which had flowered with John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and then went into full bloom with the Council’s Gaudium et Spes never reached Poland where Wyszynski feared it could be distorted to support the Marxist regime’s policies. Vatican II, for the greater part, never penetrated the Polish Church during those years under communism. At the Council, the Polish participants hung back from an enthusiastic support for the new programs of John XXIIII and Paul VI because they feared the effects of change on their homeland and the solidarity of the Poles with the Church in resisting the political tyranny under which they lived.
When John Paul was elected to the papacy he seems to have wanted from the beginning to put a different “spin” on the Council. Certainly the final years of the pontificate of his predecessor but one, Paul VI, had been painful—both for Paul and for the Church. Humanae Vitae, the encyclical repeating the Church’s proscription of contraception had crashed the Vatican II optimism into the wall of ugly ecclesial reality and the carnage was complete. Paul VI was bewildered by his loss of popularity. Bishops, in an orgy of loyalty to the Holy See, were crushing any objections to the Encyclical from the Catholic intelligentsia. The theological idols of Vatican II—scholars such as Bernard Häring and Hans Kung who had been major players at the Council—were falling from their pedestals. Moreover, the reactionaries were in open revolt under dissident French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. John Paul wanted to reverse the damage and put the Church back onto a major key sound-track. He couldn’t annul the Council—that would undermine all authority and credibility—and nor did he want to, but he did want to give its decrees a new interpretation.
John Paul wasn’t totally wrong. In some ways the Council was out of step. In a globalizing world, the Council wanted to decentralize Church authority, giving more authority to local bishops at cost to the power of the central administration in Rome. In a world of totalitarian governments, the Church seemed to want to democratize with greater roles and responsibility for the laity. In a culture where people were becoming increasingly passive in their entertainment, the Church’s liturgy was demanding increased participation.
The election of John Paul took the world by surprise, but it probably didn’t take Karol Wojtyla by surprise. Biographers say that at various times throughout his life people had foretold he would one day be pope and he apparently began to take this message with some seriousness. He was not an ambitious man and I don’t think it could be said that he sought the office, but he had a preternatural bent to his personality. He was no mystic—the demands of having to outwit the communist regime at every turn kept him a “feet on the ground” sort of fellow—and I hesitate to use the word superstitious as he was both intelligent and educated, but he was a believer in destiny and I think he came to believe the papacy was in his destiny. His strong showing in the election that chose his predecessor, John Paul I, probably “sealed the deal” though I doubt he realized just how soon it would be before he sat in the Chair of Peter himself. But I think he came to that chair with a mission. He had that single-mindedness, that focus, of the Polish temperament and I believe he was determined from the beginning to refashion the Council into something that he could believe in, a Church that was a global macrocosm of the Polish Church he knew—a Church that was internally strong and united against its external opponents. It would be, as he was used to in Poland, authoritarian in its internal discipline and populist the face it showed to the world. John Paul found a Curia anxious to work with this agenda so that it could take back its power from “the College of Bishops” and be even stronger than it was before the Council. Unfortunately, the pressure of the authoritarianism, instead of forging unity has revealed cracks in the foundation—cracks that need to be fixed before they can no longer bear the weight they are under. Neither John Paul nor Benedict has been able to close those fissures nor do they seem to know how.
One final anecdote about John Paul and his re-vision of Vatican II. One of the people I was privileged to come to know in his final years was Denis Hurley, the retired Archbishop of Durban, South Africa. When Hurley was named a bishop at age 31, he had been the youngest bishop in the world. When I knew him he was an old man in his 80’s. He was the voice against Apartheid in South Africa when Desmond Tutu was only a young priest. He had served on the preparatory Commission for Vatican II. He was a founder of ICEL. The last time I saw him was just two weeks or so before his death. He was in Rome for some meetings with the Communità di Sant’Egidio and I had lunch with him. He said to me: “I met with the Holy Father (John Paul, just a year before his own death) this morning. I said to him ‘Holy Father, you and I are both old men. You know how it is when we get old. We forget things. But I distinctly remember that we had a Council. What did you do with it’?” They say that Archbishop Hurley, despite his early and prophetic voice against apartheid and his tireless work at Vatican II, had never had been made a Cardinal because he refused to congratulate Paul VI on Humanae Vitae. It is probably true. Right to the end he spoke his mind. What had happened to Vatican II?