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from issue no. 01 - 2008

CARDINALS. Meeting with Józef Glemp

My years in the service of the Polish Church


The Primate of Poland celebrated in Rome his twenty-five years as a cardinal. His memories: the Communist government, the Polish Pope and the passage to democracy. But also secularization and the scandal of prelates accused of having been spies of the regime


Interview with Cardinal Józef Glemp by Gianni Cardinale


On 2 February last the Cardinal Primate of Poland Józef Glemp celebrated his 25 years as a cardinal with a solemn liturgy celebrated in Santa Maria in Trastevere. He too in fact, like his predecessor Stefan Wyszynski, is titular cardinal of the beautiful Roman Basilica. For the occasion 30Days asked the Polish Cardinal, who was Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw from 1981 to 1992 and of Warsaw alone until December 2006, to review his years of service to the Polish Church.

Cardinal Glemp during the Holy Mass celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, on the occasion of his twenty-five years as cardinal, 2 February 2008

Cardinal Glemp during the Holy Mass celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, on the occasion of his twenty-five years as cardinal, 2 February 2008

Your Eminence, you were nominated Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw on 7 July 1981. In the previous May two dramatic events had struck the whole Catholic Church and the Polish one in particular. On the 13th there was the attempt on John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square and on the 28th the Cardinal Primate Stefan Wyszynski died at eighty years of age. You had been his personal secretary up to 1979, when you were nominated Bishop of Warmia, with its See in Olsztyn. How do you recall that period?
JÓZEF GLEMP: In effect I was nominated Archbishop of two Metropolitan Sees at the same time: Gniezno and Warsaw. From the ecclesiastical point of view everything was done very well. Under Communism there was a particular zeal about governing these procedures because they did not want to have problems. After the death of Cardinal Wyszynski, the Holy See held a wide consultation among the bishops to choose a new primate. At the beginning of the month of July 1981 I came to Rome with a group of pilgrims from my diocese of Warmia. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski was present in the City, and he had been authorized by the Holy See to receive my consent to becoming the successor of Wyszynski. After I had spoken to Macharski I presented myself to the Holy Father who was recuperating in the Gemelli Hospital. The Pope reconfirmed the request that I accept the nomination as primate. I certainly could not refuse, given also the particularly dramatic situation of that period. The nomination announced, I returned immediately to Poland and two days afterwards, on 9 July, took possession of the two archdioceses.
The situation was delicate also from the political point of view...
GLEMP: Yes, that’s true. However from that point of view the situation seemed relatively quiet. Even if it was the quiet before the storm of the imposition of the state of emergency that would be decreed the following December.
General Wojciech Jaruzelski has always asserted that his was an unavoidable choice...
GLEMP: Difficult to say. It is a fact however that the General wanted to defend the status quo, the Polish Socialist State with its ties to the Soviet Union.
How did you come to know of the imposition of the state of emergency?
GLEMP: Jaruzelski had me informed at five-thirty in the morning by a general and a minister. That day I had a visit to Czestochowa scheduled, for a youth meeting, which I did not cancel however.
What memory do you have of the period of the state of emergency?
GLEMP: I always tried to calm people’s minds. I always tried to make it understood that heads are made to think and not to break walls with. But spirits were agitated. Hundreds of Solidarnosc exponents were interned in concentration camps.
How did the Church experience that period?
GLEMP: A “Primate Committee for the aid of interned persons” was created immediately. The Committee collected money and other goods to help those who were shut up in the internment camps and it functioned effectively in all the dioceses throughout Poland. We bishops were permitted to meet together and, despite the curfew, the celebration of the Mass of Christmas Night was also allowed. Each of the faithful could join in the function of their own parish.
You also went to visit the internees, beginning with Lech Walesa...
GLEMP: Certainly I visited the imprisoned representatives of Solidarnosc. I remember the calm and steadfastness with which the men faced that ordeal. I was struck instead by the agitation and anger shown by the women, who evidently could not bear up to the situation.
The state of emergency was established when the second journey of the Pope to Poland was already in the pipeline...
GLEMP: The Pope wanted to come in 1982. But the authorities preferred to postpone the visit for a year and I too was in agreement, because in those conditions the Pope’s journey could only have had one destination: the sanctuary of Czestochowa. The Pope also consented to come in 1983, when the situation had eased, although martial law had not been removed definitively. And it was better like that.
Don Jerzy Popieluszko

Don Jerzy Popieluszko

In 1984 Don Jerzy Popieluszko was killed. How do you remember this priest of yours?
GLEMP: In his parish, on the last Sunday of the month, a mass for the Homeland was always celebrated and his homilies had a certain resonance. Popieluszko did not however employ particularly harsh tones towards the authorities. There were other priests certainly more aggressive than him. But he had a great following among the young. I believe that all the envy and the wrath, I would say also personal, of some exponents of the regime were heaped onto him. I think for example of Captain Grzegorz Piotrowski [the killer of Don Popieluszko, ed], who was particularly wounded in his ambition by the words spoken by one whom he considered a mere priest. Despite the many things that were written and despite the trials, the story of Father Popieluszko is not all clear: some details remain obscure...
At what point is the beatification process?
GLEMP: The diocesan phase is ended and the cause has arrived here in Rome, at the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints. We hope that soon Father Popieluszko can be venerated as a martyr.
Eminence, during your episcopacy in that particularly difficult period you had to endure not a little criticism...
GLEMP: When in the homilies I invited calm and dialogue, there were those who complained because they said the Primate did not want to fight; but I, also in the light of nineteenth century Polish history, always refused to foment the revolution. Violence leads nowhere: it is only counter-productive.
Did the episcopate stand with you in this attitude?
GLEMP: Yes, there may have been some priests tempted more by revolutionary shortcuts, but the bishops not. We tried to meet as often as possible and were united.
In the transition that brought Poland from the Communist regime to democracy has everything been done that should have been done? In not small areas of Polish society a certain rancor continues because of the fact that the Communist establishment has not paid enough for its past...
GLEMP: The Communists have been very clever, they have had to cede political power but they secured for themselves the levers of financial and economic power. The Communist ruling class was educated, knew languages, knew the mechanisms of power. Knowledge that the leaders of Solidarnosc lacked... This can explain the resentment still alive here in Poland.
And the desire for lustracja that also pervades part of Polish society?
GLEMP: It is a paradoxical and unjust mechanism. Instead of seeking out and punishing the Communist leaders who spied on and repressed the people, the attempt has been to find and punish so-called collaborators of the regime. So the executioners have in fact remained innocent and the victims of blackmail have become victims of a new form of persecution.
How do you regard the presence of members of the clergy in the lists of the collaborators of the old regime?
GLEMP: The overwhelming majority of Polish priests carried out their mission in an admirable way, even if one has to recognize that there is a quota, I believe around ten per cent, who, blackmailed because of other issues, for example sentimental matters, yielded and made contact with the secret services and therefore were listed in the directory of the so-called collaborators. But also these unfortunates, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, did not carry out actions that damaged others. This system of collaborators in truth did not serve so much to rob information, as much as to instill in the people a sort of psychological terrorism, in the sense that the impression intended was that the system had everything under control and that everyone was meant to feel that they were under control.
The most illustrious case of a priest accused of collaborationism has certainly been that involving Monsignor Stanislaw Wielgus...
GLEMP: His was a particular case. He had an academic rather than pastoral profile. He denies having signed compromising documents, even if there does seem to be something behind it all. It is a fact however that he was condemned by the mass media without having had the chance to defend himself.
Only once, did they also propose to me to become a secret informer on the activities of the Church in exchange for a passport enabling me to go abroad. I firmly refused to receive the passport and stayed at home. Subsequently, when I went abroad with Primate Wyszynski, they didn’t seek me out anymore. Perhaps it was that others did not have this firmness, and therefore it turns out that several priests, who then became bishops, were registered as informers. The Church is carefully assessing all these cases. It is curious, however: cases similar to those that have struck the clergy surely exist also among journalists and academics, but nobody seems interested in investigating...
The taking of possession and the very rapid resignation of Monsignor Wielgus go back precisely to a year ago, to early January 2007. Then, in March, the nomination of Monsignor Kazimierz Nycz as his successor...
GLEMP: They were in effect very dramatic days. Evidently the good God wanted it so. I must say that Monsignor Nycz is excellent.
Have you never had the temptation to regret the period of the Communist regime, in which the Church was under attack from political power but was respected and loved by society, and in which there was no secularizing influence from the West?
GLEMP: No, because we regained freedom. We can complain about many things that don’t work, but freedom is a great gift that we must cherish and which we must make the most of.
How has the Polish Church changed in these last decades?
GLEMP: Religious practice is certainly diminished, but we are still not at Western levels. As for vocations then, we have a sufficient number, indeed, we can even export them, especially for the missions. For example in Warsaw this year some thirty new candidates entered the seminary. We certainly can’t complain.
What is your judgment on Radio Maryja?
GLEMP: It has done much good, but now it performs a role parallel to the episcopate and that is not good. The Radio then performed a political role as well, and this is also not good. Personally I think that the figure of the president, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, can be changed and should effectively be changed. Even if after the recent elections the situation has calmed down, inasmuch as the party that opposed the one openly supported by the Radio won. However, I want to reconfirm that from a religious point of view Radio Maryja spreads sound doctrine and does good for the pastoral.
What is your view of the change of government from Jaroslaw Kaczynski to Donald Tusk?
GLEMP: It has been a less radical change than might have been thought. On the fundamental topics, like the defense of life, I believe there have not been changes.
Cardinal Glemp during the Holy Mass in the Cathedral of Saint John, in Warsaw, 7 January 2007, the day after the resignation of Monsignor Stanislaw Wielgus

Cardinal Glemp during the Holy Mass in the Cathedral of Saint John, in Warsaw, 7 January 2007, the day after the resignation of Monsignor Stanislaw Wielgus

The current President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, the Archbishop of Przemysl Józef Michalik, has declared that if the top management of Radio Maryja must be changed because ranking too much on the right, then the same should happen, for equal but opposite reasons, with the Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny...
GLEMP: Theoretically it’s logical. Only that Radio Maryja has a much greater influence on people than Tygodnik Powszechny.
Apart from Italy, Poland is the only country to have an apostolic nuncio native to his own country. How do you judge this “anomaly”?
GLEMP: I don’t think the next one will be. Enough to see what happened in Germany. It was an experience dictated by a state of necessity that is now no more. However, the nunciature headed since 1989 by Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk has brought good results such as the drawing up of the Concordat and the administrative reorganization of the Church in Poland.
Is the Church of Poland an orphan of John Paul II?
GLEMP: I don’t think so. Pope Benedict has been accepted totally by the Polish Church and people. Certainly, emotionally, we feel tied to the figure of John Paul II, but the Church goes ahead.
You, in your quality as custodian of the remains of Saint Adalbert that repose in the Cathedral of Gniezno, will remain Cardinal Primate until you reach eighty. Historically the role of the Primate has been very important in the ecclesiastical and social history of Poland. But now its role has in practice been replaced by the President of the Episcopal Conference...
GLEMP: My successor will always be member by right of the permanent Council and patron of the Poles who reside abroad. We will see what will happen in practice.
Will the next Primate be the Archbishop of Gniezno or of Warsaw?
GLEMP: Of Gniezno obviously. The Sees of Gniezno and Warsaw were united in persona episcopi with cardinals August Hlond, Wyszynski and with me. Now it is not like that anymore. And it is right that the primatial title remain tied to the most ancient diocese of our country.


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