Beyond nostalgia in Poland

George Weigel

In late July, the Polish Parliament created a new national holiday, “John Paul II Day,” to be celebrated every October 16, the anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s election as the 264th Bishop of Rome. According to the bill establishing the holiday, “John Paul II Day” is meant to “express the pride that a great humanist, a man of profound science and culture, was formed by the Polish tradition” — a man, the bill continued, who “taught how it is possible, keeping one’s own faith, to give respect and love to others.”

Just a month later, John Paul’s longtime secretary and confidant, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, was installed as the archbishop of Cracow. During the three-plus weeks I spent in Cracow this summer, I spoke with many of the new archbishop’s old friends, who were eager to welcome him home.

As indeed they should be. At the same time, Archbishop Dziwisz, his (and my) friends, and the entire Polish Church face a tremendous challenge. The parliament’s decision to create “John Paul II Day” is an admirable expression of a broadly felt national desire to honor a great son of Poland. The challenge for the Church in Poland will be to honor the memory of John Paul II by looking ahead, not by looking back.

Shortly after Archbishop Dziwisz’s appointment was announced, former Polish president Lech Walesa welcomed the news enthusiastically, saying, in so many words, that, just as John Paul II had told the Poles what to do with their hard-won freedom, Archbishop Dziwisz would now do the same. The former Solidarity hero was wrong on both counts: John Paul II didn’t give Poles political instructions (although he did talk President Walesa out of a hare-brained scheme to acquire nuclear weapons from rogue ex-Soviet operatives); and Archbishop Dziwisz shouldn’t (and won’t) issue political instructions to his people. The fact that Walesa seemed nostalgic for the days when the Polish hierarchy was a de facto political party does suggest, though, one measure of the challenge facing the new archbishop of Cracow.

Contrary to some expectations, Polish Catholicism hasn’t gone the way of Irish Catholicism, Spanish Catholicism, and Portuguese Catholicism in the sixteen years since the Revolution of 1989 — which is to say, Poland hasn’t abandoned its historic faith and the religious roots of its national culture. Quite the contrary. Poland today remains the most intensely Catholic culture this side of Guadalupe or Manila. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are strong in their own right, and astonishingly high by western standards. The Church remains the most respected institution in the country. As an American friend says every year in Cracow, “It’s amazing to be in a city where the principal civic activity on Sunday morning is going to Mass.”

Yet fervor, piety, and high rates of religious practice aren’t the whole story of Polish Catholicism. With rare exceptions, the Polish episcopate has yet to find a genuinely “public” voice in the debates over the life issues, biotechnology, and marriage in which all European and North American democracies are now embroiled. The Marxism of the bad old days in Polish high culture has frequently been replaced by the kind of post-modern skepticism and relativism that have eroded the civilizational morale of western Europe; and the Church has not, to date, effectively taught John Paul II’s conviction that we can, in fact, know the truth of things — even moral things — in ways that challenge the regnant intellectual cynicism. The intellectual and spiritual formation in diocesan seminaries must be strengthened, so that the priests of Poland’s 21st century are equipped to deal with the questions of Catholic faith and practice that inevitably arise in modern societies — and equipped to give more persuasive answers than “Because I told you so.”

John Paul the Great tried to help Poland prepare to be “the Church in the modern world” envisioned by Vatican II — a Church engaging the hardest question of contemporary life out of a deepened appreciation of the riches of its own tradition. Poland will best honor the memory of its noblest son by applying his teaching boldly and creatively, not nostalgically, to the future.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.