On the death, and aging, of princes

The death of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin of Benin this past May 13 marked the passing of one of world Catholicism’s noblemen.

Born in what was then the French colony of Dahomey in 1922, a mere 40 years after the first Catholic missionaries had arrived in that West African land, Bernardin Gantin was ordained a priest in 1951, consecrated auxiliary bishop of Cotonou in 1956, and named  archbishop of Cotonou in 1960. After participating in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Gantin was brought to Rome by Pope Paul VI to work at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (known to all Roman hands by its former name, “Propaganda Fidei,” or “Prop” for short). He then became president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and was created cardinal in June 1977.

In the run-up to the conclaves of 1978, some imagined Gantin as the first pope from sub-Saharan Africa; he never thought of himself in those terms, and likely played a not unimportant role in Karol Wojtyla’s election as John Paul II. Some of the Great Electors of 1978 thought of Wojtyla as a bridge to the communist world, a kind of “political pope.” Cardinal Gantin and his fellow-Africans thought in rather different terms: they admired the lucidity of Wojtyla’s faith, the clarity of his defense of Catholic doctrine, and his humility. The African cardinals—all new Christians—got the saint they wanted; the rest of us got a very different kind of “political pope,” who dramatically reshaped the history of our times by being a pastor and a moral witness.

John Paul, for his part, reposed enormous trust in Bernardin Gantin, appointing him prefect of the crucial Congregation for Bishops and, in 1993, Dean of the College of Cardinals. It was in the latter roles that I first knew Gantin and was deeply impressed by his faith, his good humor, and his transparent integrity. Here, one thought, was a prince, long before he acquired the title; and he was a prince because he was a Christian, a man unafraid of the future because the future was assured by Christ. One also sensed a deep spiritual bond between the Polish pope, saturated in a millennium of Christian history, and this child of the first modern African evangelization. The son of a retired soldier and the son of railway worker, both from what some regard as the borderlands of the faith, came to the center of the Church and found in each other a devotion to Christ that transcended race, culture, and language.

Cardinal Gantin was also, in an oblique way, one of those most responsible for the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI. On turning 80 in 2002, Gantin lost his vote in any future conclave. Neither canon law nor the apostolic constitution governing papal elections requires that a cardinal who reaches the age of 80 must thereby relinquish his post as dean of the College of Cardinals. But Bernardin Gantin was a man of great humility as well as integrity, and he seemed to think his brother cardinals, and the whole Church, would benefit from his stepping aside to allow the vice-dean, Cardinal Ratzinger, to succeed him. So Cardinal Gantin resigned as Dean, returned home to Benin, and took up pastoral work.

Cardinal Gantin’s self-effacing humility paved the way for Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean, to preside over the general congregations of cardinals that followed the death of John Paul II and to be the principal concelebrant and the homilist at John Paul’s funeral Mass. No one should doubt that Ratzinger’s performance in those roles had a lot to do with the swift resolution of the conclave of 2005 in his favor. Thus did Gantin, a man who did not lack a sense of self but whose sense of self was not ego-driven, do a last great service for the universal Church.

Will his example inspire other princes of the Church who, in the future, find themselves in parallel situations?

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”