Fr. Maciej Zięba, O.P. (1954-2020)

A wretched year came to a sorrowful end when Father Maciej Zięba, OP, died in his native Wrocław, Poland, on December 31. The birthplace of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wrocław was also the home of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who grew up there as Edith Stein when the city was known as Breslau. Unlike those great Christian witnesses, Maciej Zięba was not a martyr; but he, too, gave his life for Christ and the Church, and he bore more than his share of suffering in doing so. 

His life was dramatically changed by John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. Hearing the pope’s eloquent summons to Poles to reject the communist culture of the life by reclaiming the truth about themselves as a nation, the young university student of physics thought, “We might have to live and die under communism. But I can live without being a liar.” Opportunities to act on that determination multiplied when the Solidarity movement was born in the fall of 1980. Maciej Zięba quickly became involved and worked with Tadeusz Mazowiecki (who would become contemporary Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in 1989) on Tygodnik Solidarność, one of the movement’s principal publications. 

In those turbulent years Zięba also heard a vocational call to religious life and the priesthood. Entering the Polish province of the Order of Preachers in 1981, he was ordained in 1987. Eleven years later he was elected provincial, and under his leadership the Polish Dominicans became one of the most dynamic religious communities in the post-conciliar Church. While he was very much a public personality, intensely involved in cultural, political, and ecclesiastical debates, Father Zięba understood himself first and foremost as a vowed religious and a priest – one who knew that the cloistered Dominican sisters whose contemplative vocation he nurtured were (as he once put it) the “spiritual reactor core” of the Polish Dominican province.   

His lodestar was John Paul II, whose affection for him was displayed by the pope’s always using the friendliest diminutive form of Zięba’s Christian name in their correspondence. Father Zięba repaid his hero’s regard by working tirelessly to make John Paul’s thought and pastoral vision come alive in Polish Catholicism. That was no simple task. Poland’s overwhelming emotional investment in its greatest son tended to prevent the Church from grappling with the originality and depth of his teaching. And in a post-totalitarian world, the habits of clerical authoritarianism that helped Polish Catholicism survive Nazism and communism could be obstacles to pastoral creativity and evangelization.  

That John Paul II believed that Father Maciej was explaining the Polish pope to Poles as the Polish pope wanted to be explained was demonstrated when Zięba played a leading role in developing the themes for the Pope’s triumphant Polish pilgrimage in June 1997. The previous papal pilgrimage in 1991 had been less well-prepared and the results were somewhat disappointing. That was emphatically not the case in 1997, as John Paul laid out a compelling vision of the Church’s role in creating the vibrant, truth-centered civil society and culture essential to democracy – and expressed that vision in words crafted in no small part by Father Zięba.  

   We worked in close harness for almost 30 years and Father Maciej’s assistance was invaluable as I was preparing the two volumes of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. There were dark nights along the pathways of our friendship. Father Zięba’s physical suffering from various worn-out joints, and his suffering from the cancer that finally killed him, were perhaps less intense than the spiritual suffering he experienced on learning that once-trusted friends had been doubling as informants for the communist secret police in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in the depths of those dark nights, he remained a man of faith, whose hope was centered on Christ’s capacity to make all things new – including the brokenness of our lives. 

As much as I shall miss my friend, my brother in Christ, and my comrade-in-arms in various great causes, I also mourn his loss to the Polish Church. Maciej Zięba’s was a Catholic voice of singular insight, clarity, and good sense in an increasingly fragmented and polarized Polish society. He was also Polish Catholicism’s most creative interpreter of what John Paul II’s thought can mean for 21st-century Polish public and pastoral life. My hope, which he would have shared, is that the successor generation we trained will increasingly step forward to bring John Paul’s vision alive in both Church and society.  

May his memory be a blessing – and an inspiration.  

Featured image by Sławek | Wikipedia

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.