Fr. Maciej Zięba, O.P. (1954-2020)

George Weigel

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: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.