A knight passes

The ideal knight — courageous and honest, courteous and modest, loyal and pure of heart — isn’t easy to find in any age. Yet I once knew such a man and called him a friend: Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, who died in January at 91 in Warsaw, a city reborn from beneath the rubble of modernity’s two worst tyrannies.

Jan’s story was beyond a scriptwriter’s imagination. Born in Poland in 1913 and christened Zdislaw Jezioranski, he studied business and economics and anticipated a professional career until Germany invaded his country in September 1939 and laid it under draconian occupation. Jezioranski joined the Polish underground, became “Jan Nowak,” and put his linguistic skills, cool wits, and unshakeable courage at the service of his hard-pressed nation, crisscrossing Europe in disguise to bring news of Poland’s resistance to the Polish government-in-exile in London and to Poland’s British allies.

It was Jan who told the West about the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Jan who came to London to brief Churchill on plans for the Polish Home Army’s August 1944 Warsaw Uprising; after a depressing interview with the great British prime minister, Jan knew that little help would be coming for the brave Poles. Undaunted, he returned to Warsaw to take part in the Uprising, barely escaping death on numerous occasions. When it became completely hopeless, Jan and his wife (a wartime bride he had married in a clandestine ceremony) escaped through the dying city’s foul sewers and got out to the West, where Jan began a new life working for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1956, Jan Nowak took over Radio Free Europe’s Polish section, where his talents contributed to combating the lies of the other great 20th century totalitarian power, the Soviet Union. For twenty years, Jan Nowak was the “voice” of Radio Free Europe in Poland; Pope John Paul II has told of listening (illegally) to Jan’s news broadcasts while shaving in the morning. Indeed, Poles of a certain age will tell you that, for two decades, Jan Nowak was the man who told them the truth about Poland and about the world, for RFE told the Poles what the government-controlled media wouldn’t tell them.

I met Jan in Washington, where he served for almost twenty years as executive director of the Polish-American Congress. During that time, he worked hard to improve Polish-Jewish relations and during the Carter administration served as a consultant to the National Security Council, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski. During the Reagan years, Jan was an informal and valued counselor to the President, the State Department, and AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland, who played a crucial role in supporting the Solidarity movement. President Clinton awarded Jan Nowak the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 1996.

Jan was a remarkable combination of conviction and modesty. His judgments on men and affairs were clear-eyed and judicious; he could be critical, but without drawing blood. Utterly trustworthy himself, he reposed trust in those with whom he talked, on and off the record, about his role in some of the most dramatic events of our time. The Pope esteemed him. Recuperating in 1981 from Agca’s assassination attempt and told by his doctors to read something that wasn’t business, John Paul II chose Jan’s memoir, Courier from Warsaw. The book, alas, is only available today from on-line used-book services; there are few other contemporary volumes I would rather give a young man to teach him what manliness truly is.

My last conversation with Jan took place in July 2004; I was teaching in Cracow and called him at the Warsaw apartment to which he had moved in 2002. He seemed tired but was courteous as always, eager for whatever news I had. Just a few weeks before, he had enthralled dozens of Polish Dominican novices with stories of his adventures; those stories always illustrated, one way or another, his profound Catholic faith.

In Jan Nowak, Poland and America “met” as they hadn’t since the days of Kosciuszko and Pulaski. His life was a blessing to two peoples; both honor themselves by revering his memory.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash