Thirty years of Poland

It was a two-week whirlwind that changed my life forever, that first visit of mine to Poland in June 1991. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of something H.L. Mencken wrote of a similarly transformative experience: “It was brain-fagging and back-breaking, but it was grand beyond compare – an adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in forty rings.” My first weeks in Poland were all of that, and more. For what I learned in dozens of conversations during that fortnight became the crux of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism; the publication of that book (the first to argue that John Paul II and the Church had played pivotal roles in the collapse of European communism) led to my first serious conversation with the Polish pope; our relationship ripened over the next few years to the point where, in 1995, I rather boldly suggested to John Paul that I write his biography; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the past three decades, I’ve spent about three years, all told, in Poland, much of it in Cracow, a city I’ve come to regard as virtually another home. On this anniversary, however, my mind turns to some extraordinary people I first met in June 1991. Many are no longer with us but I cherish the memory of them, for their contributions to my education in matters Polish was incalculable.

I think of the former Solidarity activists, many of them political prisoners under martial law, who were then members of the Polish government, influential journalists, or academics finally able to teach as they saw fit in a free society.  

I remember Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, a man of great natural dignity, shrewdly chosen by John Paul II as his successor in the See of Cracow. Macharski, for his part, had the good sense not to try to be Karol Wojtyła 2.0 but to be himself – which was more than enough, for he showed himself full of grit and courage when Poland suffered under martial law in the 1980s. It was Macharski who told me of the tradition that the archbishop of Cracow is the Defensor Civitatis, the last line of defense of the people and their rights. Like his predecessor, Franciszek Macharski lived that episcopal role magnificently, as had the wartime archbishop both he and Karol Wojtyła revered, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha.

I think of Jerzy Turowicz, a charming, elfin septuagenarian who for decades ran the only reliable newspaper in Poland, Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), with the protection of the Archdiocese of Cracow. Its editorial staff included brilliant men and women who could not get the academic and professional positions for which they were qualified because they were serious Catholics. And in its pages, a future pope cut his literary teeth as a poet and essayist. 

I remember Father Jozef Tischner, a bluff, hearty son of the Polish highlands, a tremendous joke-teller, and a world-class philosopher. His brilliant sermon on September 6, 1981 at the first Solidarity Congress – a meditation on work and the Eucharist – should be in the Liturgy of the Hours as the second selection of the Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. 

I remember visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time and praying outside the starvation cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe had given his life for a fellow-prisoner – and finding it, like the 12th station of the cross in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, one of the easiest places in the world to pray.

I remember a lengthy Sunday afternoon talk with Father Kazimierz Jancarz, who looked like an NFL linebacker, mocked himself as “just a proletarian,” and then explained to me how his parish church in the industrial town of Nowa Huta had been a center of underground resistance activities during and after martial law – a place where people came to speak freely about a future they could only imagine, but for which they wanted to be educated and prepared.

None of this would have been possible without the assistance of my colleague and friend Rodger Potocki, who was the best of companions, a knowledgeable guide, and the man who made me read aloud all the road signs we passed, so that I could at least pronounce Polish (more-or-less) correctly. 

Three decades of work and conversation in Poland have shaped me in ways I would not have thought possible 30 years ago. For that, I am deeply grateful to a nation that might yet become a model for 21st-century democracy, if it took the social doctrine of its greatest son seriously.  

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COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.