Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski was that most singular of heroic legends, the one with no foundation except in fact. The true resonance of a great life is not in the great man’s words or deeds but in his example. Every century makes the mistake of imagining that it can abolish the wisdom of every century except its own, and that may be why the figures that tower highest in our memories so often seem to incarnate the reproaches and embody the defiance of ages presumed gone beyond recall.
The great lives are lived against the perceived current of their times. There are men who change history by stubborn resistance to it and they represent the greatness that rises from appreciating the relevance of what the modern mind tends to dismiss as obsolescent. Churchill would have ceased to be Churchill the first moment he decided to be someone more up-to-date than a seventeenth-century Whig; and Wyszynski could not have been Wyszynski if he had ever left off being a thirteenth-century bishop.
He was, to be sure, fortunate in the supreme tests that hardened him into the huge presence he became. No great teacher was ever better taught by his enemies. When Hitler’s armies came to Poland, Wyszynski was a parish priest and, by his own subsequent testimony, one of views so narrow that they encompassed a degree of anti-Semitism. But Hitler was hardly less contemptuous of Poles than he was of Jews; and Wyszynski, then a monsignor, barely escaped Auschwitz, and years in hiding left him permanently the brother of every victim.
When the war ended, he was anointed as primate of a Communist Poland. He knew then what he could afford to lose and what he must fight to keep. He accepted the expropriation of the Church’s lands without complaint; what he refused to surrender was the soul of Poland, and that is what he became.
Communism could think of itself as Poland’s future for just ten years; that illusion ended with the Poznan riots in 1956, and ever since then the Polish government that was once Wyszynski’s jailer has been his ward. The spirit of Polish Communism is now dead, so far past resurrection that no one bothers even to repaint the faded signs that identify one of Warsaw’s grander avenues as “Lenin Allee.”
But Wyszynski loved Poland so much more than he hated any heretic Pole that he refused the victory that his Church had won over its oppressors. Instead, he made himself the great prop of the Communist government at every crisis when its sins threatened it with the bloodshed and the Soviet tanks that civil war would make inescapable. In normal times he fought the government and in critical times he saved it.
He was hard as a rock and supple as a serpent; and for a while the subtlety of his course so eluded the Church that now buries him as its hero that Rome came to suspect him as a subversive. When he visited Italy in 1958, the Vatican was so cool that the only resident bishop to extend a heartfelt welcome was the primate of Venice, who became Pope John XXIII.
But then, out of Poland, Stefan Wyszynski would always seem a trifle lonely and a bit out of sorts, like some great prince far from home. He came from those heights where eagles fly; and, by the end of his life, the great lofty look did not have to speak to say, “I am what is eternal. The Caesars looked at me and are gone; kings and tsars looked at me and are gone. I am the past, the present, and the future, and I have found that out, and so too will you—if you wait.”
July 16, 1981