Lessons from case of Poland's collaborator archbishop


Lessons from case of Poland's collaborator archbishop By all accounts the Polish Church handled well the disclosure that Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus had once collaborated with the security police. The Archbishop resigned before his installation, and the nation’s Bishops have submitted their own records to scrutiny.

Such openness must have been difficult in a church with such a proud record of resistance to Communism. Persecuted churches often suffer from the expectation that they will be exceptional and from the view that persecution is a place in which the Church is necessarily purified.

This is a romantic trivialisation of the early Christian axiom that that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. It makes it easy to idealise times of persecution as times when Christianity flourishes. Frederick Faber catches the mood in his hymn Faith of our Fathers: ‘Faith of our Fathers, living still/ In spite of dungeon fire and sword’. To to die like these Fathers would be a sweet fate.

Certainly, in the face of a relatively low-level persecution, as in Ireland or in Poland, a national church may be strengthened. Under intense persecution, too, some people show extraordinary heroism. But there may also be a heavy cost.

The cost is evident in the early Church. Under the Pagan emperors persecution was generally sporadic. But in the middle of the third century and particularly at the beginning of the following century, Emperors saw the security of the Empire as dependent on universal worship of the state Gods. They therefore set out to destroy the Christian Church.

They targeted initially the lives of Church leaders and the property of lay Christians. Ultimately, all citizens were required to have certificates declaring that they had sacrificed to the Roman Gods. Clergy were also required to hand over the sacred books and vessels used for worship. Those who refused were subject to torture and death. These laws paid both ways. If Bishops resisted, the Church would be made leaderless. If they sacrificed, it would be demoralised.

Lessons from early church in case of Poland's collaborator archbishopEusebius, a contemporary witness, describes the result: "many church leaders bore up heroically under horrible torture, an object lesson in enduring terrible ordeals; while countless others, their spirits already cowed by terror, immediately yielded at the first threat."

At the end of the persecution many churches were chaotic and divided. Clergy who had fled from their towns were confronted by members of their congregations who had been blinded or maimed for their confession of faith, and by families whose fathers or daughters had been tortured and killed. Some also found that in their absence another bishop had been appointed to their town. Moral authority lay with those who bore the marks of torture.

At the same time people who had sacrificed to idols wished to return to the church. Some churches refused any kind of reconciliation; others insisted on public penance beforehand; others granted it on request. The issue divided churches. The Council of Nicaea spent much of its time developing a uniform process that measured penance to the status of penitents and to the seriousness of their apostasy. Even so, some churches remained divided for more than a century. The division ceased only when a Christian Emperor imposed unity by violence.

This reality challenges any romantic view that faith flourishes in times of persecution. Harsh persecution polarises communities and corrupts them from within. It is the seedbed not only of heroic witness to faith, but also of cowardice and of vindictiveness.

Lessons from early church in case of Poland's collaborator archbishopNevertheless the Christian axiom that the blood of martyrs is the seedbed of Christians remains true. But its truth is paradoxical. The martyr is Jesus. His tortured death reconciles people with God and brings together strangers into the Church. But in his dying Jesus is betrayed, denied and deserted by his friends and followers.

Persecutions and the witness of martyrs are significant for the Christian church, not because they produce a united and heroic community, but because they lead Christians back to recognise what’s what. In persecution, they feel the force of Jesus’ death, recognise the weakness and malice in their own community, and commit themselves to a costly reconciliation.

That brings us back to Poland. The present humiliation of the Polish Church is part of the experience of persecution. It puts Jesus’ death back at the centre of faith, enables the Church to see its own weakness and failure, and invites it to make reconciliation real. The test of the Polish Church, like any church, is not whether or not its members cooperated with the security apparatus. It is whether it welcomes back compassionately people like Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus.



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Existing comments

thank you for your article,its balance and historical perspective, i learnt a lot. as a person who is involved pastorally/professionally with the sexual abuse by priests-nuns and laity,i feel the official church has'nt learnt the damage its actions/non-actions to the message of jesus. a'bishop wielgus only resigned when he was confronted by 80 pages of evidence collected over his 20 years involvement with the secret service.there was no apology that i have read,only rationalizations-e.g. 'nobody was hurt by my actions'. your last paragraph is wonderful-" and invites it[the church] to make reconciliation real" that i believe is the task that we havent started yet,its too hard. when we look again at the sexual abuse scandel,the attitude is we have formally apologized,what more should be done??the chaplain to the papel household fr r. cantalamessa gives us a clue;"there should be a day of prayer/fasting/penance- to seek forgiveness for the catholis church priestly sexual abuse scandels, the time has come for the church to weep before god- to publicly express sorrow before god and in solidarity with the[ millions] of victims" only when we do that can there be a transformative healing closure. as adult christians we have no other options
guido vogels | 23 January 2007

What you fail to mention is the terror of living under/with Communism. People did terrible things under horrible circumstances.
Justine Walerowicz | 23 January 2007

compassion is the bedrock of our faith. I valued your article
r.heard | 23 January 2007

Thanks for the facts of human weakness even in the Catacombs. I have tended to think of the past as wholly glorious and forget the reality - a sobering dose of reality.

Great article.

Frank Purcell
Frank Purcell | 23 January 2007

Great article... a call to see ourselves as we are. A call to be forgiving.
Rom Hayes | 25 January 2007


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