Bringing the Holy See to Poland (Part 1)

Interview With Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk

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By Wlodzimierz Redzioch
WARSAW, Poland, MAY 10, 2010 ( Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk has witnessed firsthand the radical changes in Poland since 1989. That year, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to his native country, returning home as a citizen of the Holy See.

More than 20 years later, the archbishop is taking on a different role in his native land. On Saturday he was named the archbishop of Gniezno and primate of Poland.

ZENIT spoke with Archbishop Kowalczyk before this latest appointment, asking him to reflect on his 40 years of service to the Holy See, and particularly his role in Poland.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Tuesday.

ZENIT: Excellency, you are sometimes presented as a «Polish archbishop.» It is ignored or forgotten that you are a Vatican citizen and represent the Holy See in a foreign country. Moreover, you have been at the service of Popes for 40 years. In what circumstances did your work in the Roman Curia begin?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: After the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI wished to internationalize the Roman Curia. In that circumstance, in the name of the Polish episcopate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski proposed me for work in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. Cardinal Antonio Samorè, then prefect, accepted my candidacy and thus, on Dec. 19, 1969, I began my service.
ZENIT: Being born in Poland, did you also deal with the particular problems related to that country?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: Not in the beginning, but in 1976 I was appointed — in agreement with the Polish episcopate — a member of the Group for Permanent Working Contacts between the Holy See and the Government of the People’s Republic of Poland. In the ambit of that office I traveled to Poland with the other members of the group — among whom I wish to recall at least Archbishop Luigi Poggi — to meet with representatives of the episcopate, of the government and of the Office for Worship.
ZENIT: How did your life change with the election of the archbishop of Krakow to the Chair of Peter?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: Immediately after his election, on Oct. 18, 1978, John Paul II asked me to become head of the Polish section of the State Secretariat, which I had to organize and make work, taking on collaborators. My primary task was to see to the Holy Father’s texts in Polish — encyclicals, apostolic letters, homilies, Wednesday catecheses, messages, etc., and their publication. Moreover, the Polish section had to take care of the correspondence, official and private, which the Pope received in Polish. Obviously, in agreement with him, I answered the letters or sorted them among the various offices of the Curia.
ZENIT: I imagine it was an enormous task.
Archbishop Kowalczyk: It’s true. But immediately after I had to take charge of something else: On Nov. 17, 1979, the secretary of state put me at the head of the Commission for the publication of the writings of Karol Wojtyla, which entailed the preparation of the translations and publication of all of Wojtyla’s texts, before his election to the Chair of Peter; this work — which also included hundreds of contracts for translations and publications in several languages — was done in collaboration with the Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
ZENIT: You were also involved in the «John Paul II» Foundation.
Archbishop Kowalczyk: That was another task entrusted to me by the secretary of state: I had to prepare the statutes and regulations of the «John Paul II» Foundation, which served to collect the documentation of the pontificate and for the diffusion of the Polish Pope’s teaching.
ZENIT: In the meantime did you also continue to be concerned with contacts with the Polish Communist authorities?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: Yes, I was always involved either in contacts with the Polish episcopate, or with the government, particularly with the Group for Permanent Working Contacts, residing at the Polish embassy in Rome. The issues of our conversations were manifold, but I would like to recall first of all the preparation of the Pope’s trips to Poland, the first in 1979, the second in 1983 — particularly difficult because of the enduring state of war introduced by the military junta of General Jaruzelski in 1981 — and then the subsequent trips. I informed the Holy Father about everything, and he also gave me indications. For example, when the Communists did not want the first trip to be made in May of 1979 and suggested the following June, the Pope agreed but he asked to stipulate that this trip should coincide with the jubilee of St. Stanislaw.
A particular task was the work linked to the elaboration of an agreement regarding state-Church relations: The Communists wanted this in order to come out of isolation, but rather, for the Catholic Church in Poland, such an agreement was a necessary condition so that the Holy See could fix diplomatic relations with Poland.
ZENIT: In the end, the agreement was arrived at and, on July 17, 1989, the exchange of letters took place between the Polish foreign minister and Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, which initiated diplomatic relations between the two countries. Did you expect to be appointed nuncio in Warsaw?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: Not at all, but one summer day in 1989 John Paul II invited me to lunch at Castel Gandolfo. After the Angelus, he said to me: «You will go to Warsaw as nuncio.» I was surprised, but the Pope made me understand that this was his personal decision and he explained the reasons. His reasoning was the following: There had not been a nuncio in Poland for 50 years, so the Church had become accustomed to a certain way of working and acting; hence, there would have to be a person who understood this; moreover, a person who, like me, also knew the Curia well. The Pope told me openly that he would help me with his indications and suggestions.
ZENIT: Looking at it from the perspective of the years gone by, it can well be said that the Pope was right.
Archbishop Kowalczyk: I think so: being of Polish formation, I knew well the local political and ecclesial situation, the problems of the society and the Polish mentality. For a foreigner it would have been perhaps very difficult to address the problems that presented themselves then.
ZENIT: Not everyone realizes how Poland boasts a long history of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Could you tell us something in this respect?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: The first concordat agreement between Pope Leo X and the Sejm (Polish Parliament) was signed almost 500 years ago. Since then different representatives of Popes succeeded one another: the first was a certain Girolamo Lando whereas the first representative with the rank of nuncio, Alois Lippomano, began his mission in 1555. The Polish state ceased to exist for 123 years, when it was divided between the three neighboring powers: Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poland was reborn after World War I in 1917.

Immediately after, in April of 1918, the apostolic visitor Monsignor Achille Ratti (the future Pope Pius XI) arrived in Poland, who the following year became apostolic nuncio. As a curiosity I would like to say that Monsignor Ratti received episcopal consecration in the cathedral of Warsaw from the hands of Archbishop Aleksander Kakowski, archbishop of the capital, that is why he was regarded as a «Polish bishop.»

Nuncio Ratti was very tied to Poland and made a great contribution to the rebirth of the Church in Poland and its hierarchy after the partition. Moreover, Benedict XV, aware of the importance of Polish Catholicism, decided first to recognize Poland’s sovereignty and to organize a first class nunciature in Warsaw, in other words one of the highest rank, like that of Paris, Madrid, Vienna and Berlin. Appointed archbishop of Milan, Archbishop Ratti left Poland on June 4, 1921. His successor was Archbishop Lorenzo Lauri. Monsignor Giovanni Battist
a Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) worked in Warsaw as secretary of the nunciature from June to October of 1923.
ZENIT: This means that two future Popes worked in the apostolic nunciature in Warsaw.
Archbishop Kowalczyk: Precisely. On Sept. 5, 1939, a few days after the start of World War II, the nuncio at the time, Filippo Cortesi, left the capital and never returned.
ZENIT: After the Communist interval, the history of the nunciature began again with your appointment in 1989. What were the greatest challenges you’ve had to face in these 20 years?
Archbishop Kowalczyk: First of all, I had to organize the nunciature and make it work. I did so always keeping in mind the indications of Paul VI, who said: the Holy See’s representative is the visible sign of the particular Church with Peter, adding that the local Church acts always cum Petro et sub Petro.
Two great challenges I had to address as nuncio in Poland were: the concordat and the new administrative organization of the Catholic Church in Poland and then the fitting enlargement of the headquarters of the apostolic nunciature in Poland. The advent of democracy in Poland allowed for the preparation of a document of international character — the concordat specifically — which committed the state and the Church. Today, from the perspective of the passed years, it can be said that this modern concordat worked well, so much so that it was appreciated by other Churches in Poland, which use it as model for their relations with the state.
John Paul II was so committed to the administrative restructuring of the Church in Poland because it was something necessary, even though very difficult. I think we succeeded thanks to the Pope’s prayers and the collaboration of the Polish episcopal conference.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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