VATICAN CITY, JULY 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In a telegram sent today to the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus, Benedict XVI expressed his condolences over the death of Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek.
The cardinal, who had survived imprisonment twice by the Communist government in Russia, died this morning in Pinsk, Belarus, where he had been apostolic administrator. He was also the former Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev.
In his telegram, the Holy Father said that Cardinal Swiatek was a “generous” pastor “full of zeal.”
“I remember the courageous witness given for Christ and his Church in particularly difficult times, as also the enthusiasm spent subsequently when contributing to the journey of spiritual renewal of this country,” the Pope said.
Benedict XVI expressed his sympathy especially to Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilev, to the Byelorussian episcopate “and to the presbytery, the religious communities and all the faithful of the churches that he loved and served willingly.”
Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek is a revered figure of Catholicism in Belarus due to his heroic resistance during the Communist period. He was a survivor of the Soviet gulags, and a key figure in the reconstruction of the Catholic community after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Born on Oct. 21, 1914, in Walga (now Estonia), he was only three when his family was deported to Siberia. In 1939, he was ordained a priest in Pinsk, and barely two years later was arrested and imprisoned by the Communist authorities, although he took advantage of the confusion caused by the Nazi invasion in 1941 to escape.
In December 1944, he was imprisoned again and condemned to 10 years of forced labor in Siberia, then beyond the polar circle in Inta near Varkuta, places where it was almost impossible to come out alive.
After his release in 1954, he returned to Pinsk, where for 30 years he carried out a difficult ministry looking after a Catholic community decimated and semi-clandestine, spread over a very vast territory.
With the fall of the regime in 1989, he was appointed vicar general of Pinsk and, two years later, archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev and apostolic administrator of Pinsk. In 1994, Pope John Paul II created him cardinal.
The elderly cardinal led the reorganization of the Church in Belarus, the first ad limina visit and the first diocesan pilgrimage to Rome in almost 100 years. He also led in the struggle for religious liberty in post-Communist Belarus and was elected the first president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus.
On Sept. 27, 2004, John Paul II conferred on Cardinal Swiatek the prize “Witness of the Faith” (Fidei testis) of the Paul VI Institute, in recognition of his heroism in living the faith.
Despite his advanced age, Cardinal Swiatek remained at the head of the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev until he was 91, when Benedict XVI accepted his resignation.
He remained the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pinsk until late last month.