Martyrdom Is the Eighth Sacrament in the Life of the Church

On December 18, 2017, Pope Francis declared Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński as Venerable, an event that went largely unnoticed outside of Poland. Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., the interwar “Rosary Priest,” was declared Venerable the same day and made headlines in the American Catholic press, but none in Poland. Cardinal Wyszyński is a national hero in Poland of nearly the same stature as Pope St. John Paul II. He was the undisputed leader of the Polish Church against the Communist regime from the 1940’s to the early years of the 1980’s.[1] Wyszyński’s prominence went international when news of his internal exile at the hands of the government earned him a cover story in Time.[2] Wyszyński’s prison diaries, written over his three years of internment from 25 October 1953 to 26 October 1956, offer insight to Wyszyński’s prayer life, his character, and his impeccable political acumen. Of special note are Wyszyński’s interactions with and thoughts about the workings of the Polish Communist regime, namely the secret police apparatus that cemented the government’s hold on daily life. Wyszyński’s three years of imprisonment opened his eyes, and in turn his readers’ eyes, to the soft terror that undercut Polish life for forty years under Communism.

Published in English in 1984, Wyszyński’s prison notes are introduced with a reverent foreword by John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia and is helpfully supplemented by maps and photographs detailing the four locations of the Primate’s imprisonment. Cardinal Krol writes as a conservative cleric of his time and with well-founded ideological concerns, demonstrating his sense of kinship with the Polish Pope.[3] Notably, Krol casts a wary eye on Znak, a circle of mostly liberal Catholic intellectuals split between ideological affinity to socialism and allegiance to the steady hand of the Apostolic Administrator of Kraków, Eugeniusz Baziak. The young priest Karol Wojtyła had friends among the Znak members and published under a pseudonym in their magazine.[4] Krol continues with a brief outline of the relationship of the Communist regime and the Church up until Wyszyński’s death on May 28, 1981, touching upon Wyszynski’s pre-war experience writing pamphlets on social justice and economic inequality in Poland.[5]

Before the beginning of the notes, the editors provide a map that shows the locations of the dilapidated monasteries that served at Wyszyński’s places of internment, each one hundreds of miles apart in the extremities of Poland. A prison calendar is also included, a chronology of the important dates of his internal exile, especially the days upon which he was transferred to different locations and officially contacted the government protesting his imprisonment.[6] Some of the events mentioned also include Wyszyński’s personal consecration to Mary and the conclusion of the draft of the Vows of Jasna Góra, a spiritual program designed to prepare Polish Catholics for the millennium celebrations of Poland’s Christianization in 1966.

Wyszyński’s diary reveals a man of keen insight, deep Polish piety, and a prodigious memory. Large sections of his prison notes are mediations on topics ranging from sin and the mercy of Christ to Wyszyński’s public role as Archbishop of Gniezno-Warsaw and the Primate of Poland. The question that immediately occurs is why Wyszyński wrote his prison notes in the first place. His answer at the very beginning of his of text is that he was doing everything he could to avoid what he anticipated as the soul-sucking monotony of prison life.[7]

The early part of the notes, at Stoczek and Prudnik Śląski, more or less follow the calendar, with meditations interspersing Wyszyński’s vivid descriptions of prison life. It is unclear when exactly many of the entries were written, though context suggests that it could not have been more than a few days after the events occurred. Wyszynski’s spiritual life shines though in these mediations. Having lived through both World Wars, Wyszyński was startlingly, at least to Western and American readers, unafraid of death or torture at the hands of his captors, though he expected neither. He admits his guilt at being the only one of seminary class to escape the concentration camps or worse during the Second World War. He considered his arrest inevitable and conceded that his captors “had been rather polite to me, really.”[8] He appreciated that his virtual abduction from his episcopal residence in the middle of the night with no idea of the final destination to be an act of mercy in a uniquely Polish understanding of the comparative value of suffering.

Wyszyński’s spirituality centered largely on Mary and his concern for the people of his archdiocese and priests is evident. One of the few books that he was allowed at his second place of internment, Stoczek, was St. Louis de Monfort’s Total Consecration to Mary, and the Primate consecrated himself and his imprisonment to Mary, embracing the language of slavery that de Monfort uses in the text.[9] Wyszyński makes at least a dozen references to Our Lady of Częstochowa and the monastery at Jasna Góra where the icon is housed. He faithfully mentions Our Lady’s feast day (August 26) all three years of his imprisonment and expounds upon the historical significance of the icon and monastery, with the footnotes filling in the larger context for the reader.[10]

The Primate’s patriotism is especially evident in his prayer for the insurgents of the Warsaw Uprising on its anniversary on August 1 in Komańcza.[11] He was equally cognizant of his public role as an archbishop and virtual head of the Polish Church, but he mourned his absence to his archdiocese. He marked every Holy Thursday with noticeable grief at his inability to dispense the sacraments and consecrate the oils of the Chrism Mass.[12] He confessed his pride in being a cardinal but also notes with disgust how his scarlet cape was taken from his residence and used in theatre performances mocking the clergy.[13] These small asides solidify for the reader the insidious harassment of the secret police. It was not enough that was the cardinal was in prison, but he had to be mocked and derided publicly as well.

Wyszyński’s text includes numerous mediations on the priesthood. The priesthood connected with the sufferings of the 20th century in a novel way for him. The totalitarian states of the 20th century showed themselves to be unconcerned with the safety and needs of the citizens. In this context, only priests can defend the citizens, the implication being that Wyszyński has taken this role upon himself for the defense of the Polish people.[14] In a very Polish vein, he went as far to say that “The eighth sacrament in the life of the Church is martyrdom.”[15] The government, however, did all they could to prevent Wyszyński from becoming the symbol of true Polish nation.

Cardinal Wyszyński established a routine in all of his places of imprisonment, even in the most isolated location at a dilapidated monastery at Stoczek Warmiński in the northeast corner of Poland. The monastery in Stoczek had little heat and boarded-up windows surrounded by trees encased in barbed wire. Water froze in sheets down the walls during the winter.[16] Upon cleaning the garden, Wyszyński found a letter from the Vatican Secretary of State, dated 1938, and addressed to an Austrian bishop, leading the cardinal to surmise correctly that Stoczek had been a place of internment for Austrian bishops after the Anschluss.[17]

The cardinal was joined by two other prisoners, Father Stanislaw Skorodecki, a young priest who ran afoul of the government for his work with young people, and Sister Maria Leonia Graczyk. It is telling about the political climate in Poland at the time that Wyszyński recounts the two as nearly hysterical upon their meeting him, swearing that they had never collaborated with the government and did nothing to deserve their imprisonment.[18] Wyszyński grew close to the two during the year at Stoczek and the year at Prudnik Śląski, with him remarking upon their relationship being united by the liturgy and intense prayer.[19] He also intuited the government’s efforts to manipulate him through Father Skorodecki and Sister Maria Leonia, which all three parried.

Wyszynski notes Skorodecki’s situation in particular, including his clear “prisoner’s mentality”[20] and the mind-games to which he was subjected by his captors, including instructions to wear a cassock at the rare visits of his father (in a separate location) but prison garb on the rarer occasions when the sickly priest was allowed medical care.[21] Wyszyński himself was repeatedly denied medical care, but was nominally allowed books and occasional letters to his family. The books he requested came only in piecemeal and his letters were read aloud to his family and then confiscated. When reply letters did come, Wyszynski found that they were crudely edited with scissors and glue.[22] Wyszynski noted all of these intimidation tactics, and named them as such.[23]

The Primate’s fortunes changed at Prudnik Sląski and Komańcza, but he was canny enough to understand the relaxing of restrictions as further attempts at manipulation. Soon after he arrived at Prudnik, letters to and from his family, including his sisters and a young nephew, came quickly and unedited, along with care packages. He was permitted to walk the muddy grounds around the monastery, whereas at Stoczek he was confined to a small garden.[24] Upon one of Wyszyński’s repeated protests to the government official in charge of Prudnik, the letters ceased and the Primate was denied the opportunity to see his father after the latter suffered a debilitating stroke in February of 1955.[25] It was fortuitous that the unpredictable tightening and loosening of restrictions upon Wyszyński and his fellow prisoners, who never enjoyed the same privileges as he, bemused rather than confused them.[26]

Isolation and internal exile were not enough for the government, but extended even to petty manipulation and carrot-sticking. Even in his clear anger at his plight, shown most notably in a discussion with the commandant of the prison over exactly what charges upon which Wyszyński was being held, the Primate never despaired at his situation, praying instead for the grace to cast away his own willfulness and to accept his imprisonment as part of his service as a priest.[27] At Komańcza, the small village and convent near the Czechoslovakian border where he spent the final year of his imprisonment in 1955-1956, Wyszyński was allowed visitors, including his father and bishops, and newspapers. He was allowed to walk around the little village, but was greatly pained, almost in mourning, at being forbidden to say Mass publicly.[28]

The most fascinating aspect of Wyszyński’s prison diary is his perception of his captors, his first real-life encounters with the foot soldiers of the Polish Communist party. His places of imprisonment were stacked with lazy, plain-clothed guards, who generally left the place in disarray and rarely bothered even to read books to pass the time.[29] None of the guards or men in charge offered their names, so Wyszyński assigned them colorful nicknames. The first commandant at Prudnik was known as “Nazi” for his blond hair and fumbling awkwardness that reminded Wyszyński of a Nazi non-commissioned officer. Nazi was aware of his nickname and did not enjoy it, but Wyszyński offered no apologies.[30]Aesculapius” was his deputy, or superintendent, who repulsed Wyszyński with his perfunctory manner and lifeless face even as he presented himself as a medical doctor.[31] At Prudnik, Wyszyński had an awkward run-in with Nazi’s successor “Katz,” an allusion to the popular nickname for Gestapo footmen, when Wyszyński realized that he was the same man whom his pet sheepdog had bitten on the night of his arrest. Katz did his best to force the Primate into recalling the incident, but the Primate perhaps wisely chose not to take the bait.[32]

Wyszyński’s impressions of his captors are not all negative, however. He notes with admiration the industriousness of an older man he called “Grandpa” who at least seemed to be Marxist true-believer based on his reading material and who attempted to clean the soot-choked furnace at Stoczek.[33] The men guarding him appeared to be little more than stooges and Wyszyński wondered aloud just how long Communism would last in Poland if these men were the supposed best and brightest, given the importance of the man that they charged with guarding.[34]

Even in his imprisonment, Wyszyński had no trouble commanding authority from his captors and he recounted in great detail his conversations with the commandants of Stoczek and Prudnik. While submitting to his imprisonment, Wyszyński never missed a chance to hector his captors about his legal status and the injustice of his imprisonment. He reminded his doctors at Prudnik of his proper title when they addressed him as “Sir.”[35] He dressed down Aesculapius, recalling his rights as a citizen under the Polish constitution and reminding the commandant that white martyrdom was bad press for the government geopolitically.[36] Wyszyński himself understood the fruitlessness of badgering of his captors, but defended himself by pointing out that he had to say something about the injustice that was being done to him. In a point that furthers Wyszyński’s incredible political and historical acumen, he recognized that history could judge him as not doing all he could for the Polish Church if he stayed silent.[37]

The majority of Wyszyński’s entries at Komańcza detail the Primate’s concerted effort at reconstructing the accusations of the press and government against him since his arrest.[38] The press denounced the Primate as unpatriotic, a crony of the Holy See among other accusations, to obfuscate Wyszyński’s removal from Warsaw.[39] He was irked in particular by the accusations thrown around by Bolesław Piasecki of PAX in the press.[40] Quietism was never an option for the Primate, but neither were unrestrained and irrational protests. In these conversations, the Primate always gives the impression of being the smartest and most astute man in the room, as can safely be assumed from the either monotonous or ludicrous responses of his interlocutors.[41] The system was dumb, but was monstrous in its power all at once.

As time went on in his diary, Wyszyński alludes that he somehow knew that he would not be in exile from his see forever. Relying on Christian hope, he knew he would be able to return home to Miodowa Street in Warsaw and he did so on October 17, 1956. In a strictly political sense, new head-of-state Władysław Gomułka had to allow the Primate back to Warsaw or risk civil unrest. Wyszyński’s captors relied upon constant manipulation, confusion, innuendo, and threats to make life as miserable as possible for the Primate outside of physical torture. They subjected his family members to the same, with even more pressure put upon his fellow prisoners. Polish Communism operated largely on subliminal terror, not as bad on the face of things as the brutal repression in places like Hungary or the USSR but in many ways worse because it was pervasive, enduring, and required the complicity of thousands. As the regime sought to do away with the human person by refusing to use names and allowing letters to family members, Cardinal Wyszyński’s Prison Notes contain the abiding eschatological hope that such rejection of basic human nature cannot endure.

[1] Wyszyński placed third in a recent poll of Poland’s most revered people, behind Pope St. John Paul and Marshal Józef Piłsudski.

[2] George Weigel, Witness to Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 120.

[3] Krol’s father was born in a village close by Pope St. John Paul II’s hometown.

[5] Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983), 7.

[6] Ibid., 8-9.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] Ibid., 117, 162, 346.

[11] Ibid., 344.

[12] Ibid., 314.

[13] Ibid., 305.

[14] Ibid., 172

[15] Ibid., 75.

[16] Ibid., 84.

[17] Ibid., 88.

[18] Ibid., 46.

[19] Ibid., 264.

[20] Ibid., 47.  Wyszyński notes that Father Stanisław always whispered and noted with precision where guards were posted and at what time around the clock. 

[21] Ibid, 183.

[22] Ibid., 86.

[23] Ibid., 102.

[24] Ibid., 156-157.

[25] Ibid., 185, 188.

[26] Ibid., 139.

[27] Ibid., 236.

[28] Ibid., 263, 315

[29] Ibid., 136.

[30] Ibid., 81.

[31] Ibid., 132-133

[32] Ibid., 117, 119.

[33] Ibid., 134.

[34] Ibid., 90, 129.

[35] Ibid., 98.

[36] Ibid., 122.

[37] Ibid., 240-241.

[38] Ibid., 332, 283-288

[39] Ibid., 289-290.

[40] Ibid., 285. PAX was an organization of Catholic laity and clergy and publishing outlet set up in 1947 by the Communists to curtail the public influence of the Church.

[41] Ibid., 80, 115, 122.

Featured Image: Stefan Wyszynski in Tygodnik Soidarnosc, taken sometime in the 1970's; Source: Wikimedia, considered PD.


Brooke Tranten

Brooke Tranten is a doctoral student in American History at Marquette University.  She holds a Master of Theological Studies in the History of Christianity from Notre Dame and a B.A. in Catholic Studies and History from the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA).  Her research interests include 20th century American Catholic history, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and 20th century Polish history. 

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