Marxist-influenced ideas affect American lives, often under the banner of “Woke.” Some Americans who do not enjoy Facebook and Twitter censoring their speech and schoolboards indoctrinating their children have turned for inspiration to heroes of the anti-communist resistance from the former Soviet Empire. “What would Solzhenitsyn do?” they ask, or, “What would Vaclav Havel and the members of Charter 77 do?” In 2020, Rod Dreher published Live Not By Lies, arguing that contemporary American “Christian dissidents” could and should learn from past Eastern European dissidents.
It was with that approach in mind that I began to read Love and Social Justice: Reflections on Society, a collection of short essays by Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. It was translated by Filip Mazurczak and published by Arouca Press in 2021. It is 554 pages long.
It’s difficult to communicate to Americans the overwhelming stature of Stefan Wyszynski. Some background will help. What would come to be called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a relatively large, wealthy nation in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. In 1410, for example, Poland, Lithuania, and allies were the victors in possibly the largest battle in Medieval Europe, at Grunwald. In 1683, Poles, under King Jan Sobieski, played a key role in defeating the Turks at Vienna, a battle that Bernard Lewis singles out as stopping the thousand-year advance of jihad. Poland prided itself on being a “state without stakes,” where religious freedom was guaranteed and practiced. Largely Catholic Poland was home to Jews, Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims.
In the late eighteenth century, though, Poland, weakened by wars on all fronts, was partitioned by its neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Conquerors slated Polish identity for extinction. Poles fought back, in one doomed uprising after another, for example in 1830 and 1863. Mass executions followed and exiles were marched to Siberia.
It wasn’t until the end of World War I and the Versailles Treaty that, in 1918, Poland regained status as a nation state. Independence would not last. Nazi Germany and its ally, the Soviet Union, invaded Poland in 1939. Soviets massacred Poles, for example at Katyn and in the NKVD Prison Massacres, and deported over a million Poles, many to the Gulag. The Nazi occupation of Poland was the worst in Nazi held territory. Poles were displaced, tortured, massacred, enslaved, and subjected to medical experimentation. Polish churches, museums, and manor houses were destroyed. Polish Jews and their material culture were wiped out. In spite of this, Poles participated in the Home Army, one of the largest resistance armies in occupied Europe, and also in Zegota, the only government-supported group in occupied Europe expressly formed to aid Jews.
At the end of the war, in 1945, Poland was again invaded by its ancient eastern nemesis, Russia. Again, there was fighting between Polish anti-communists and Russian and Polish communists. Polish freedom fighters were, again, captured, tortured, exhibited in show trials, executed, and buried in unmarked graves. Poles would continue to resist Soviet communism in one popular uprising after another, for example in 1956, 1968, 1970, and in the Solidarity movement.
During periods of foreign, hostile domination, Polish identity found a home in the Catholic Church. The identification of the church with Polish identity was so strong that one symbol of this identification was a devout Jewish student, Michal Landy. His father wrote of Landy, “He was particularly fond of Polish history, which was not taught in schools at that time … he was outraged by the indecent violations of Poland’s freedom by its neighbors and felt hatred towards Russia to the point of fanaticism. He saw his fortune in the Homeland’s fortune and its Rebirth.”
In April, 1861, there was a patriotic demonstration in Warsaw. Demonstrators visited the graves of Polish Catholic and Polish Jewish patriots. Rabbi Izaak Kramsztyk, who would eventually be exiled to Siberia, gave a “fiery speech.” The crowd marched onward, a monk carrying a cross leading the way. Cossacks shot the monk dead. At that point, Michal Landy, a devout Jewish teenager, picked up the cross and lead the crowd, holding the cross high. He was also killed. Polish-Jewish artist Artur Szyk’s illustration of this event depicts a Jewish youth with payot, kippah, and tallit holding high a Catholic cross and leading Poles carrying an image of the Black Madonna.
Put all these ingredients together and you get certain characteristics associated with Poles. There is a Polish sense of heroism, of one’s ancestors having been men and women who fought and died “For your freedom and ours.” Martyrdom is valued. Heroes are commemorated. Any given Pole might feel that his or her actions, seen or unseen, large or small, are of great significance. Suffering has greater meaning. Poland as an ideal, something outside of oneself, is worth fighting and dying for. The entire Polish narrative is plugged into both the Old and New Testaments. Polish art, poetry, and song might cite enslaved Israelites or Poland as the Christ of Nations. Indeed, the National Catholic Register wrote in 2021 that Stefan Wyszynski “was Moses to the communist pharaoh for 33 years as head of the Church in Poland.”
Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981) was born when Poland was still divided between colonizing, hostile, foreign powers. His family were szlachta, that is, members of the noble estate, though they were not wealthy. He was born in Zuzela, a tiny village in the Russian empire. His mother died when he was nine. He was sent away to school, and, though he was ill – he’d had tuberculosis and typhus – he was a priest by the time he was 23. He received a doctorate and traveled and studied throughout Europe. Back in Poland, he was assigned to pastor laborers.
“Father Wyszynski’s preoccupation with labor and agricultural problems quickly led to him being dubbed ‘the worker priest.'” Against the interests of his szlachta class, he supported land reform for Poland’s still semi-feudal economy. Wyszynski took his students, future priests, “to factories so they could see the horrible working conditions, not very different from those of Charles Dickens’ London, in the previous century, in which their future parishioners worked … he organized a Christian Workers’ University … he educated workers about their rights and the dangers of Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism” writes Filip Mazurczak. Wyszynski helped workers acquire such basic amenities as soap.
In September, 1939, When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia both attacked Poland, Wyszynski was teaching at the seminary in Włocławek. Blessed Bishop Michal Kozal told Wyszynski to flee. Wyszynski had published articles critical of Nazism. Wyszynski obeyed. Kozal himself was one of many priests subsequently arrested, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered by Nazis. Kozal died in the Dachau concentration camp, the final resting place of hundreds of Polish priests and thousands of other clergy. Einsatzgruppe III, as part of the Intelligenzaktion, that is, the Nazi liquidation of educated Poles, committed mass murders of priests and seminarians in Wloclawek.
During the war, Wyszynski adopted the nom de guerre Radwan, the name of a medieval knight. While continuously hiding from the Gestapo, he taught blind children, and served as chaplain in a hospital and for the Home Army. He aided a hiding Jewish family, and exhorted others to do the same. When the war ended, he took up his duties as a priest in a materially and psychologically devastated country. He was named, in short order, bishop, cardinal, and then primate of Poland.
Between 1947-1953, communists carried out mass trials and imprisonment of Polish clergy. Eight bishops, one thousand priests, and one thousand nuns were imprisoned. Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson reported in Parliament that 37 priests were killed. Wyszynski preached, “We teach that it is proper to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. But when Caesar sits himself on the altar, we respond curtly: He may not.” In other words, Wyszynski used Jesus’ words to recognize the separation of church and state. In this understanding, the church would not interfere with the communist government, but it would never allow the communist government to trespass on the church’s domain. Wyszynski was arrested – at night, of course – in 1953. His dog bit one of the men arresting him; a nun tended to the man’s wound with iodine. Wyszynski was a prisoner for the next three years. No one was allowed to know his whereabouts.
Of his imprisonment, Wyszynski wrote, “To suffer abuse for the name of Jesus. I had feared that I would never share this honor, which had befallen my seminary classmates. They had all experienced concentration camps and prisons. The majority of them had lost their lives there; several returned as invalids … Something would have been wrong if I had not experienced imprisonment. What was happening to me was very appropriate.” In all of this, there is humor. “In my official household, my impending arrest seemed so certain that even the chauffeur was on the lookout for a new job.”
In his imprisonment, Wyszynski took inspiration from past heroes, specifically from “Mieczyslaw Cardinal Ledochowski, who was imprisoned by the Prussians from 1874-76 for defying orders not to use Polish [language] in church schools, pastoral letters or the catechism.”
Cardinal Ledochowski had lived during Prussia’s anti-Catholic and anti-Polish kulturkampf, or “culture war.” The kulturkampf’s goal can be summed up in a quote by Bismarck. “If we want to survive, we can only exterminate [Polish people]; the wolf, too, cannot help having been created by God as he is, but people shoot him for it if they can.” Cardinal Ledochowski’s insistence, on pain of imprisonment, on using Polish language in church schools was an act of resistance against a culturally genocidal force that targeted both Catholic faith and Polish identity. Ledochowski was a direct inspiration to Wyszynski.
John Cardinal Krol wrote the forward to Wyszynski’s published prison diaries. Krol said, “He was deeply aware of the unchanging goals and changing tactics of atheistic Communism.” That is, Marxist tactics would change form in attempts to hoodwink the naïve, but this ideology would always remain true to its ultimate goals, and never stop being a force to be reckoned with, no matter what guise it wore at any given moment.
In 1966, Wyszynski hosted a triumphant nationwide celebration of a thousand years of Catholicism in Poland. In 1978, he witnessed the election of his protegee, Karol Wojtyla, to the papacy. There is a famous photo by photojournalist Arturo Mari. It is 1978 and Wyszynski, as per custom, is attempting to kneel before the new Pope John Paul II. John Paul II will not have it; he recognizes Wyszynski’s stature. He lifts Wyszynski up and embraces him. The moment is now the subject of at least two statues (here and here). Pope John Paul II wrote,
“This Polish pope … would not be on Peter’s chair were it not for your faith which did not retreat before prison and suffering. Were it not for your heroic hope, your unlimited trust in the Mother of the Church! Were it not for Jasna Gora, and the whole period of the history of the Church in our country, together with your ministry as Bishop and Primate! … A keystone is what forms the arch, what reflects the strength of the foundations of the building. The Cardinal Primate shows the strength of the foundation of the Church, which is Jesus Christ … The Cardinal Primate has been teaching for over thirty years that he owes this strength to Mary, the Mother of Christ. We all know well that it is possible, thanks to Mary, to make the strength of the foundation that is Christ shine out, and effectively to become a keystone of the Church.”
These statements by Pope John Paul II are testimony to Wyszynski’s power, and his source of power. Poles like Wojtyla and Wyszynski feel that they are part of something larger than themselves. They are inspired by the heroic sacrifice of past Polish heroes. The reference to Jasna Gora – the mountain of light – is to the site of a seventeenth-century siege by invading Swedes and German mercenaries. Legend has it that monks at Jasna Gora’s fourteenth-century monastery were able to repel the Swedes and Germans thanks to their miraculous image of the Black Madonna, an image painted by Saint Luke on the table of the Last Supper. Poles like Wojtyla and Wyszynski believe that their lives are part of a story that reaches back to Biblical times, and has immortal import.
It is not the argument of this review that one must be Catholic to perform heroic deeds. Rather, it is the argument of this review that a traditional narrative strengthened and inspired Wyszynski, Wojtyla, and other Polish heroes like Jan Karski. In the West today we are rejecting our traditional narratives of patriotism and faith, and we have yet to develop new narratives that strengthen us. This is to our personal, national, and culture-wide detriment.
Wyszynski died of cancer in 1981, just two weeks after Pope John Paul II was shot by an attempted assassin. Some believe that Wyszynski asked God to take him rather than Wojtyla.
The lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth are the ancestral homelands of the vast majority of Jews in the United States; Polish kings invited Jews and other religious minorities to live in their lands. This state was known as the “paradise of the Jews.” In interwar Poland, Polish anti-Semites were a powerful political minority. During the war, Nazis built Auschwitz and Treblinka on Polish soil. Some Poles did betray Jews and profit from the Holocaust. On the other hand, the largest group of “Righteous Gentiles” recognized by Yad Vashem are Poles. This is a complicated history that cannot be adequately summed up in one paragraph.
Translator Mazurczak writes that anti-clerical forces have worked to depict Wyszynski as an anti-Semite. Mazurczak rejects this charge, citing Wyszynski’s risking his own life by actively participating in the hiding of Jews, which was a death-penalty offense in Nazi-occupied Poland, his exhortations to Polish Catholics to aid Jews, his support for Israel, a support which ran contrary to the Soviet position, and his condemnation of the 1968 communist anti-Semitic campaign. “The chief rabbi of Poland, Zew Wawa Morejno, publicly thanked the cardinal for his defense of the Jews twice, in 1968 and 1971,” Mazurczak says.
Love and Social Justice: Reflections on Society, the new collection of Wyszynski’s writings, will be a valuable resource to English-speakers interested in Wyszynski. The translation by Filip Mazurczak is flawless. The prose reads smoothly. The book is not, though, the first book a general reader should turn to. It is an exhaustive reference anthology on a narrow topic, rather than a biography or vivid description of Wyszynski’s interior life. For a first book about Wyszynski, a better choice would be A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski.
Love and Social Justice is, for the most part, 554 pages of Stefan Wyszynski supporting papal documents: Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, and Pope Pius XI’s 1931 follow-up encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. These encyclicals were a response to Marxism. Rerum Novarum addresses “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” It outlines a Catholic approach to workers, employers, the state, the church, capitalism, and communism.
Reading Love and Social Justice, one is reminded that one of the most persistent and overwhelming themes of the Bible is “don’t be greedy; take care of the poor.” This theme runs from Genesis to Revelation. It is stated as words from God’s mouth, from the hand of the prophets, in proverbs and psalms, and in illustrative anecdotes. This theme is emphasized by citing the terrifying destruction that God visits on those who are greedy and who do not take care of the poor. Wyszynski quotes this material extensively. He reminds the reader of more famous passages addressing proper treatment of the poor and of laborers from Luke and less obvious lines from Deuteronomy, James, Sirach, and Proverbs.
Another emphasis of LASJ is one that the reader has perhaps never paid much attention to. The Bible praises labor and praises laborers. Wyszynski insists that this praise of labor as good for mankind is distinct from previous and surrounding Pagan cultures in the Ancient Mediterranean, who, he claims, regarded labor and laborers with disdain. At least one modern historian agrees with Wyszynski on this point.
The Bible’s respect for work and workers is reflected in Jesus’ status as a carpenter. God himself is depicted as “resting” on the seventh day. Wyszynski sees an omnipotent God’s “rest” as a poetic way of relating God, the creator of the universe, with the humble laborer who also needs rest, and, in Judaism and Christianity, receives that rest on the Sabbath. “My father is working still, and I am working,” Jesus says, in John. “God is a plowman, gardener, and owner of his vineyard,” Wyszynski writes. “Of old, Thou didst lay the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands,” Wyszynski quotes Psalm 102. “We are God’s fellow workers,” says 1 Corinthians.
Wyszynski wrote these pieces during World War II. He speaks of the war and Nazism mostly in veiled terminology. He wants to make larger points, universal and eternal points, about how, as he sees it, Catholic teaching lifts people up. Conversely, he argues, turning pleasure, profit, or national identity into gods drags humanity down into the depths of hell.
Though Wyszynski was writing eighty years ago, many of his sentences could have been written today. “Scientific progress has pushed a different kind of elite to the forefront: scientists who have much knowledge, but often don’t know how to live; people whose adulation of reason has lead them to completely destroy their will. Outstanding experts who are focused on the narrow fragment of life they study but do not perceive the deeper meaning of the world and its ultimate meaning.” He responds to these people with Revelation 3:17 and Jude 12-13. Similarly, Wyszynski uses Bible passages utterly to condemn the racism promulgated by Nazism. There is no “master race;” he insists. All are equal children of God, as declared in the multiple Biblical passages he quotes.
In addition to his main themes about work and the marketplace, Wyszynski emphasizes the sacredness of the family as society’s foundation. At one point Wyszynski assumes the voice of a totalitarian hectoring parents of children. “These children are not yours! You gave them life? You are only functionaries of the state!” This very attitude has been spoken in recent years, for example by Melissa Harris Perry, formerly of MSNBC, currently on National Public Radio; see here. “The end of the family means the downfall of society,” Wyszynski writes.
Wyszynski insists that Catholics must be Catholic in public as well as in private. The Catholic “cannot have two consciences, a Catholic one for private life, and a non-Catholic one for public matters,” he says, quoting August Hlond. This statement reminds the reader of contemporary debates around public Catholic figures Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Amy Coney Barrett. “Whenever secular authority enters into the realm of ecclesiastical affairs and violates the freedom of religion and conscience, it is evidence that a new wave of paganization is approaching,” warns Wyszynski. He certainly understood Nazism as a pagan phenomenon, but his words are as powerful in our own era as in his.
Wyszynski seems to anticipate recent shortages of medical equipment, drugs, and computer chips, caused by broken supply chains during COVID. “The means of production and transportation are constantly multiplied so that merchandise is sent to foreign, distant peoples while one’s own neighbor, who is nearby and needs goods that are sent over the hills and across the sea, is completely ignored.” Wyszynski supports a conservative principle. Power is best exercised closest to its impact. “Economic life must be above all monitored by the good of those closest to us: our families, co-workers, and compatriots … The Christian state cannot engage in exports at the expense of its own hungry citizens.”
In another passage, Wyszynski seems to be looking into the future and seeing the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. “In Warsaw, there were banks that were several months behind in paying their workers so that their directors and owners could be paid to make up for their financial losses. Is it not evidence of a complete lack of morality when, after the bankruptcy of one factory in Lodz, where 6,500 workers had lost their jobs, the insolvency administrators were each paid 220,000 zlotys for two weeks of work?”
Wyszynski does not support redistribution that demands nothing of recipients. He quotes 1 Timothy 5:8. “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Given the book’s limited focus and its length, and also given that the book is an anthology of short pieces that were possibly not planned to evolve into a book-length work, it is inevitable that there is a great deal of repetition in LASJ. Were the contents edited, they might fit neatly into a book that is a fraction of the size of the current volume. Again, though, researchers will appreciate the collection, under one cover, of so many of Wyszynski’s pieces on such an important topic.
The style of each piece is exhortation. Wyszynski adjures the reader to contribute to the creation of an idealized, Catholic vision of how work plays out in a righteous world. LASJ is not so much a “how to” manual as a “This is what you must do” manual. Readers who don’t like to be preached to will not be able to read this book.
Lech Walesa said that Wyszynski was the most impressive man he had ever met, and Walesa had met many impressive people. I never had the honor of meeting Stefan Wyszynski, but through this book and other sources about him, I feel as if I had. “Meeting” him in this way will have an impact on my life. He has become, for me, what previous heroes and role models were for him as he faced the tremendous difficulties he faced in his life. He was known as the “iron cardinal.” He exercised that power without ever wielding a material weapon. His strength was in his mind, his heart, his faith, his love for his country and its people, and his commitment to service.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.