A Surprising Choice for Krakow

Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski is charismatic and easily mingles with the faithful, including those living on the margins of the Church. Yet he is also a deeply orthodox culture warrior unafraid of vocally expressing unpopular truths.

When Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz turned 75 in 2014, Pope Francis extended his tenure. The conventional wisdom was that the pope wanted to keep Dziwisz in Krakow until World Youth Day was held in the city last year. In recent months, many Poles impatiently waited to learn who would lead the diocese whose pastor was once Pope St. John Paul II. There were many rumored candidates, but nobody had expected the appointment of Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Lodz. This choice is not only surprising because of the fact that Jędraszewski is not a Cracovian. Above all, he is not a typical “Francis bishop”; as a solid defender of orthodox, yet an erudite open to dialogue, he is reminiscent of the best appointments of the Ratzinger era.

Like Pope Francis, Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski is charismatic and easily mingles with the faithful, including those living on the margins of the Church. Yet he is also a deeply orthodox culture warrior unafraid of vocally expressing unpopular truths. In December, he was appointed as Archbishop of Krakow and on January 28th, this past Saturday, his installation Mass took place in Wawel Cathedral.

One of the most devout dioceses in the world

Home to 1.5 million baptized Catholics, the Archdiocese of Krakow is arguably one of the most important sees not only in Europe but in the universal Church as well. It is certainly vibrant. Each year on a Sunday in October, the Catholic bishops of Poland conduct a “counting of the faithful.” In each of the country’s more than 10,500 parishes, altar boys count the number of faithful present at Mass. According to the most recent such study, 39.8% of Polish Catholics nationwide attended Mass, while 17% received Holy Communion (the latter statistic is lower because the notion that one cannot receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin before seeking the Sacrament of Penance is still prevalent in Poland). The Archdiocese of Krakow’s statistics were significantly above the national average, at 52.2% and 19.2%, respectively. In the Diocese of Tarnow, a suffragan diocese of Krakow, the results were an impressive 70.5% and 24.8%, which likely makes it one of the most devout dioceses in the world (and probably the most pious in Europe).

However, the greatest significance of the Archdiocese of Krakow to the universal Church is that between 1962 and 1978 it was headed by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, who on October 16, 1978 was elected Pope John Paul II and whose more than quarter-century-long pontificate would transform the Church in so many ways. Many of his important contributions to the universal Church had their root in Krakow. For example, World Youth Day was inspired by Karol Wojtyła’s youth ministry at St. Florian’s parish. It was in Krakow that Karol Wojtyła first became acquainted with the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, which inspired him so deeply that he considered becoming a Carmelite. During the German occupation of Poland, Wojtyła was an actor in the Rhapsodic Theater, which sought to oppose the occupier by promoting Polish culture. It was then that the future pope honed his numerous talents as an actor, which proved useful when he would bring the Gospel to more people than anyone since St. Paul. Meanwhile, it was in Krakow and especially his hometown of Wadowice where Karol Wojtyła had Jewish friends; later, as pope, John Paul II would revolutionize the Church’s relationship with Judaism through a series of truly historic words and gestures.

It was during Cardinal Wojtyła’s leadership of the Krakow Archdiocese that the battle to build a church at Nowa Huta was fought and eventually won. While Marx and Engels predicted that religion would die out once a classless communist society was founded, the opposite happened in communist-era Poland. In 1949, Poland’s Kremlin puppets decided to build a centrally planned model socialist realist district called Nowa Huta (“New Steelworks”) in the rural areas surrounding Krakow. A steel mill named after Vladimir Lenin (who spent part of his exile hiding in Krakow) employing thousands of people was to be built there. A church, however, would not be built. There already were a couple of historic churches in Nowa Huta, but they were not enough to cater to the needs of the 200,000 inhabitants of the new neighborhood. Poland’s atheistic, communist authorities refused to give the archdiocese a permit to built a new church. Yet Nowa Huta’s inhabitants fought for one, and their shepherd supported them. The faithful erected a cross without a permit and celebrated Mass around it. The communists constantly tore down the cross, yet Cardinal Wojtyła ensured that it was replaced each time. By 1967, the authorities caved in, and Wojtyła consecrated the Lord’s Ark church in 1977. 

Pope St. John Paul II wasn’t the only notable archbishop of Krakow. In 1079, the archbishop of Krakow St. Stanislaus was killed while celebrating Mass upon the orders of King Boleslaus II the Bold, whom he had excommunicated, probably for his sexual promiscuity and cruelty. Local devotion to St. Stanislaus remains strong to this day.

More recently, Cardinal Adam Sapieha (1911-1951) went down in history as a vocal and active defender of the Polish nation and of persecuted Jews during the German occupation of Poland. The recently deceased Cardinal Franciszek Macharski (1978-2005), who succeeded Cardinal Wojtyła as Archbishop of Krakow when the latter was elected Bishop of Rome, is fondly remembered by many Cracovians for his humility and aid to the suffering. When martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, Macharski appealed for the release of imprisoned Solidarity activists and organized collections to support their families. He often organized charity campaigns on behalf of the poor and was a strong supporter of the St. Brother Albert Chmielowski Foundation, which provides a home for many people with intellectual disabilities. 

While Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz (2005-2017), secretary to Pope St. John Paul II of 39 years, lacked the charisma of his predecessors, his ministry was eventful. Above all, he hosted the wildly successful World Youth Day last year in Krakow. Between two and three million pilgrims from almost all the world’s countries attended the closing Mass in Brzegi. Cardinal Dziwisz also presided over another papal visit: that of Pope Benedict XVI in 2006; almost one million faithful attended the Mass in Krakow’s Błonie meadow. Meanwhile, Cardinal Dziwisz presided over the construction and consecration of the St. John Paul II Center in Krakow; thousands of pilgrims attend Masses in the shrine devoted to Krakow’s favorite son on any given Sunday.

A surprising choice: a culture warrior

Thus Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski is now in charge of a very important diocese. This decision was a major surprise to everyone; above all, this was unexpected because the new archbishop is not a Cracovian. He was born in Poznan in 1949, and previously had served as the Archbishop of Lodz.

Some Polish progressive Catholic pundits grumbled upon the nomination of Archbishop Jędraszewski. They had hoped for someone open to dialogue (genuinely “progressive” bishops in the mold of Cardinal Walter Kasper or Cardinal Blse Cupich simply don’t exist in Poland), but Jędraszewski had made himself known as a culture warrior. For example, in the fall of 2016 several liberal-minded Catholic magazines in Poland engaged in the “Let’s give each other a sign of peace” (Przekażmy sobie znak pokoju) campaign, intended to foster dialogue between the Catholic Church and LGBT activists, despite the extreme anti-Catholicism of the latter. The organizers of the campaign officially claimed that they did not question Church teaching, but instead wanted to search for dialogue with LGBT activists and battle discrimination against homosexuals. However, as anywhere else in the world, Poland’s LGBT activists are filled with a pathological hatred for Catholicism. Meanwhile, in a video published by the Campaign Against Homophobia, a Polish LGBT NGO known for its anti-Catholicism, one of the campaign’s organizers, a progressive Catholic journalist, says: “Despite whatever the Catechism says, I cannot stand in front of a homosexual person and tell him or her: ‘We recommend therapy or the rest of your life in chastity and loneliness. We just can’t accept your lifestyle and the fact that you want a partner of the same sex.’”

Archbishop Jędraszewski was a strong opponent of this attempt at watering down the Church’s teaching. The three-member presidium of the Polish Bishops Conference, which includes Jędraszewski, issued a communiqué criticizing this campaign. The letter stated that Catholics couldn’t take part in the campaign, while emphasizing that the Church respects homosexuals: “Respect for the dignity of each person cannot go hand in hand with respect for homosexual acts themselves. They are objectively morally wrong and thus can never be accepted by the Church. The same goes for the postulates of some to make homosexual and heterosexual relationships equal in the law. Such postulates are always harmful for society and for the individual, especially during today’s deep crisis of the family.”

Meanwhile, when Poland’s previous government began to subsidize in vitro treatments (the current conservative government has ceased doing so), Archbishop Jędraszewski said that IVF is an assault on the dignity of the child, woman, and man. He cited the statistics of Poland’s Ministry of Health: “51,000 embryos were created for the in vitro procedure. Only 8,000 ended in successful pregnancies, while the number of children born from these pregnancies was 3,600.” He furthermore suggested that infertile couples adopt.

Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski new Archbishop of Krakow (Flickr © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

When last fall a group of leftists organized protests against making Poland’s abortion laws more pro-life, Archbishop Jędraszewski organized a Mass in the Lodz cathedral to pray “for the right to one’s conscience and light of the Holy Spirit for all those in Poland responsible for deciding about the legal protection of human life from conception to natural death.” He asked Lodz’s faithful to come to the cathedral dressed in white, the color of purity; those who did not come in white were given white garments by seminarians standing in the cathedral. Even the leftist Gazeta Wyborcza, the main media supporter of the pro-abortion protests, acknowledged that “on Monday at noon [sic] the cathedral was filled with the faithful.” A civic initiative proposing the liberalization of abortion law in the first twelve weeks of a pregnancy (which, it should be noted, received less than half the number of signatures that the Polish initiative proposing a complete abortion ban) was called Ratujmy kobiety (“Save the Women”). During the pro-life Mass, Archbishop Jędraszewski made reference to this committee: “‘Save the women?’ From what? From a law that wouldn’t allow them to kill their own children?”

Acquainted with secularism, serious about real dialogue

Thus it seems likely that in the coming years Archbishop Jędraszewski will be the whipping boy of Poland leftist media, just as in neighboring Germany Cardinal Ratzinger, the panzerkardinal, was once the symbol of obscurantism for Der Spiegel and likeminded publications. Yet Archbishop Jędraszewski is not some bigoted simpleton. Like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he has studied the secularist ideologies of the contemporary world, and knows them well. During the (by all accounts, tedious) process of counting votes during the second conclave of 1978, Cardinal Wojtyła was supposedly reading a Marxist textbook. John Paul II’s thorough knowledge of Marxism was part of what made him such a formidable and successful opponent of communism. Likewise, Jędraszewski’s licentiate in theology was on “The Problems of the Person in the Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel.” In 1977, he received a licentiate in philosophy at Rome’s Gregorian in “Paul Riceour’s Philosophy of the Religious Symbol.” The future archbishop’s doctorate was on “Intersubjective Relations in the Philosophy of Levinas,” and his habilitation dealt with “Jean-Paul Sartre and Emmanuel Levinas: In Search of a New Humanism – An Analytical-Comparative Study.” 

Thus Archbishop Jędraszewski is very well acquainted with the secular philosophies of our age. Yet he is by no means a bookish theoretician. He actively goes out into the secular world to preach the Word of God.

As noted, the national level of Mass attendance in Poland stands at 39.8% and participation in Holy Communion is 17%. In the Archdiocese of Lodz, however, it is much lower, only 26.6% and 11.8%, respectively. Lodz is a working-class industrial city, known in the nineteenth century for the Dickensian conditions in its factories, which were captured in two famous novels by Nobel Prize-winning writers: Władysław Reymont’s The Promised Land and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Brother’s Ashkenazi. In many parishes of Poland’s third-largest city, Mass attendance is even lower than in the diocese. Archbishop Jędraszewski, who headed the Archdiocese of Lodz from 2012 until last week, has gone out into the peripheries and spread the Word.

Since 2013, just after being named the Archbishop of Lodz by Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Jędraszewski launched an initiative called “Dialogues in the Cathedral.” It proved extremely popular. With this initiative, anyone could send an email to Archbishop Jędraszewski asking about an aspect of the faith. Once a month, the archbishop would try to answer them at open meetings in the cathedral. The topics have included: sexual identity, the status of the divorced and remarried, atheism, consecrated life, the Eucharist, the Church and politics, marital fidelity, and more. Many questions were challenging, yet the archbishop always answered in a calm way. In one of the best known such encounters, a man who presented himself as an atheist claimed that he had lost his faith upon seeing the cruelties of the Old Testament and inconsistencies of the Bible with the theory of evolution. Jędraszewski respectfully gave a detailed explanation that the Church doesn’t take a literalist view of the Scripture, and that the Church never had problems with accepting Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory.

Time will tell if Jędraszewski will lead Krakow like he did in Lodz. Last year’s World Youth Day awakened many new evangelization initiatives and communities in Krakow; it remains to be seen if Jędraszewski will encourage their growth. However, the first signs are encouraging. At a press conference, he said that if Cracovians will want “Dialogues in the Cathedral” to be held in the city, then he will organize them as well (except that they will take place in St. Anne’s Church, considered by many to be Poland’s most beautiful Baroque church), rather than in the Wawel Cathedral). As a sign of his openness to encounter, after his installation Mass Archbishop Jędraszewski invited ordinary lay faithful for lunch to the bishops’ palace where the future Pope St. John Paul II once resided and had a catering company feed 1,700 people.

Nearly four years of bishops named by Pope Francis have yielded a bumper crop of many progressive-minded bishops who eschew the culture wars. However, with his nomination of Marek Jędraszewski as Archbishop of Krakow, the pope has made a strong defender of the natural law and of Europe’s Christian roots the head of an important diocese that has yielded a recent pope and many saints and blesseds. This cannot be the result of Francis’ ignorance; he recently paid a five-day visit to Poland, and by all accounts was impressed by the vitality of Polish Catholicism. It is believed that, like St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, Francis sees Poland as having the potential to awaken Europe from its lethargy and revive the Old Continent’s religious roots. We will likely never know why Francis chose a man so unlike many of his favorite bishops and cardinals to lead such an important see. What is obvious, however, is that those who would like Poland to go the nihilistic post-Catholic route of Ireland, for instance, will for the next several years face a formidable intellectual challenge in the person of Archbishop Jędraszewski.

About Filip Mazurczak 23 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is the assistant editor of the European Conservative and a correspondent for the National Catholic Register. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including First Things, The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, and Poland's Wprost weekly. He studied at Creighton University and the George Washington University.