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Fr. Maciej Zięba, O.P. (1954-2020) 

John Paul II believed that Father Maciej was explaining the Polish pope to Poles as the Polish pope wanted to be explained.

Father Maciej Zięba, OP, priest and author, died in his native Wrocław, Poland, on December 31, 2020. (Image: Wikipedia)

A wretched year came to a sorrowful end when Father Maciej Zięba, OP, died in his native Wrocław, Poland, on December 31. The birthplace of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wrocław was also the home of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who grew up there as Edith Stein when the city was known as Breslau. Unlike those great Christian witnesses, Maciej Zięba was not a martyr; but he, too, gave his life for Christ and the Church, and he bore more than his share of suffering in doing so.  

His life was dramatically changed by John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. Hearing the pope’s eloquent summons to Poles to reject the communist culture of the lie by reclaiming the truth about themselves as a nation, the young university student of physics thought, “We might have to live and die under communism. But I can live without being a liar.” Opportunities to act on that determination multiplied when the Solidarity movement was born in the fall of 1980. Maciej Zięba quickly became involved and worked with Tadeusz Mazowiecki (who would become contemporary Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in 1989) on Tygodnik Solidarność, one of the movement’s principal publications. 

In those turbulent years Zięba also heard a vocational call to religious life and the priesthood. Entering the Polish province of the Order of Preachers in 1981, he was ordained in 1987. Eleven years later he was elected provincial, and under his leadership the Polish Dominicans became one of the most dynamic religious communities in the post-conciliar Church. While he was very much a public personality, intensely involved in cultural, political, and ecclesiastical debates, Father Zięba understood himself first and foremost as a vowed religious and a priest – one who knew that the cloistered Dominican sisters whose contemplative vocation he nurtured were (as he once put it) the “spiritual reactor core” of the Polish Dominican province.   

His lodestar was John Paul II, whose affection for him was displayed by the pope’s always using the friendliest diminutive form of Zięba’s Christian name in their correspondence. Father Zięba repaid his hero’s regard by working tirelessly to make John Paul’s thought and pastoral vision come alive in Polish Catholicism. That was no simple task. Poland’s overwhelming emotional investment in its greatest son tended to prevent the Church from grappling with the originality and depth of his teaching. And in a post-totalitarian world, the habits of clerical authoritarianism that helped Polish Catholicism survive Nazism and communism could be obstacles to pastoral creativity and evangelization.  

That John Paul II believed that Father Maciej was explaining the Polish pope to Poles as the Polish pope wanted to be explained was demonstrated when Zięba played a leading role in developing the themes for the Pope’s triumphant Polish pilgrimage in June 1997. The previous papal pilgrimage in 1991 had been less well-prepared and the results were somewhat disappointing. That was emphatically not the case in 1997, as John Paul laid out a compelling vision of the Church’s role in creating the vibrant, truth-centered civil society and culture essential to democracy – and expressed that vision in words crafted in no small part by Father Zięba.  

We worked in close harness for almost 30 years and Father Maciej’s assistance was invaluable as I was preparing the two volumes of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. There were dark nights along the pathways of our friendship. Father Zięba’s physical suffering from various worn-out joints, and his suffering from the cancer that finally killed him, were perhaps less intense than the spiritual suffering he experienced on learning that once-trusted friends had been doubling as informants for the communist secret police in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in the depths of those dark nights, he remained a man of faith, whose hope was centered on Christ’s capacity to make all things new – including the brokenness of our lives. 

As much as I shall miss my friend, my brother in Christ, and my comrade-in-arms in various great causes, I also mourn his loss to the Polish Church. Maciej Zięba’s was a Catholic voice of singular insight, clarity, and good sense in an increasingly fragmented and polarized Polish society. He was also Polish Catholicism’s most creative interpreter of what John Paul II’s thought can mean for 21st-century Polish public and pastoral life. My hope, which he would have shared, is that the successor generation we trained will increasingly step forward to bring John Paul’s vision alive in both Church and society.   

May his memory be a blessing – and an inspiration.  


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About George Weigel 330 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

2 Comments

  1. Nice tribute George Weigel. Respectful farewell to Fr. Maciej Zięba. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord and let your perpetual light shine upon the departed soul.

  2. I’m such an ignoramus! I attended Mass almost every weekday in Fr Maciej’s parish and once, in all innocence of Who He Was had lunch with him and some other visitors (after being given a tour of the Dominican church in Wrocław, where I’ve lived for nearly three decades). I vaguely had the idea he was the superior in the Dominican community, but no idea in any encounter that he was what might be termed ‘somebody.’ A gracious parish priest with some difficulty walking was all I took note of. I’ve got to read the local press more… Eternal rest give to him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. And may Poland, which has wandered so very far from its faith in the past thirty years, swiftly return to a deep love and reverence for Holy Mother Church and universal practice of the sacraments. St John Paul II pray for Poland. St Wojciech (patron of Fr Maciej’s parish), pray for Wrocław!

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