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On John Paul II’s 75th anniversary

On November 1, 1946, Cardinal Sapieha ordained Karol Wojtyła to the priesthood. In June 1979, as Pope John Paul II, Wojtyła would return to Poland and ignite a revolution of conscience.

St. John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. (CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal)

By any worldly measure, 1946 was an annus horribilis in Poland. With the exceptions of Cracow and Lodz, every Polish city lay in ruins. The homeless and displaced numbered in the millions. As a ruthless Stalinism tightened its grip on a country that had been doubly decimated during World War II, losing 20% of its pre-war population, heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance were executed on spurious charges by Poland’s new communist overlords. Yet in the oft-puzzling ways of Providence, that Polish annus horribilis was also an annus mirabilis in which the seeds of a far brighter future were planted.

On February 18, 1946, Adam Stefan Sapieha was created cardinal by Pope Pius XII. As archbishop of Cracow, Sapieha became a national symbol of resistance to Nazi barbarism. On his return to Poland’s spiritual and cultural capital from the consistory where he received the red hat, the Polish-Lithuanian aristocrat known as the “unbroken prince” was met at the train station by a vast crowd, which picked up his car and carried it in a triumphal procession to the archiepiscopal residence; Sapieha had conducted a clandestine seminary there while a Nazi reign of terror throttled his diocese.

Five weeks later, on March 25, 1946, Stefan Wyszyński, a seminary professor who had been an underground resistance chaplain during the war, was named bishop of Lublin. Two years later, Wyszyński would become archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw, Primate of Poland, and the undisputed leader of a Church that became the safe deposit box of Poland’s national identity during four decades of communist efforts to create New Soviet Man.

And on November 1, 1946, Cardinal Sapieha ordained Karol Wojtyła to the priesthood. In June 1979, as Pope John Paul II, Wojtyła would return to Poland and ignite a revolution of conscience that was instrumental in liberating east central Europe from communism, ending the Cold War, and giving Europe a new chance at peace, freedom, prosperity, and solidarity.

Cardinal Sapieha’s example in that clandestine wartime seminary was decisive in forming Karol Wojtyła’s concept of the priest as the defender of the dignity and rights of his people. During the months when the future pope was being sheltered from the Gestapo in the archbishop’s residence, Wojtyła and his classmates saw the elderly nobleman go into his chapel every night and place the problems of the day, dire in the extreme, before the Lord in prayer. Priestly courage in the face of tyranny is nurtured in prayer as the ordained priest lives out the imitation of Christ, who embraced a sacrificial destiny for the salvation of others. Karol Wojtyła learned that from Adam Stefan Sapieha, and then deployed that heroic ideal of priestly service to bend history’s course in a more humane direction.

Wojtyła’s relationship with the recently-beatified Wyszyński was a bit more complicated. In 1958, the older man had insisted that the younger accept his nomination as auxiliary bishop of Cracow, although Wojtyła, citing his youth, wasn’t eager for a miter. Several years later, Wyszyński, for his part, wasn’t enthusiastic about Wojtyla becoming archbishop of Cracow, thinking him an intellectual who might be manipulated by the communist regime. The Primate eventually came around, the appointment was made, and Wyszyński quickly came to understand that Wojtyła was every bit as deft and formidable a foe of the communist regime as could be wished. Wojtyła’s constant public deference to Wyszyński foiled communist attempts to drive wedges into the Polish Catholic leadership. And in the Primate, Wojtyła found an example of how to combine firm strategic resolve with tactical flexibility in dealing with a regime whose secret police deployed a special department dedicated to “disintegrating” the Catholic Church.

John Paul II would put what he learned from Sapieha and Wyszyński to good use on the world stage as he became the most politically consequential pope since the High Middle Ages. And he did so, not by playing the political game by the world’s rules, but by being a witness to Christ and to the truths about our humanity that we learn from the incarnate Son of God who embodies them in a unique way. There are lessons here for priests and bishops today, especially those confronted with what John Paul called the “culture of death” in its many forms.

Priests and bishops who challenge the 21st-century culture of death are sometimes deplored as “culture warriors.” I prefer to think of them as apostles, men who have been inspired by the luminous priesthood of Karol Wojtyła, who was himself inspired by the priestly witness of Adam Stefan Sapieha and Stefan Wyszyński.

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About George Weigel 478 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), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. We read: “Priests and bishops who challenge the 21st-century culture of death are sometimes deplored as ‘culture warriors.’ I prefer to think of them as apostles…”

    Over the next three years the challenge for each bishop will be to wear two hats: to remain as apostles even as they function synodally “primarily as facilitators.” Should we be reminded of the ambiguity already inflicted on the Mass with ordained priests—alter Christi—recast as “presiders” at liturgical celebrations? And, even reminded of the first days of the Church (institutional and evangelical, both) when the apostles designated deacons (“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables,” Acts 6:2-3).

    Any genuine and lasting success of synodality depends upon the art of walking (synod: “walking together”) and chewing gum (still wearing the purple hat) at the same time, especially in these times of “the culture of death” and our many other metastasized crises.

  2. There are saints canonized for their exemplary holiness, and then there are saints canonized mainly for political reasons. No less than Paul VI, Pope John XXIII, and Pope John Paul II [JPII], both raised to the altar on the same day and year, are political saints canonized to mask, if not salve, internecine fissures of the Church, the truncation of tradition, particularly, that of the ‘lex orandi’, after the equivocal achievements of Vatican II.

    Whatever may have been JPII’s spiritual merits, he indubitably contributed to masking, if not salving, some of the fissures of the Church, with his vigorous and authoritative presence, especially in the early years of his pontificate. However, John Paul II ultimately did not mind the RCC store well, for he offered a deaf ear to clerical pederasty, a blind eye to shenanigans in the Vatican Bank, and embraced enterprising rogue clerics, e.g. Fr. Marcial Maciel (Mexico, 1920-2008). A darling of Reagan and of his satrap, Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), JPII, ever ‘dynamic’, had no problem with despots and reactionary regimes, so long as they were anti-communist.

    Much is made that JPII was a blessing to Eastern Europe, for he contributed to the collapse of communism over there. At the same time, he was a disaster to Latin America. He did not understand it, and abhorred liberation theology. There is the historical image of JPII wagging a scolding finger at the poet, patriot, liberation theologian, and priest, Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua, 1925 – 2020). He forbade him from administering the sacraments, a harsh, unjustifiable penalty that Papa Ratzinger lifted. JPII refused to give a sympathetic ear to Saint Óscar Bishop Romero (El Salvador, 1917-80), who ultimately was murdered, along with hundreds of parishioners, during JPII’s pontificate, by a Salvadoran military dictatorship that Ronald Reagan, JPII’s friend, established and subsidized.

    JPII is often mentioned favourably in contrast to Pope Francis, perceived unfavourably by some clergy, and by some of the laity, supposedly keen on doctrine. They fail to question JPII’s hasty resolution of a key issue that had stymied for centuries the doctrinal dispute on soteriology. Overruling them, he instructed in 1999 the Catholic ‘periti’ meeting with their Lutheran counterparts to go along with them and conclude in favour of the Lutheran principle of -sola fide-. For JPII, aged and ill, keenly sensing his mortality, wanted to include in his legacy a major rapprochement between the Lutheran confession and the RCC, in spite of the hollowness of the agreement, which did not bind all Lutheran synods in Europe, much less in all the world.

    No less a failure of those inimical toward Papa Bergoglio, is their inability, or unwillingness to appreciate his cordial affinity with the marginalized, whose existential point of view he considers central, worthy of significant consideration. When Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Msgr. Bergoglio, rather than favouring the posh La Recoleta ‘barrio’ of that great city in his pastoral rounds, would instead visit the slums and inform himself of what the people living there had to say. It is a habit that he tries to practice as much as possible as Bishop of Rome, visiting neighbourhoods of the modest and poor.

    Briefly put: Pope Francis does not merely talk the talk of ‘caritas’ in the name of Christ. He walks the walk. He does not sacrifice in the name of any logomachy anybody, no matter his race, colour, provenance, philosophy, ideology, religion, or sexual preference. Papa Bergoglio’s tenure at the Chair of St. Peter has been, so far, reformative and exemplary, balm to ‘les misérables’, the powerless, and the common folk anywhere. He stands a better chance of being warmly remembered by many throughout the world, than most any current contrarian prelate or doctrinaire pundit.

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