Remembering Krakow’s saintly and heroic bishops

When it comes to Krakow bishops in the twentieth century, Karol Wojtyła was by no means exception outlier. Four other men of great virtue, who served the see as archbishops or auxiliary bishops, also deserve recognition.

Left to right: Cardinal Karol Wojtyła in 1967; Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha in 1930; Cardinal Franciszek Macharski in 2010; a bust of Bishop Albin Małysiak; Fr. Jan Pietraszko, c. 1946. (Images: Wikipedia)

May 18, 2023 marks the 103rd anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II, who served as Archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978. Much has been written about the Polish pope’s saintliness, radical Christian witness, and the countless ways in which he left a permanent impact on the Church and world.

However, when it comes to Krakow bishops in the twentieth century, Wojtyła was by no means exception outlier. Four other men of great virtue, who served the see as archbishops or auxiliary bishops, also deserve recognition.

Poland’s “Indomitable Prince”

Adam Stefan Sapieha was born in Krasiczyn Castle in what was then the Austrian partition of Poland in 1867. The ancient Sapieha clan, which traces its roots to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, is one of Poland’s – and Europe’s – most powerful magnate families. The future archbishop of Krakow was the great granduncle of Mathilde, the current Queen of Belgium.

Although brought up in great privilege, Sapieha’s family instilled in him a sense of patriotically motivated noblesse oblige. At that time, Poland had been wiped off the map of Europe yet survived in its people’s hearts and their relentless struggle for freedom. The young Adam was taught to serve man, his nation, and God, eventually choosing a vocation to the priesthood.

After serving St. Pius X as papal chamberlain, Sapieha was appointed Archbishop of Krakow in 1911. His forty-year tenure as archbishop lasted until his death (only St. Paul VI introduced a retirement age of seventy-five for bishops) and coincided with some of the darkest, bloodiest periods in Polish history. During this time, Sapieha became a major moral authority for many Poles; along with St. John Paul II, Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the martyr-priests Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko and St. Maximilian Kolbe, he is regarded as one of the most important heroes of the Church in twentieth century Poland.

Three years after Sapieha’s appointment, the Great War, the bloodiest conflict mankind had known until that point, broke out. Suddenly, warfare became the hell described in Erich Maria Remarque’s novels devoid of any naïve medieval notions of chivalry. One of the regions most affected by the violence of the Great War as well as the resultant disease and hunger was the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, the area of Poland that had been swallowed up by Austria in the late nineteenth century.

Sapieha responded to the calamity of war by providing aggressive aid to its victims. After the war had broken out, Sapieha succeeded in obtaining 25,000 Austrian crowns from Pope Benedict XV for relief efforts. Consequently, Sapieha founded the Prince-Bishop’s Committee to Aid Those Affected by the War (Książęco-Biskupi Komitet dla Dotkniętych Wojną). The committee provided material, medical, humanitarian, and spiritual aid to victims of the work. Through his collaboration with Emil Godlewski, a professor of embryology and biology at the Jagiellonian University, Sapieha helped to create mobile medical units of physicians and nurses to aid victims of the war who lived far from cities. Additionally, Sapieha’s committee vaccinated two million inhabitants of Galicia and Lodomeria against smallpox.

Although World War I was initially known as the War to End All Wars, an even deadlier conflict broke out just twenty-one years after its conclusion, and no nation would emerge from it as lacerated as Poland. Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, led to the outbreak of World War II; sixteen days later, the nation would be invaded from the east by the Soviet Union.

As during the previous world war, Sapieha took the initiative in humanitarian efforts. Just three days after the war’s outbreak, Sapieha organized the Civic Committee to Aid Victims of the War, himself donating 100,000 zlotys to its activity. Meanwhile, Sapieha collaborated with the Central Welfare Council, one of the few humanitarian organizations that the German occupiers allowed to function in the General Government, and which distributed foreign aid to victims of Nazism.

When millions of Poles were expelled from Greater Poland, which had been annexed to the Reich and whose inhabitants’ property was seized by German colonizers, Sapieha appealed to local convents and monasteries to provide them with sanctuary. The archbishop also sent chaplains to the millions of Poles deported to Germany as slave laborers.

Sapieha frequently spoke out in defense of victims of the Third Reich. When on November 6th, 1939, the SS arrested 183 Krakow professors and deported them to concentration camps, Sapieha sent appeals to Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XII, asking them to intervene on their behalf; eventually, both men did, and some of the Polish professors were freed. Meanwhile, three Krakow rabbis asked Sapieha to appeal to the Germans on their behalf; he did, but the appeal was unsuccessful, and they were sent to extermination centers. Sapieha also aided Jews by asking Krakow priests to provide phony baptismal certificates for them.

During the Second World War, he organized a clandestine seminary (higher education was banned for Poles, “subhumans” according to the Nazi ideology), whose students included Karol Wojtyła, for whom Sapieha was a mentor.

After the horrors of World War II, a Stalinist regime was imposed on Poland, one that would kill and torture priests and imprison them after show trials. Sapieha vigorously protested, and the Communist dictatorship considered him to be its greatest enemy (initially, Blessed Cardinal Wyszyński sought a modus vivendi with the regime, although he ultimately became its fierce critic and spent three years in jail for his outspoken defense of the Polish people).

Adam Sapieha was made a cardinal in 1946. One hundred thousand Poles attended his funeral in 1951, and he has since been dubbed Poland’s “Indomitable Prince.”

Franciszek means Francis

The fact that his name is the Polish equivalent of Francis is not the only trait that Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, archbishop of Krakow from 1979 until 2005, had in common with the beloved Italian saint. Both were the sons of wealthy merchants yet became famous for their humility.

After his election to the Throne of Peter, St. John Paul II appointed Father Franciszek Macharski, rector of the Krakow seminary, as his successor. Wojtyła’s shoes were hard to fill, and while it seems impossible to match John Paul II’s sanctity, Cracovians quickly came to love their new archbishop.

Once again, dramatic events came to Poland. In 1980, the nonviolent trade union and anti-Communist movement Solidarity was founded; a year later, the junta of General Wojciech Jaruzelski (aptly described by Caspar Weinberger as a Soviet general in a Polish uniform) declared martial law, which lasted until 1983.

During martial law, Macharski chaired the Commission of Common Representatives of the Government of Poland and the Polish Episcopal Conference. Because of this sensitive position, he refrained from publicly and explicitly condemning the Communist regime. Yet this did not meet with disappointment from Solidarity activists, who knew they could count on their bishop.

Like Adam Sapieha during the two world wars, Macharski created the Committee to Aid Prisoners and the Interned. Macharski provided financial and humanitarian aid to the families of jailed Solidarity activists and visited members of the union who were in prison. Solidarity leaders frequently conferred with Macharski on critical issues.

As Archbishop of Krakow, Macharski became known for his humble style and social consciousness. When conversing with Cracovians, I have heard many fondly recall passing the cardinal, who stopped to exchange words, on the street. Macharski became especially known for his advocacy for people with disabilities; many Church and secular institutions to assist them were opened with his blessing and tangible support.

After his retirement from leading the Archdiocese of Krakow in 2005, Macharski chose not to live in the archbishops’ palace but in a modest cell in the convent of the Albertine Sisters, an order founded by St. Albert Chmielowski, the great Polish saint who started male and female orders whose charism is to aid the poor. Macharski lived there until his death in 2016.

A “righteous” bishop and the “Prophet from St. Anne’s”

Two twentieth-century auxiliary bishops of Krakow also merit mention. The first, Albin Małysiak (1917-2011), was the see’s auxiliary from 1970 until 1993.

In German occupied Poland during World War II, Jews who escaped from ghettoes and Gentiles who assisted them were both subjected to the death penalty, a much harsher punishment for the same “offense” than in Western Europe. Yet there were plenty of heroic individuals, such as the Ulma family, who will be beatified later this year, for whom radically living out the Fifth Commandment was greater than fear of death.

Among those was Father Albin Małysiak. This young priest, along with the Vincentian Sister Bronisława Wilemska, sheltered five Jews – Katarzyna Styczeń, Helena Kachel, Henryk Juański, Zbigniew Kozanowski, and an unidentified man – in a Vincentian-run home for the elderly and the ill in Krakow. In 1995, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, granted them the Righteous Among the Nations medal, which is given to Gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust.

Jesus told His disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). During the horrors of World War II, Father Małysiak and Sister Wilemska were ready to live out this statement of the Lord to its logical conclusion.

Another Krakow auxiliary, Bishop Jan Pietraszko (1911-1988) was among Cardinal Wojtyła’s closest friends and collaborators. Serving as auxiliary bishop from 1963 until his death, Pietraszko simultaneously served as the vicar of St. Anne’s Collegiate Church, the beautiful Baroque church that continues to serve as the primary spiritual home of Krakow’s university students and intelligentsia.

At a time when the Communist regime worked hard to uproot the faith of Poland’s young people, Pietraszko tirelessly catechized Krakow’s youths, guiding them in their spiritual formation and emphasizing the centrality of the Eucharist. He was known as an outstanding preacher; tens of thousands of copies of transcripts of his sermons were published by samizdat.

Although his homilies were strictly about the Gospels and avoided social or political topics, the Communist secret police saw Pietraszko as a threat. During many interrogations, it tried to break Pietraszko, turn him into a collaborator, or make him turn against Cardinal Wojtyła, but he firmly stood his ground.

In 2018, Pope Francis declared Bishop Pietraszko Venerable. Once the Vatican approves of a miracle through his intercession, he will be declared blessed.

The twentieth century was a time of great hardship for the Polish nation. In addition to the massive loss in human lives during both world wars, Communism sought to obliterate the Poles’ Catholic faith. Yet both Poland and her people’s Christian identity survived. This was thanks to many heroic priests, bishops, and laypeople. In the last century, the Archdiocese of Krakow was particularly blessed with saintly bishops, of whom Karol Wojtyła was the best-known but by no means the only one.


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About Filip Mazurczak 74 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others.

1 Comment

  1. George Weigel’s WITNESS TO HOPE: THE BIOGRAPGY OF POPE JOHN PAUL II very clearly describes to incredible conditions that the young man who became John Paul II, survived, in occupied Poland. This is an awesome text, and I have to read it in small parcels while tending to myriad domestic tasks. The brutality of the Nazis and Stalinists was the attempt of Satin to conquer the Revelation of the presence of God, in Poland. We need to pray for the souls of those poor, blinded animal-natured humans, who had not an iota of an understanding of the message of Christian mysticism.

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