Interview with cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, ex-private secretary to Saint John-Paul II: “Europe was constructed and continues to be constructed, upon Christian values”.
By Saint John-Paul II’s side for forty years, first as his student and then as his secretary, Stanisław Dziwisz was the Polish pope’s most loyal companion. Proclaimed cardinal in 2006, he describes fascinating details of the life of Saint John-Paul II as well as the Church’s situation during the Communist era. In an interview given to TV Libertés’ Ferency Almássy at Krakow in October 2019, Cardinal Dziwisz, friend and close colleague of Saint John-Paul II, delivers an account which is both astounding and hopeful. The transcript of this interview can be read below:
Ferenc Almássy: Your Eminence, thank you for agreeing to meet us in your office in Krakow for the purposes of this interview for TV Libertés. Not so long ago, you declared the following: “John-Paul II’s pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 radically changed the situation of the Church in Poland mentally. As was stated by political observers, Christians stood up to be counted and to once more take heart. They also became part of a community that brought together the Christian idea of loyalty and the masses, which inspired the Solidarity movement shortly after.” We remember the image of John-Paul II in Poland in 1979 when he said: “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord! Renew the face of the Earth, this Earth!” and later that year, the Solidarity movement appeared and then, ten years after, the Berlin wall came down. Do you believe that communism would have ended in Eastern Europe had there not been a Polish pope on Saint Peter’s throne?
Stanisław Dziwisz: When John-Paul II was made pope, the political situation and the Church in Poland were completely different to what it is now: In Europe, there was an iron curtain between the east, where Marxism and communism ruled, and the west.
Without doubt, the situation quickly changed under the influence of the Polish pope, John-Paul II. The Holy Father understood right away that communism didn’t have a future but that human rights and the rights of the peoples of eastern Europe would be sovereign. It started with John-Paul II’s enthronement speech on St.Peter’s Square in Rome: “Do not be afraid. Open the doors to Christ.” Today, this sentence has become a summary of his pontificate.
The Holy Father’s first pilgrimage to Poland was important but it would not have happened had he not gone to Mexico first. In a way, this pilgrimage to Mexico opened the way for him to go to Poland because if Mexico, with an anti-clerical constitution and hostile position vis-à-vis the Catholic Church, could open its doors to John-Paul II, then Poland could do so too, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.
The Holy Father wanted to visit Poland for the Jubilee of Saint Stanislaus. The authorities did not want his pilgrimage to coincide with this celebration for Saint Stanislaus was a bishop who had opposed the powerful of his time and in consequence, was executed by order of the King of Poland. It was feared that John-Paul II’s visit to Poland to celebrate Saint Stanislaus’ Jubilee would incite resistance against the authorities. After negotiations, it was proposed that he could come to Poland but only in June 1979, which the Holy Father accepted. However, he told the Polish bishops: “Right, I’ll come to Poland but we will celebrate the 900th anniversary of Saint-Stanislas when I do.”
No-one believed at that time that his visit would have such an important impact not only in Poland and Eastern Europe, but in all of Europe. This visit marked the start of the march to freedom when he spoke the following words on Victory Square in Warsaw during the homily: “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord! Renew the face of the Earth. This Earth!” The Polish people felt free. They felt that something was happening. A breath of freedom.
From that homily, the process of breaking the shackles of communism began in Warsaw and then in Gniezno. We can consider that his first visit in 1979 had incited the people to free themselves from communism. It led to the fall of the Berlin wall, which was just a symbol of the changes happening in Europe. It was not the fall of the Berlin that gave freedom, but only that the process to gain freedom had been achieved. This process began by the papal visit to Poland at Warsaw, Gniezno, Częstochowa and Krakow.
In Poland, people felt that they were free and freed by the words and arguments of John-Paul II. It was the start of this great liberation. There already had been previous attempts to bring down communism in Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia but that really was the start of the great liberation that we all benefit from today. The communists, just like all dictatorships, rule by enslaving people with the use of fear. But under the influence of the Holy Father, people had stopped being fearful.
It was from this that the Solidarity movement started. I once again insist that the fall of the Berlin wall was merely symbolic. The origin of the process of liberation can be traced to the visits of John-Paul II and his attitude. When he arrived in Rome, the Italians spoke of “compromesso storico”, of the historic compromise which relied upon the notion that the future of Europe, and the world, was Marxism. The Holy Father never accepted that and continually supported the notions of the human and peoples’ rights. It is thanks to his action that these changes took place all over the world but notably in the oppressed nations of central and eastern Europe.
Ferenc Almássy: You had already been the chaplain and secretary of archbishop Karol Wojtyła (the future Pope John-Paul II) who, at the time, was the head of the diocese of Krakow. What was his attitude? What was the attitude of Monseigneur Wojtyła vis-à-vis of the communist authorities? Was the Church persecuted? How did you find your priesthood under the communist regime? Were you constantly under observation by the authorities and, if so, how?
Stanisław Dziwisz: Karol Wojtyła was appointed archbishop of Krakow because they hoped that he’d be an opponent not to the government but to cardinal Wyszyński (the then Primate of Poland). Since the new archbishop was a great intellectual, he was very much respected within society. But they were mistaken since Wojtyła and Wyszyński worked very well together. Therefore, they then tried to limit Wojtyła’s role but that failed. Rather than become an opponent, Wojtyła endeavoured to express the truth and won out by the strength of his arguments, his conviction, his decisive attitude and his inflexibility.
Again, I repeat, he did not become an opponent. He was a servant of the truth. He fought with words and arguments as well as for the rights of the Church, for the authorities had forbidden the construction of churches. The new town of Nowa Huta (near Krakow) was to become quite symbolic in this respect for it was a town without a church, without God. Karol Wojtyła, when he was archbishop, was with the people and demanded that the right of worshippers to have a church be respected to allow them to freely live their faith. It turned out that he was quite a decisive man, inflexible and strong, and that bonded him closer to the people. This gave him an eminent authority in Poland, especially in the diocese of Krakow.
What was most influential in determining his position with regards to the authorities was that he was not fighting individuals but the whole communist ideology, which deprives people of their freedom. He knew how to make demands: When there were big meetings, he spoke with courage of human and peoples’ rights. He did not call out to resist but demanded that rights, especially the freedom of conscience and of expression, be respected. He did this in a most convincing manner and the people, as well as the leadership, could not react to his arguments.
Ferenc Almássy: You were at John-Paul II’s side when the infamous 1981 attack on St. Peter’s Square in Rome happened. You held him during that moment and you would later say: “Today, I can tell you that at that moment, an invisible force intervened to save the Holy Father’s life when it was in grave danger.” The fact that the Polish pope survived this attack means, for you, that this was a miracle?”
Stanisław Dziwisz: The communists in Moscow and Poland were very worried about John-Paul II’s election. From the start, they were afraid of Pope John-Paul II’s position, of his moral strength and of the vast public support he enjoyed. That is why they contrived to physically eliminate the pope. That is how I see things in any case and it is what happened during the attempt on John-Paul II’s life on St. Peter’s Square. I saw it all since I was with the Holy Father in his jeep. I was thereupon there when the attack happened. We tried to protect him, to do all that we could to keep him alive. The actions taken in the eight minutes it took to get from St.Peter’s Square to Gemelli Hospital were what would determine if he lived or died. It was a terrible situation. A bullet had gone right through his body and he had lost a lot of blood. I was in the ambulance that took him to hospital. At the beginning, he was still conscious and praying. Both me and the other person there could hear him praying and offering his life for the Church, for the world. He didn’t ask who had done this to him. At that moment, we didn’t know who had tried to kill him but it didn’t have any importance for the pope. On the way to the hospital, he had already forgiven his aggressor for what he had done. When we got to the hospital, he had lost consciousness. These were very difficult moments and a doctor even came to see me and said: “We can hardly feel his heart beating, his blood pressure is dropping, go to him and give him the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.”
It was a fight for his life. Not for his health but for his life. He had lost a lot of blood and the blood that had been prepared was of the wrong type. In desperation, some doctors at the hospital were found to share the same blood type and they gave their blood in order for him to survive this attack.
Later, when he was better, he realised that the attack had taken place on 13th May, the anniversary day of the revelations of Fatima. It was then that he started saying that he had been saved thanks to Our Lady Fatima for he was convinced that he was going to lose this life. After the attack, he always turned to face the Virgin of Fatima in order to thank her for taking care of his health and allowing him to make a full recovery – which wasn’t an easy thing as there were many complications – and continue his work. It has to be said that the reprieve offered to him turned out to be quite effective. The attack left him unscared and he was without fear. When he said “Do not be afraid” on St.Peter’s Square, he was without fear. He considered that he had been blessed because, after such an attack, one can have big psychological scares and fears. After a few months, he came back to St.Peter’s Square, without fear. He was humbly carrying on as before and whilst his entourage was afraid of a new attack happening, he wasn’t.
Ferenc Almássy: Pope John-Paul II visited Poland three times: 1979, 1983 and 1987. The Polish authorities readily accepted these pilgrimages? How did they react and how did he go about getting them to accept? Were there any obstacles?
Stanisław Dziwisz: They were morally forced to accept his visits to Poland. They imposed limits. For example, during the first pilgrimage, they refused to allow the Holy Father to visit Lublin. Having lectured at the Catholic university there, he had many links to this town and they were worried that he would be dangerously close to the eastern border. Nor did they allow him to travel to the west of the country to towns such as Wrocław or Silesia, for they were worried about how the miners would react and that his visit would spark some sort of internal revolt. But the Holy Father had found a way: Whilst at the sanctuary of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, he invited Lublin and the Catholic university to meet him. He also invited the diocese of Wrocław and Silesia. It is during these meetings that he spoke. He also had a very serious problem during another visit: The Holy Father wanted to meet Lech Wałęsa and Jaruzelski’s response was: “It is not possible. The pope must not meet with Wałęsa”. They believed then that the Solidarity movement had been eliminated and they feared that if the pope met Wałęsa, the movement would be rekindled. The pope was quite clear and told them once he landed at Warsaw airport: “If I cannot meet with Wałęsa, I’m going straight back to Rome.” The authorities gave in and started to find a solution. What was important to the pope was not to have a conversation but to show everyone that the movement still existed and that its leader was Wałęsa. So, they told him that he could have his meeting in the mountains, in the Dolina Chochołowska valley. They hoped that since no-one would be present, there wouldn’t be any witnesses and therefore, this meeting between John-Paul II and Wałęsa would have no big impact. I repeat that this meeting was not important per se to have a conversation but to show that the Solidarity movement was still there. The meeting took place in a shelter but it was obvious to all that the room had been bugged. The pope told Wałęsa: “Lech, let us go into the corridor. There are no bugs there and we can talk better.” The authorities never did find out what was discussed. The fact that this meeting took place was something quite important to keep the Solidarity movement alive in Polish society. Of course, attempts were made to change certain passages of the pope’s speeches since the authorities, one way or another, always managed to get their hands on them in advance. They knew what the pope was going to say but even in this case, he refused to budge. The pope was quite determined. He was convinced that what he was doing was right and that he had the right to tell his countrymen what he thought was good.
Ferenc Almássy: Do you remember Saint John-Paul II’s reaction to the news of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko’s kidnapping and assassination by the political police in 1984? And you, Your Eminence, how did you react to this incident?
Stanisław Dziwisz: The news of Father Popiełuszko’s kidnapping came as a real shock. We were all concerned to see the authorities resort to kidnapping. We didn’t yet know that this incident would result in the tragic death, as a martyr of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. The pope kept a close eye on the situation every day. He was in touch with the episcopate. Through his prayers, he heightened awareness within the population to the fact that this kidnapping was indeed a tragic event. It was something difficult to accept. It was a shock. Just how far would the authorities go? When we heard the news that his body had been found in the Vistula, it was clear that he had been horribly tortured. A strong response was now necessary, for the murder of Father Popiełuszko could have been just the start of other similar events. To oppose such a blatant form of subjugation and persecution, this response was both moral and robust, both from the pope and the Church in Poland and a result, whilst certain actions did sometimes happen against the clergy, none were ever on the same scale again.
Ferenc Almássy: During his pilgrimage to Poland in 1991 following the fall of communism, Pope John-Paul II said the following to his compatriots: “Build the common future of our motherland in accordance with divine right or rather, let us rebuild for much has been destroyed and is in ruins be it the people, human consciousness, habits, public opinion or the media.” Saint John-Paul II also warned his countrymen of the dangers of mis-understood freedom that leads to another form of slavery. He asked them if they wanted the freedom that Christ offers or if they’d rather be free of Christ and only be happy with a form of fictitious freedom? Today, can we say that Saint John-Paul II’s words were heard in a country where religious observance was not as widespread as it was thirty years ago, despite the fact that religious practice still remains higher in Poland than in other European countries?
Stanisław Dziwisz: That visit was not easy. It took place at a time when the Poles had regained their freedom. The pope warned people that, whilst they had to defend this freedom, it was not to be confused with a lack of moral restraint or as a way to perpetuate violence. He always used the Decalogue to support his rhetoric. He spoke the truth, God’s truth, which was not always enthusiastically received but he endeavoured to put people on the right path, the path founded on the truth of the gospel. Thirty years on, can we say that he was successful?
I think that all his visits to Poland, all that he said, still continue to hold true for what he said is, and always will be, timeless. It will still be relevant as much today as it will be in the future. Obviously, society changes but the Church is still alive and present amongst the people where it continues its mission. It has no desire to get involved in politics. Of course, community life will always be part of the Church’s teachings but now, the responsibility of social civic life rests primarily with those that exercise political power. The Church has another, moral, role and therefore, makes moral judgements regarding the behaviour of those who govern us. To this day, the Church in Poland has never demanded any privileges. It only wishes to fulfil its mission to serve the people and that is its strength. For centuries, the people have always been with the Church and the Church has always been by the people’s side because it has always sought to serve the country and not the leaders.
I think that it is worth pointing out that whilst the youth are much less religious these days, they have not lost their faith. Things have changed but faith is still present within the people. One of the reasons for this is that the Church is active and provides good catechetical support. Ignorance is always dangerous and thus, the Church endeavours to teach. Today still, catechetical support is given in the school system from kindergarten to university and that’s the strength of the Christian faith in Poland. Some believed that the Church and its faith would lose their importance when Poland joined the European community. There are ups and downs but the Church is still here and the theory that everything would suddenly change, that people were going to turn their backs to the Church and that the youth would leave en masse has not happened.
Ferenc Almássy: Poland and the Polish clergy played a key role in the fall of communism as an anti-Christian ideology. Is there not another ideology that is as hostile to Christianity these days? Do Poland and the Polish clergy not have a role to play in order to help re-Christianise Europe and to defend themselves from a certain form of liberal nihilism?
Stanisław Dziwisz: We have no wish to be the Messiah of nations. However, we do wish to play our role of being a witness of the Gospel and Christianity since Europe was built, and continues to be built, upon Christian values. There are new inclinations and new ideologies that don’t correspond to Christian values but, up to now, Poland has tried more than other nations to safeguard these values and, what is more, it has tried to showcase these values and the role of the Church in people’s lives. Of course, we can say that in the West, the Catholic Church has suffered some losses here and there but we also see the birth of new movements, including in France. I am not at all pessimistic. Europe and the Church have forces yet to be used because the Church is alive in Christ and has existed for over 2,000 years. This legacy shows that there are energies within the Church that have allowed it to last and, despite difficulties and crises, always move forward in hope.
Ferenc Almássy: During his life in this world, Saint John-Paul II took an active part in the fall of communism. Your Eminence, do you still turn to Saint John-Paul II in your prayers to ask him to intercede personally to help Europe and save it from apostasy?
Stanisław Dziwisz: I think that “apostasy” is the right word. Admittedly, there has been a decline in religious life, notably within certain circles. There are also some who wish to destroy moral values. But I still have hope for the future. John-Paul II was quite passionate about the unity of Europe. He often spoke of eastern and western Europe as being two lungs. He said that Europe must be united but he also insisted that it should be upon the values that it was built on. He said that if we cut ourselves off from the roots on which Europe was built on, it would no longer be Europe. He wanted these values to be preserved and he might well be considered as being the patron of European unity. Indeed, some people have asked for such a thing. His teachings are timeless and not only valid when he was pope. We can still make use of them today. His creative teachings could help rebuild Europe or, at least, to conserve what good is left in Europe.
John-Paul II remains an inspiration. That’s why people still turn to him. They pray, ask him to intercede on their behalf…I have many testimonies and letters from people who turned to him and obtained blessings be it in their health or morality. John-Paul II still remains in the heart of the people. You only need to see St.Peter’s Square the mass of people that have been coming to see him for 15 years now. Even children who never saw him, who never met him personally, love this pope who they saw in the media or who their families have told them about. In his work, he had respect for everyone and people saw his sincerity, his love and that’s what has stayed. Love has stayed.
He is a good patron for youth and families and it would be fitting to make him patron of European unity for he was a man who brought people together by building bridges and not walls.
That is why Muslims, Jews and Buddhists saw him as a religious leader. Whilst we can’t say that he worked intensively in this domain, he has become the religious leader of today’s world.
Ferenc Almássy: You have a message of hope. You are aware that in France, the problems are different to those in Poland. In France, the situation is difficult for Christians and constantly getting worse. In a few words, what message of hope can you give to the French people?
Stanisław Dziwisz: Pope John-Paul II already talked of a “spring”, that is to say a rejuvenated Church and its role within French society. I believe that those were prophetic words. We have seen, notably after the burning of Notre-Dame cathedral, that France has not lost its faith. We saw people praying and France on its knees. And there are the different new movements emerging, bringing about solutions not just for the French but also for other peoples. France has always had a say because it is a nation with a great cultural dimension. I hope for the French that this cultural aspect is still on the people’s side and that it doesn’t get used to destroy what is beautiful and good about them.
Ferenc Almássy: Your Eminence, thank you for agreeing to this interview with TV Libertés.
Stanisław Dziwisz: Thank you for your visit and greetings to all your viewers. We have talked about different problems and I do hope that the French are of the same opinion as me.