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Cardinal Józef Glemp, primate of Poland during the Solidarity years, died on January 23rd, aged 83.
HE WAS small. That was the first thing people noticed about him, even before the jug ears, the simian upper lip and the habit he had, a disconcerting one, of closing his eyes when he spoke. His churchman’s cappa and lace surplice foreshortened him still more. A modest little man, apparently, at home with papers and books, well suited to the job he held for 12 years of being secretary and private chaplain to an archbishop.
By contrast the man he served, Stefan Wyszyński, was a giant, a national hero, obstinate against Communist rule as the country’s primate after 1948. He made a son of Józef Glemp, and tipped this unassuming man as his successor. Those were colossal shoes to fill. Coming into the role at last in 1981, young for it at 51, “the little primate”, as he called himself, knew his limitations. The ruling principle of his turbulent years as the leader of Poland’s Catholics was to ask: “What would Primate Wyszyński have done?” The invariable answer: “Defend the church.”
God willed it, too, that another giant loomed over him. From 1978 there was a Polish pope in Rome, charismatic, courageous and demanding freedom in his country. The little primate, under the near knuckle of Communist rule, could never be so brave. Instead, he trotted gamely in John Paul II’s white-silk wake whenever the pope came home. He accompanied him first as a bishop (biskup), then as primate (prymas), then as primate and cardinal (kardynał), steadily rising through the hierarchy but still, beside that colossus, hopelessly overshadowed.
He was clever, no doubt about it. Not every salt-miner’s son from Inowrocław studied civil law and canon law in Rome. But his thesis de evolutione conceptus fictionis iuris, his courses in stylistic Latin and church administration, even his time spent as a Vatican advocate deciding the delicate technicalities of marriage cases, were little help to him as primate. His most useful qualities, though they won him few friends, were his lawyer’s caution and his insistence on the middle ground. They led to the coining of a new verb, “to glemp”, meaning to try to please both sides.
The Catholic church in Poland in the 1980s was caught between, on the one hand, the Communist regime under Wojciech Jaruzelski, and on the other the rising power of the Solidarity workers’ movement, demanding political and social change with increasing volume and massive strikes. Or rather, the primate was caught. His own pope, his own bishops, the lower orders of the clergy and most laymen, were with Solidarity. As its local leader, conscious that the church held unusual power within a Communist state, aware that it depended on government forbearance to spread the gospel message, traumatised by its wartime suffering, and in constant dread of Soviet intervention, he preferred to try to rub along with the authorities on one side and succour Solidarity mildly on the other.
At times he would dare to speak truth to power. But then he was just as likely to retract again. When martial law was declared in December 1981, he preached a sermon that condemned the government for trampling on human dignity; but it also called for calm, reason and acceptance of this “lesser evil”, rather than see Poles killing each other. He disliked Jaruzelski, but called him “an authentic Pole”; he sympathised with Solidarity, but remarked that its ranks were full of Marxists and careerists. When Jerzy Popiełuszko, a radical workers’ priest, began to preach sermons of incandescent resistance, he ordered him several times to tone them down; but when government agents killed Popiełuszko in 1984, beating him and throwing his body, weighted with rocks, into the Vistula reservoir, he regretted to the end of his life that he had not saved him. He could only suppose God had willed it that way.
God also intended, he believed, that Communism would fail by itself when its energy ran out. Endurance, rather than violence, would bring change. He helped ensure a peaceful end to Communist rule, in 1989, by sending his colleague Tadeusz Mazowiecki to negotiate half-free elections with the tottering regime. Mr Mazowiecki was to become the first non-Communist prime minister for more than 40 years.
Do następnego razu… (Till next time…)