Monsignor from Suchedniow
Lidia Dudkiewicz talks to Senator Czeslaw Ryszka, author of the book about the priest ‘who did not bow before the communists’.
LIDIA DUDKIEWICZ: – How did the book originate, what made you write it?
CZES?AW RYSZKA: – The source of my interests in the biography of Fr Jozef Wojcik was simply his extraordinary priestly life. He is a priest who was imprisoned many times for defending the cross, teaching religious instruction, ministering sacraments – for religious freedom – during the times of the Polish People’s Republic. He was not broken and he survived, this was a sufficient reason to show his life.
Naturally, there is another reason: I got irritated about the vetting of priests, actually by the media that lynched priests. As if we forgot that the clergy, the Church in Poland in the years of communism, was almost the only institution that defended freedom and dignity of the Polish people. Since in the past years all things that were valuable and important, including their importance for the state, waylaid the outstanding figures of the Primates: Cardinal August Hlond, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and the unique personalities of two Metropolitans of Krakow: Adam Sapieha and Karol Wojtyla.
– In your book you remind us that after the war the communists did not attack the Church at once…
– Yes, that’s right. During the first years of building totalitarianism the new government needed authority of the Church and that’s why the representatives of the government ostentatiously took part in church celebrations. There were crosses in schools and military barracks. Bishops were invited to state celebrations. When the government was strengthened in the early 1950s, show trials of bishops and priests began. The process of the Bishop of Kielce Czeslaw Kaczmarek was the most publicized one. After having used appropriate methods of ‘investigation’ the bishop pleaded guilty of absurd accusations, including his collaboration with the Nazis, being a spy for the Vatican and foreign currency trade. Another example of the escalation of persecutions was a show trial of the group of priests from Krakow who were accused for having works of art and American dollars. One of them was sentenced to death; the others had long sentences (the valuable works of art found in the cellars of the Krakow Curia, weapon and money belonged to the aristocratic family of Cardinal Sapieha and were deposited there during the war). The case of Fr Stanislaw Skorodecki, who was imprisoned together with Cardinal Wyszynski later, and who was arrested on 11 January 1951, being accused of creating and running an illegal military organisation aiming at demolishing the Polish People’s Republic, is one example of ruthless treatment. Over 30-armed civilians from the Security Office came to arrest the defenceless vicar in the parish of Ropczyce. The parish building was carefully searched: the windowsills and floors were torn off; the walls were tapped for weapon. Afterwards, during a six-month investigation the priest was kept in dungeons and seclusion cells, he was beaten, starved and humiliated, stripped off his clothes and questioned in the presence of women. He was punished in special ways, e.g. he had to stay naked in an empty, concrete cellar, with a plank bed without sheets, for several hours. Another form of oppression was to force him to strip to the waist and sit in a small cell to which buckets of wastes were disposed. Then he had ‘a bath’ of cold water under the pressure of a few atmospheres. He was tortured for six months. Then he spent two years in prison in Rawicz but the services could not break his resistance. Finally, he was transported to Stoczek Warminski where he was to accompany Primate Wyszynski.
– It would be good to mention the facts concerning the imprisonment of Cardinal Wyszynski…
– On 9 February 1953 the State Council issued a decree regulating the Filling of Church Positions and thus every appointment in the Church had to be approved by the state authority, even a change of a vicar. Cardinal Wyszynski reacted saying, ‘Non possumus!’ (we cannot let this happen). The government could not stand this steadfast attitude of the Primate and arrested him on 25 September, on the liturgical day of Blessed Wladyslaw of Gielniow, and he was held in seclusion for three years. During that period a show trial was prepared. Fortunately, the events of June ’56 led to some thaw and change of the government. The Primate was set free.
– The changes were small since a newly ordained priest Fr Jozef Wojcik was sent to jail again. Not every priest after his ordination associates his first parish with imprisonment. And that was the case of Fr Wojcik. Please remind us what he was punished for several times…
– In fact, Gomulka thaw only meant promises. To tell the truth, religious instruction returned to school but only for several years. When Fr Wojcik was sent to the parish in Ozarow near Ostrowiec towards the end of July 1958 he had to face the methods of the communist officials. During the summer school break all crosses were removed from the classrooms in the local school. The young priest stressed that event preaching, ‘Children, Poland is not Russia. If crosses were removed there this does not mean that they are to be removed here. The constitution of the Polish People’s Republic guarantees the right to freedom of conscience and confession to all of us. If these rights have been violated my duty is to demand justice, demand that our religious feelings were respected.’ Those words were spoken from the pulpit on Sunday, 1 September. The next day the children gathered in front of the school said that they would stand there till all crosses returned to the previous places. And it happened so, the parents hang the crosses on the walls but the headmaster informed the militia about the revolt and the case was brought for prosecution. Thus Fr Wojcik was tried and sentenced to a month imprisonment. He was sent to prison in Kielce.
– Another imprisonment of Fr Wojcik was connected with his pastoral ministry in the parish of Wierzbica…
– In 1962 Fr Jozef Wojcik volunteered to work in the parish of Wierzbica near Radom – there was the famous revolt of parishioners and Fr Zdzislaw Kosa against the parish priest, which led to the creation of a new parish, independent from the local bishop, by the Security Services. The real prison ‘epic’ of Fr Jozef began there. In sum, within six years he was sentenced 18 times and was imprisoned nine times for organising illegal gatherings, i.e. Masses in private houses and teaching religious instruction.
– Then there was the famous ‘liberation’ of the copy of the Jasna Gora Picture and the return of the Mother of God to the tour of the Visitation…
– Being a parochial vicar in Radom in 1972 Fr Wojcik got an excellent idea to make a surprise at the beginning of the Visitation to Radom. He decided to steal the Picture of the Mother of God that was ‘arrested’ by the communists and held at Jasna Gora (only the frame was carried in Polish parishes then). He informed Cardinal Wyszynski about his intention. His helpers were a fellow priest and two nuns, servants from Mariowka. It was a daring action, worthy of a film script. Fortunately, the restrictions were limited to long questioning in the prosecutor’s office in Radom. The ‘criminals’ were seen at Jasna Gora but the prosecutor could not provide any evidence. The Holy Spirit taught them how to answer the questions of the Security Services.
– In your book I read that after he had taken the parish in Suchedniow the harassment of the Security Services did not stop. Among other things Fr Wojcik received threatening letters because during Masses he initiated prayers for those murdered in Katyn. The threats were, ‘If you want to save your life do not say the word ‘Katyn’ again.’
– Perhaps the discussion concerning the vetting of clergy should be carried out in the light of such documents as your book?
– That’s right, the secret police, the SB officials were a military arm of the atheistic state, and the clergymen, whom believers regarded as the real authority, were enemies of the system. So the state did its best to destroy them, they harassed them and of course recruited to be their collaborators. That applied to Fr Wojcik, too. When he was arrested to celebrate Mass in Wierzbica, one day before the announcement of the verdict two SB men paid him a visit. They showed him their identification cards and said that they had already known the verdict, which would be imprisonment. But they also mentioned an alternative, ‘If you say that you will withdraw from Wierzbica, there will be no verdict at all. What’s more, we will make you be sent to study in Rome. This is a career to become bishop.’ Fr Wojcik dismissed the proposal with a joke, ‘I learn some interesting facts from you since as far as I know it is bishops, and not the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic, that send priests to Rome. But if you can ask my bishop to send me to studies go ahead with it.’ He surely added that he would inform his bishop about that venal attempt. They asked him not to do it. When the SB officers realised that they could not break his resistance and imprisonment did not change his attitude they want him to replace the excommunicated priest in the rebellious parish. Fr Wojcik was very surprised with that proposal. He was curious what would happen to the excommunicated priest. He was told, ‘We will bring him a woman in a hotel and let him have fun with her, and then we will show him photos and he will dance to our music.’ This is one example to illustrate the perversion and mechanism of the Secret Services’ activities concerning the clergymen.
– In your book you write that when Primate Wyszynski met Fr Wojcik he greeted him, ‘Hello, Jozef, you who are the beloved priest of the people’s government!’ And Fr Wojcik has ministered with success in Suchedniow for 35 years. During these years a new parish building has been erected, the John Paul Centre for Christian Culture has been initiated, the church and cemetery have been renovated. The erection of a filial church, St Don Orione Church, in Ostojow as a monument – thanksgiving for our regained freedom and the fall of communist, was a huge success.
– I must say that when I arrived in Suchedniow for the first time I intended to write about the priest who had been persecuted by the communists. That was my main motif to write about the Reverend Monsignor Jozef Wojcik. I was surprised because I met a clergyman who did not only ‘bow before the party members’ but also loved priesthood and dedicated all his strengths to God and people. His parishioners know it very well, stressing that their shepherd is not only an exemplary priest but also a sports activist and builder of the church in Ostojow. He has renovated the church in Suchedniow beautifully. For years he has been in contact with bishops, priests and believers in Italy, e.g. in 1995 Italy’s President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro awarded him with the distinction ‘Cavalliere della Republica Italiana’ for strengthening good relationships between Italy and Poland. One could talk more about other achievements of the priest but in my book I did not exhaust the topic of his achievements and works but only summed up some of them to prove that the Latin principle concerning Christian life ‘Per crucem ad lucem’ (through the cross to glory) has come true in his person. And by the way, I am glad that my book pays tribute to the heroic priest on his 35th anniversary of work in Suchedniow, the 35th anniversary of liberation the copy of Our Lady of Jasna Gora, and the 50th anniversary of his priesthood that falls in 2008. I honour the priest whom the Holy Father Benedict XVI, in the presence of Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski and nominee Bishop Waclaw Depo, called ‘vero confessore’ (true confessor) on 30 August 2006.
– Thank you for the conversation.