I thank God for all things
Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk
On 26 August 2009 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the appointment of Archbishop Josef Kowalczyk as Apostolic Nuncio to Poland by John Paul II. In the Vatican diplomacy, apart from Italy, it is the only case where the nuncio has been the citizen of the country he was sent to. According to the idea of John Paul II the consecration of the new papal envoy was to take place on 26 August 1989 in Castel Gandolfo, in the chapel with the picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa given to Pius XI by the Polish Bishops’ Conference. The Pope had already prepared a homily for that event. However, the consecration did not happen. On that day the appointment of Rev. Monsignor Jozef Kowalczyk was announced. He received his bishop’s mitre on 20 October 1989 in St Peter’s Basilica. At the same time John Paul II gave him the title of Titular Archbishop of Heraclea. Archbishop Kowalczyk chose the words ‘Fiat voluntas Tua’ (Let your will be done) as the motto of his bishop’s service. Archbishop Kowalczyk returned to Poland after 24 years of studies and work in the Vatican. John Paul II gave him as the first Apostolic Nuncio to Poland after World War II the task of negotiating and signing a concordat as well as making a new administrative division of the Polish Church. Archbishop Kowalczyk began his apostolic mission in Poland during a solemn Mass in the Warsaw Cathedral of St John the Baptist on 26 November 1989. The next day he prayed at Jasna Gora, ‘I dedicate to you, Mary, and through you to your Son, the Redeemer of man, my whole mission of the apostolic nuncio, which I understand as service to the Church and nation. May the Redeemer, through your intercession, give me the light of his grace so that I could properly discern the signs of the times in Poland and act in accordance with the requirement of the signs of the times.’ Then he met the whole Bishops’ Conference that gathered for their annual retreat at Jasna Gora. The new Pontifical Nuncio to Poland presented his letter of credentials to the Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski in Warsaw on 6 December 1989.
Rev. Msg Ireneusz Skubis: – We are very happy to host you in our editorial board. It is exactly 20 years ago that your appointment to be the Apostolic Nuncio to Poland was announced. Please give us some details of this important moment.
Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk: – Thank you very much for inviting me to ‘Niedziela’ and for this nice meeting. Referring to that memorable date I can say that one Sunday in July 1989 the Holy Father invited me for the Angelus Prayer to Castel Gandolfo where he was on holiday, and he told me to go to Poland and become the Apostolic Nuncio to rebuild what the years of communism had broken and to make the life of the Church in Poland fully normalised, thinking of her future as well. I had had some experiences accompanying Archbishop Luigi Poggi in his visits to Poland. I was also aware of the fact that after the death of the Polish Primate in 1981 there actually was no representative of the Holy See in Poland. Of course, it was a big surprise for me since we worked in the structures of the Holy See helping the Holy Father in the dimension it was defined but I did not think of being appointed to some post in Poland and in Warsaw as a nuncio, the more that it was not the common practice of the Holy See, expect for Italy whose nuncios have always been Italian, to appoint someone to be a nuncio to his homeland. Thus it was an extraordinary decision and no wonder I had some fears about it. This is what it was like.
– Your Excellency, the Holy Father knew that you were the best man for this post since you had worked in the Vatican for several years, you knew Italian very well, you knew the structures of the Holy See and moreover, you participated in the negotiations leading to regulate the relationships between the state and the Church.
– In the year 1969 the Roman Curia was internationalised. The Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments asked the Polish Bishops’ Conference to present a candidate to work in this congregation and Cardinal Wyszynski suggested my name. I was accepted in 1969 and worked in this congregation till 18 October 1978 when the Holy Father appointed me to work in the Vatican Secretariat of State. Working in the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments I accompanied Archbishop Luigi Poggi in his visits to Poland, especially in the years 1976-77 where an intensive dialogue was conducted and the Commission of representatives of Holy See for Public Affairs and Polish Episcopate was created. By the way, the Polish team lived in Rome and was accredited to the Vatican and we worked in the institutions that employed us, fulfilling additional tasks I have just mentioned. This is how I entered the structures of diplomatic work and gained practical experiences, which I think have been useful at work and my direct service for the Holy Father.
– Working for the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments you were involved in slightly different sphere of actions; your work in the Vatican Secretariat of State required somewhat different look at many matters…
– Yes, it did. The Holy Father John Paul II was a genius. In Poland we did not get to know him fully. Then we got to know him more and more, in his daily activities and I must say that it was shocking to see what strata of knowledge and spirituality were in him. The new call, which was his papacy, released extraordinary strength and energy in him. Suffice to say, on 16 October 1978 he was elected pope; the inauguration of his pontificate was held on 22 October and the first visit abroad was on 28 January 1979. In the first days of March 1979 his first encyclical ‘Redemptor hominis’, which he wrote himself, was published. This illustrates what giant of work he was and what knowledge he had. When we asked him, ‘Holy Father, when did you find time to write the encyclical?’ he answered that it was no effort at all, that he had brought all ideas from Poland and now he simply wrote them down. I am happy to give testimony to that since I have a copy of his handwritten encyclical – the manuscript is in the Vatican Archives – and we fulfilled the laborious task to translate the Polish text of the encyclical into Italian. Moreover, I must say that those days, months and years of direct service to the Holy Father John Paul II were wonderful, and the great confidence he put in us obliged us to do our best.
– Please admit: did you not regret to leave Rome and to leave such a pope?
– Leaving Rome was an emotional experience for me since we had direct contacts with the Holy Father. Coming to Poland, considering the circumstances, was a new reality. A new chance but also the awareness that I was still collaborating with the Holy Father although it was from some distance, but it meant bigger personal responsibility. It also required much work on my own character. But I must say that I met here in Poland, both in the Church’s environment and among the laity, with openness, kindness and understanding that we were united by the same service to the Gospel, the Church and the Holy Father.
– Can you say whether the Holy Father gave you some special message on that occasion?
– I think that first of all the Holy Father realised that I knew the work of the Roman Curia to some extent, that I knew the spiritual reality of the Church in Poland, and because of that it seemed that after so many years when Poland did not have her nuncio it would be easier to find a proper space of dialogue. Well, the Holy Father clearly stated that the new reality immerging in the period of transitions in Poland created space to build a democratic state and that an international document had to be worked out – at first, it was called a convention but during our negotiations we concluded that it would be a concordat, which would be obligatory for the state and for the Church. The second important task was a new administrative division of the Church in Poland. I must say that the Holy Father showed big determination – and we approached this task fearfully – and the external circumstances favoured the changes. Today we thank God for that. If the Holy Father had not been convinced that the idea was right and if he had not helped us we would not have been able to complete it ourselves.
– So you came to Poland and began building what is called nunciature, I do not only mean the structures but also, and above all, the real space of the Vatican’ presence in Warsaw. What did you begin with?
– There is the document of Paul VI, his motu proprio ‘Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum’ issued in 1969, which defines the functions of the representative of the Holy See in a given country and particular Church. It clearly states that a representative of the Holy See is a visible sign of unity of the particular Church with Peter – the particular Church acts ‘cum Petro et sub Petro’. I and my collaborators always tried to realise the tasks defined by the document, both in the dimension of the particular Church and in the dimensions of the state structures, and I think that the fruit of our work is good. And we thank God for that.
– The function of the apostolic nuncio embraces many important segments, first of all, contacts with bishops, with the diocesan and religious clergy, contacts with the authorities of the state as well as contacts in the diplomatic forum. In Poland the nuncio is the Doyen of the Diplomatic Corpus. What is your view concerning all these works today?
– I can say that for the part of the Polish bishops I always encountered great friendliness. And there were certain defined schemes that had to be slowly changed. For example, as far as the religious life in Poland is concerned, the structures of the Conferences of Major Superiors of Men and Women Religious were created, proper statutes were passed, and all these matters were completed and became a new reality. But new problems appeared, too. For instance, the problem connected with the separation of the Pontifical Missionary Works from the Commission for Missions of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. It required hard, peaceful and consistent work. Today, we can only thank Lord God for everything. As far as the Diplomatic Corps is concerned I would like to remark that the state authorities insisted that I became the head of the Diplomatic Corps. It was justified by history: during the period of Nuncio Achille Ratti Pope Benedict XV raised the Apostolic Nunciature in Poland to the first rank and consequently, the nuncio became the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. Then Primate Wyszynski and the state authorities wanted to continue this practice. But in fact, this experience was applied slowly but until today I meet the members of the Diplomatic Corps as my friends, feeling in some sense to be their chaplain. And as such I am warmly welcomed. When we said good-bye to the ambassador of one of the Muslim countries he said that it was the first time in his service that the Doyen of the Corps was a Catholic priest. And after his experiences in Poland if he was to vote in democratic free elections he would choose such a solution without any hesitations. This was a satisfying statement that made me want to work even more intensively.
– And what was your collaboration with the state authorities like?
– In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I found excellent partners in the person of Krzysztof Skubiszewski, who was an outstanding lawyer and excellent minister. I often recollect those days. Every speech of Minister Skubiszewski was full of content and the ambassadors wanted to have the texts of his speeches since his foreign policy, mutual references, good relationships and vision of a defined perspective of Poland’s development as a country within the structures of Europe and the world was transparent and clear. The successors of Minister Skubiszewski followed this line. Both the diplomatic protocol and the collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is the fundamental reference for our contacts, were very good. The contacts with the Polish presidents, the governments and their representatives, including the prime ministers, were very memorable to me. There were such situations when you had to ask questions concerning Poland’s attitude towards international dimensions and given internal situations. Then the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps always had to thank for such meetings but earlier he had had to do his best to make them happen. Altogether the atmosphere was good and that’s why I think that from this perspective the service of the nuncio in Poland during the period I was to fulfil the duties was a good start to build a desired vision of Poland in the world through the service of the ambassadors.
– And what were your contacts with the congregations like?
– Above all, congregations have their contributions in the service of evangelisation and works of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. At first, women religious belonging to various congregations, constituting the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, did not believe that they could prepare some alternation of their statutes that did not meet fully the requirements of the present reality. Therefore, I tried to prepare new statutes that would consider the present charismatic life in the world, that nuns could choose their superiors, create the structures of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious. When the statutes were defined, revised and confirmed by the Holy See it turned out that in the same hall where the Polish Bishops’ Conference met there was the first meeting during which there was a free election of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, preceded by Mass. I did not participate in the election myself not because I could not do that and was not entitled to, but I wanted to leave this to the religious so that they felt that the election was fully democratic, free election of their major superiors, which was thus established in other particular Churches. This is another reason to thank God for. In the dimensions of Major Superiors of Men Religious this matter was functioning quite well but it was improved, and we also thank God for that. My big concern was that in the dimensions of the so-called collaboration between the structures of charismatic life and the Polish Bishops’ Conference, based on the document of the Holy See ‘Mutuae relationes’, the pastoral dimension where the charismatic life was included in the life of the diocese and the exchange of experiences could function well. And today, when there is a session of the Polish Bishops’ Conference in Warsaw or anywhere else the representatives of the major superiors of women and men religious take part in it; they do not vote but can gain essential knowledge about common subjects that concern the Church in Poland; they can ask questions, share their opinions and suggestions. So I think that we have made a step forward in this sphere, too. We should not feel inferior looking at similar structures introduced in other countries.
– Since 2005 you have worked under the authority of another Pope – Benedict XVI. Have there been any essential changes as far as your work is concerned?
– As far as the essence of my work is concerned there have been no special changes. The visit of Benedict XVI to Poland was a very important event. It was the first international visit of the new Pope and it was a very important event. Thus Benedict XVI wanted to pay homage to the Church from which his predecessor came; he wanted to say that together with this Church he experienced sad moments – we all experienced the mourning of John Paul II, and at the same time he wanted to make us not to lose hope. On the contrary, he wanted us to restore hope and together with him, spiritual successor of John Paul II, go forward and build the reality of the particular Church. And this attitude of the Pope towards Poles still functions, the best evidence being the fact that the Holy Father Benedict XVI greets us in our language during every general audience, every Angelus prayer on Sundays and feasts but he also receives great moral support from Poland, Polish bishops and pilgrims. I also think that Polish people appreciate this care and kindness of the Pope who has done so much good as far as the processes of beatifications and canonisations of the Polish Servants of God are concerned and the process of beatification of John Paul II. Frankly speaking, I could not image better collaboration, better co-operation.
– The whole world saw the banners with the inscription ‘Santo subito’ during the funeral of John Paul II. Perhaps at the end of our conversation you could share your reflections, your views about John Paul II.
– I have not got any slightest doubts concerning the sanctity of Pope John Paul II. During my service in Poland and Rome I had the possibility to observe many people, including the significant ones. But John Paul II was a unique figure. I saw this in the authenticity of his prayer, sincerity and righteousness, in his bearing all kinds of pain and suffering. Only a holy person could bear them. Only such a person could face the reality of the contemporary world, which did not always favour the ministry of Peter. It was struggling with all kinds of systems, especially with real socialism that saw him as an opponent of classes and not as a builder of socialism. The Holy Father always approached people with the greatest love, concerned that the message of the evangelical love was domineering in his ways of actions and in mutual contacts. Here it is worth remembering the words of Benedict XVI about John Paul II. He said that John Paul II had given us a huge capital of teaching but his life was the best encyclical he had ever written. This was also expressed in his humble, silent endurance in suffering and disease that he experienced in his last days. It was very meaningful and edifying. As one of Italian laymen noticed, ‘John Paul II taught us how Catholics should live and he also showed us how we should die.’
– We thank you for this interesting reflection, including your thoughts about your 20 years of work as Apostolic Nuncio to Poland. Together with the team of ‘Niedziela’ and our Readers we want to congratulate you wholeheartedly and wish you much health and all the best in your further service to the Church.
– Thank you very much. I also congratulate ‘Niedziela’ on its making a big milestone as far as evangelisation through the ministry of the word is concerned. I remember the beginnings and I can see what ‘Niedziela’ is doing today. It is a big work of the Divine Providence and your work for the good of the Church and the whole Polish society. I thank and bless all those that together with ‘Niedziela’ contribute to carry the word of God to people in whatever way.