CARDINAL BOLESŁAW KOMINEK
A precursor of European forgiveness and reconciliation
On 18 November 1965 Polish bishops present at the Second Vatican Council sent letters to episcopates of 56 countries with an invitation for participation in ceremonies of the 1000th anniversary of Poland Baptism. The main initiator and an editor of the letter to the Episcopate of Germany was cardinal Bolesław Kominek, a governor of the diocese of Wrocław – and he wrote in this letter about forgiveness to Germany and a request for forgiveness to Poles. The message of Polish bishops to their German brothers in Christ’s pastoral office is undoubtedly one of the most important documents which positively influenced the shape of today’s Europe
On the 50th anniversary of the appearance of the message, it is worth reminding that cardinal Bolesław Kominek is a precursor of the European reconciliation. Forgiveness and giving hand to the German nation 20 years after the second world war in which Poland was the first victim, is an act of an unusual courage and foresight. On 5 December 1965 German bishops responded to the message, declaring that the dialogue begun in this way will be continued in Poland and in Germany.
It is necessary to get out of isolation
- Cardinal Bolesław Kominek, brought up in a multi-ethnic environment of Silesia, speaking perfect German, a fervent Polish patriot thoroughly analyzing the international situation thought that neither safety of borders nor participation of Poland in the community of free nations of Europe would be possible in the future unless it was possible to explain the western neighbouring countries of Polish raison d’etat – says Marek Mutor, the director of the Centre ‘Remembrance and future’.
Asked about the atmosphere accompanying the days from 50 years before, prelate priest Jan Krucina, a personal secretary of cardinal Bolesław Kominek and a witness of the reconciliation letter emphasizes: - The relation between the East and the West was, in fact, the atmosphere of the cold war. The basic intention of the letter was: cardinal Kominek stated that it is necessary to get out of that big isolation and, therefore, it was necessary to make the West see the fate of eastern countries, especially Poland. However, we must still remember that everything which remained on western lands was the post-German welfare. We were burdened by taxes, fees and, in fact, we did not have a perspective of a normal development, normal life. Therefore, cardinal Kominek decided to publish various reminders in press, emphasizing that the Western Lands were the property of Poland, property which had to be utilized and brought back to Poland and Europe in its modern shape. Cardinal had one set line: it was necessary to bring reconciliation and union in Europe.
We give and ask for forgiveness
The message was being written 20 years after the Second World War when the western Polish border was not acknowledged yet, and some people considered it as temporary. The idea of writing the message was being accompanied by three ideas: the state one – regulating the issue of the border, the Christian one – reconciliation of nations and regulating the issue of ecclesiastical administration on the Western Lands and ending the state of temporariness. Pope Paul VI had been informed about this letter before, the text had been consulted with the German party but it was also necessary to convince other Polish bishops of this message. Finally, the authority of the primate Stefan Wyszyński was decisive. The letter was signed by 3 archbishops and 32 bishops with cardinal Wyszyński at the helm.
The famous fragment of the letter by Polish bishops says: ‘In this very Christian and also human spirit, we, stretch out our hands to you, sitting on benches here and we give our forgiveness and ask for it. and if You – German bishops and fathers of the Vatican Council – shake the given hands in a brotherly manner, we will be able to celebrate the Millennium in a completely Christian way and with peaceful conscience’. Several days later the text of the letter was revealed in Germany by the Catholic informative agency KNA. German bishops responded to it on 5 December 1965. ‘A lot of atrocity was experienced by the Polish nation from the Germans and on behalf of the German nation. We know that we must carry the consequences of the war, also hard for our nation (…). We are grateful that facing millions of Polish victims of those times, you remember about those Germans who opposed to the demon and devoted their lives in many cases. (…) So, we also ask for forgetting and forgiveness. Forgetting is a human matter, whereas the request for forgiveness is an appeal addressed to the one who experienced harm, so that he could look at that harm with a merciful eye of God and express his consent to the new beginning (…). We accept the outstretched hands with brotherly respect’ – wrote German bishops.
We will not forgive! Go away traitors of the nation!
The public opinion in Poland was informed about the exchange of the letters not earlier than on 10 December. What were the reasons of this long silence of mass media? – In fact we have not got an explicit answer till today. Maybe Polish party-governmental factors were consulting this issue with Moscow – says Fr. Prof. Józef Pater, a director of the Archdiocesan Museum in Wrocław, a witness of those events. – The fact is that the communist authorities were particularly strongly and aggressively criticizing the gesture of forgiveness included in the message. The propaganda campaign which soon changed into the campaign of hatred, were inaugurated by ‘Warsaw Life’ and ‘The Common Word’. Authors of the letter met with a lot of insults and accusations of having forgotten about Auschwitz and also Polish priests murdered by the Nazis, and of serving to the Germans and wanting to resign from the border on Odra and Nysa. Following the articles in press, there appeared brochures and books, and a mass action of public speeches and protest meetings in workplaces was begun. I remember writings on walls, bridges: ‘We will not forgive!’, ‘Traitors of the nation!’, ‘On whose behalf?’. As Fr. Prof. Pater emphasizes, political parties criticism of the message accompanied the ceremonies of the Millennium of Poland Baptism for the next whole year. As a result, bishops from other countries, including German bishops and pope Paul VI, did not receive entrance visas to Poland for the millennium ceremonies.
The first applause
After return Rome on 12 December 1965, cardinal Stefan Wyszyński was speaking in the Warsaw cathedral: ‘We did not bring any detriment to our country. If you heard something different, treat it as a lie, please’. Because of his health problems, archbishop Bolesław Kominek returned from Rome a bit later. – After his return Poland, he expressed his opinion about the message twice in the Wrocław cathedral, first to all believers on 6 February 1966, and then to young people – on 27 February 1966. Later his speeches were widespread all over Poland, especially on tapes – says Fr. Prof. Pater. – On 6 February he explained in a homily, that he was surprised by the accusations from communists against bishops, and he emphasized the significance of reconciliation. What strikes in the archbishop’s speech, is theological language and theological thinking about social issues. What was striking for the very preacher was – as he says – an unexpected necessity of speaking about the simplest but basic issues: about love to our neighbor, about forgiveness. He knew it was necessary to speak about the Vatican council, about sophisticated issues, whereas he had to speak about issues of revenge and resentment.
When archbishop Kominek was speaking in the Wrocław cathedral, it was the first time when people had given an applause in the church. – It has never been like that before – says Fr. Prof. Pater. – The archbishop was surprised and thought at the first moment that it might be a protest against what he was saying. But his Secretary told him: ‘People are giving you an applause as they accept and support Archbishop’. And archbishop Kominek explained: ‘Do not be afraid! This discussion did not bring us any harm. It was a great occasion for forgiveness and purification!’.
A diplomat and a priest
Asked whether cardinal Kominek had been a diplomat or a priest, prelate priest Jan Krucina emphasizes that, first of all, he was a warm-hearted and open man: - His diplomatic activity, his human inquisitiveness resulted from his inside which was very religious. I sometimes visited him twice or three times a day. He always said, when saying goodbye: - Come, let’ s say one ‘Hail Mary’. When I came to him for the Holy Mass in the morning, he had already been engrossed in reflection. He was not a cold, cynic diplomat. He was a warm-hearted, open and friendly man who thought that people must agree with one another, not quarrel about their possessions.