Holy popes and bishops speaking about the great Polish victory on 15 August 1920

Jozef Szaniawski

As Chief of State of the Republic of Poland, Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army, in my own name and on behalf of the whole Nation, I give You, Blessed Virgin Mary, and through You to the Triune God, cordial thanks for all the graces granted to the Polish Nation throughout nine centuries, for delivering our nation from hard slavery and giving the victory of the Polish forces in the last battles. Grateful for your protection we, Your children and Your subjects, implore You, continue to help us, be our good Mother and gracious Queen. Take away sins and defeats from us and restore the peace we desire. In turn we promise to do our best that our and Your Nation may fulfil diligently the ministry we received from God, that through him we may show good manners, sacrificial love of our Homeland, true education and freedom to obey laws and authorities, justice for all and care to improve the fate of our Nation. May God help us fulfil this promise, and You, Most Sacred Queen, intercede for us and help us receive the blessing of the Heavens.
Jozef Pilsudski, the Act of Poland’s dedication to the Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 25 August 1920.

The Feast of the Polish Army is to commemorate the biggest victory of the Polish forces in their history. On the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is called the Feast of Our Lady of Herbs in the Polish tradition, 15 August 1920, the Polish Army attacked the Red Army, which was then the most powerful, most populous and most inhuman war machine in the world history. Its divisions were sure of defeating Poles, of conquering Warsaw and that they could march towards Berlin, Paris and other European capitals as strategically planned by the government of Soviet Russia.
The Battle of Warsaw in 1920, called the Miracle on the Vistula, did not only save the newly regained Polish sovereignty. Besides the Battle of Midway or the Battle of Stalingrad it was one of the three most important battles of the 20th century and at the same time one of the most crucial ones in the whole history of man. The Polish Army headed by the victorious commander Marshal Jozef Pilsudski stopped and defeated the one million storm of the Red Army and saved Poland and all of Europe from slavery and the introduction of the criminal Soviet totalitarianism and communist system. It referred to the most wonderful traditions of the Republic of Poland when in the Western countries Poland was commonly called the ‘bulwark of Christianity’ or of Europe, which meant the same in those times.

Pope Benedict XV

Like centuries ago, in 1920 the deciding battle of Europe’s fate actually took place in the territory of Poland. Only few people understood that threat. On 5 August 1920, Pope Benedict XV asked all bishops of the Catholic world to pray for ‘God’s mercy for unfortunate Poland.’ The Pope stressed that the whole of Europe was endangered, and he referred to the message of November 1918, ‘History wrote a golden chapter about Poland’s merits for the Christian religion and European civilisation, but, unfortunately, it also had to write how Europe repaid her vilely for that. Since it took Poland’s political personality by force and attempted to destroy her Catholic faith and nationality in some parts. But Poles managed to keep both, with persistence that is worth admiring, and currently, having endured the persecutions that had lasted for over a century, Poland, always faithful – Polonia simper fidei – is showing bigger vitality than ever…’
On 5 August 1920, when the Soviet Army seized half of Poland the Holy Father Benedict XV appealed to bishops from all European countries since he stated in his message, ‘Now we must deal with the most important things. Now not only Poland’s national existence is at stake but also the whole of Europe is endangered by the atrocities of this new war. Not only love of Poland but also love of Europe orders us to join all the faithful in imploring the Most High God that through the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary he may save the Polish Nation from her final defeat and may turn away this new plague from Europe that is weak from bleeding.’
A month later, on 8 September 1920, after the historical victory in the Battle of Warsaw, in his special letter the Pope wrote to the Polish bishops, ‘We have never doubted that God will be with Poles who rendered great merits to the religion throughout ages, and we announced public imploration when one commonly despaired about Poland’s salvation and when her enemies, intoxicated with their numbers and successes, asked one another the blasphemous question «Where is their God?» And the result of the war showed clearly that «God is among Israel.» Since at his sign as if at that very moment they began opposing this big threat, while we, together with all the faithful, raised our hands imploring God like Moses, and Poland was fighting courageously for her altars and homes. The enemies’ furious attack aimed at destroying Poland, that bulwark of Europe, and then undermining and demolishing the whole Christianity and the culture based on it, spreading the crazy and obsessional doctrine!’

Blessed John Paul II

Pope John Paul II many a time referred to the unprecedented significance of the Battle of Warsaw. Praying at the graves of those we died defending their Homeland, the soldiers of the Polish Army, in the cemetery in Radzymin, he said, ‘The Miracle on the Vistula and the victory over the Red Army are an important date in our national history. It was a big victory of the Polish forces, so big that it cannot be explained in the purely natural way and that’s why it was called ‘the Miracle on the Vistula.’ It was a big historical battle for our freedom and yours, our freedom and the freedom of Europe. We are thinking about the soldiers, officers; we are thinking about the great commander Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, about all to whom we owe this victory. We entrust all the dead to God’s mercy.’
Throughout the whole period of the Polish People’s Republic the communist propaganda, censorship and even the KGB and the Security Services either told lies or forbade to write and proclaim the truth about the historical victory of Poland and Poles over the Russian aggression towards Europe in 1920. The Holy Father John Paul II reminded us of that uttering the meaningful words, ‘There has been a conspiracy of silence concerning the great Miracle on the Vistula for years. That’s why today the Divine Providence as if orders us to maintain the remembrance of this great event in the history of our nation and all of Europe that took place on the eastern side of Warsaw.’ The victory over the Red Army was a special experience for Karol Wojtyla in 1920 because he belonged to the first generation of Poles born in free country after the long period of slavery. The year 1920 was a message for him on the basis of which after years he as Pope John Paul II shaped history at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries and ‘renewed the face of the earth.’ John Paul II spoke these words at the Marshal Pilsudski Square at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, soldier of the Polish Army, who died defending his Homeland against the invasion of the Red Army in 1920.
Karol Wojtyla regarded Jozef Pilsudski as the most outstanding Pole of the 20th century and in general, as one of the most eminent men in the whole history of Poland. In his message ‘Memory and Identity’ John Paul II wrote, ‘You know that I was born in 1920, in May, when the Bolsheviks marched towards Warsaw. And that’s why since my birth I have carried the great debt towards those who died fighting against the aggressor and who won, giving the lives for their country […]. Then, in 1920, communism appeared as very strong and dangerous. It was already in 1920 that it seemed that the communists would conquer Poland and would march to Western Europe, that they would conquer the world. But it did not happen. The Miracle on the Vistula – the victory of Marshal Pilsudski in the battle against the Red Army stopped the Soviets’ attempts.’

Pius XI, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Cardinal Kakowski

Cardinal Achille Ratti was not only the first ambassador and nuncio in Poland that was independent from 11 November 1918 but also was Pilsudski’s friend. He was the only foreign diplomat who did not leave Warsaw during the days of defeat and terror in August 1920! Moreover, he went to Radzymin while the Battle of Warsaw was still waged. It was a symbolical gesture, very meaningful for the fighting Poles. Then, from 1922 Achille Ratti as Pope Pius XI recognised the historical meaning of the defeat of the communist barbarians and many a time referred to Poland as the bulwark of Europe and Christian civilisation. He supported Poland and Poles throughout his pontificate. He saw – he was a witness – Poles praying in 1920. He joined those prayers and he saw the soldiers and the Commander-in-Chief imploring the Mother of God. Among other people Nuncio Ratti promoted the heroic figure of Fr Ignacy Skorupko in the universal Church. It was Nuncio Cardinal Achille Ratti that wrote, ‘I remember being together at the meeting with Marshal Pilsudski in Vilnius. I witnessed how Marshal Pilsudski prayed in the Gate of Dawn before the Picture of Our Lady of Sorrow. He asked me to bless two pictures of Our Lady, which he intended to hang above the beds of his dearest daughters.’
Saint Maximilian Kolbe wrote that when Pilsudski received a picture of Our Lady of Vilnius he said, «The Most Blessed Mother took upon herself as if the ministry of goodness since when man only looks at this picture he becomes better.»’ Fr Kolbe added, ‘The Mother of God accompanied him in his combat march to independent Poland. Jozef Pilsudski received his love of Heavenly Mother from his earthy mother whom he loved very much. From his mother he also learnt to love the Mother of all people and loved her in the picture of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. That love accompanied him all his life. Now it may be easier to understand why the Mother of God helped him overcome the Bolshevik masses on the day of the Assumption.’
Pilsudski went on his knees to the Picture of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius twice, for the first time as a nine year old boy called Ziuk together with his mother on the day of his First Communion and for the second time as the Marshal, together with Nuncio Archbishop Achille Ratti who later became Pope Pius XI. He carried a silver holy medal with Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn all his life. He had it in Siberia as well as in Russian and German prisons. He had it on 15 August 1920. And he was buried with this medal in the Wawel Cathedral, and his coffin is beneath the picture of Her to whom he prayed all his life. The best biographer of Pilsudski, who was also a soldier of his legions, Colonel and Minister Waclaw Jedrzejewicz wrote how religious Pilsudski was, ‘He attached great importance to certain external signs. He showed a clear dedication to Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn all his life. Her picture always hung above his bed. When he went on business or on holiday he always carried her picture (given to him in Krakow in August 1914 when he set out for war) on him. Cardinal Kakowski said rightly, «Pilsudski is a typical Pole. He has serious doubts about God’s existence but at the same time he has a fervent dedication to the Mother of God.» He was in situations that seemed fatal. But some incident, some unforeseen circumstances brought about help. Such was the night of 5/6 August 1920, «I knew what to do, and I could take a decision… Since God’s hand acts, guides and protects me. God’s hand» – the Marshal recollected.’

Primate Hlond and Bishop Gawlina

On 12 May 1935, during the national mourning after Marshal Pilsudski’s death, Poland’s Primate Cardinal August Hlond wrote a message, read in all the churches in the Republic of Poland, ‘Next Saturday we are going to bury the Body of Marshal Pilsudski in the Royal Crypt at the Wawel. Apart from many other merits he wrote his name in the history of resurrected Poland as the conqueror of the armed bolshevism that wanted to conquer Poland and make it part of the worldwide Soviet Union. […] With his victories of 15 and 16 August 1920 Marshal Pilsudski joined the line of the historical defenders of faith. Under his command the victorious deed of the heroic Polish Army, called the Miracle on the Vistula, gained the significance of Lepanto and Vienna (victories over the Turks in 1571 and 1683). For that Jozef Pilsudski deserves eternal gratitude of the Polish citizens and the whole Christianity.’
Field Bishop of the Polish Army Jozef Gawlina, who later was a hero in the battle of Monte Cassino, often referred to those words of Primate Hlond and to the historical date of 15 August. In his famous funeral homily at the Marshal’s coffin in front of the altar of St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw on 17 May 1935 Bishop Gawlina said, ‘The year 1920. The fate of the West is to be decided. The ghastly moment about which the witness Pope Pius XI said that «the angel of darkness was waging a gigantic battle against the angel of light,» that the whole Poland rose against the enemy. And her commander was Jozef Pilsudski. […] Commander, you became the executor of the verdicts of God’s justice for the sin and harm of Poland’s partitions. You erased the blasphemy of the partitioners, who wanted our Homeland in «the name of the Triune God» to tear apart and bury forever. Jozef Pilsudski, the First Marshal of Poland! More than the kings’ crown was put on your head. The Lord of Hosts marked your spirit with the indelible seal of his chosen ones. Your immortal spirit. And the nation is erecting You a monument in its own heart. Your work will live firmly in your thoughts and deeds. Marshal, You became the executor of the verdicts of God’s justice for those numerous tears shed, for those destroyed families, for the persecutions of the holy faith, for the disgraced churches, for the waves of exiles who marched to Siberia among sufferings, for the silent groans and voices of despair that called to God among the jingles of chains. Through You Christian culture triumphed over barbarism. Europe is bowing in lowly homage before you. The Mother – Church that You rescued gives You thanks […].

Message of Bishop Ploski

Many years later, in the completely different Poland and completely different epoch, the successor of Jozef Gawlina was the late Bishop Tadeusz Ploski, the Field Bishop of the Polish Army who lost his life, together with the President of the Republic of Poland, in the national catastrophe at Smolensk on 10 April 2010. From the perspective of the 21st century Bishop Ploski evaluated meaningfully the historical role of Marshal Pilsudski and the significance of the great Polish victory over Soviet Russia for the new generations of Poles. He stated, ‘Jozef Pilsudski submitted all things to one idea – freedom and greatness of the Homeland. [...] Pilsudski was one of the most wonderful, greatest figures in our thousand year history. He was not only a statesman and politician but also a great political visionary. He was the commander who gave Poland such victories that the whole future Polish generations will boast of. He was a brilliant strategist, real commander having great moral power and firm character and at the same time he was an extremely humble personality. He was a Polish national hero whose our enemies were afraid of since they feared strong Poland. His whole life fulfilled the motto, which was most important to Poles: God – Honour – Homeland. Marshal Pilsudski as the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army crashed the Red Army in the Battle of Warsaw on 15 August 1920. It was then that he defended Poland and perhaps the whole Europe, anyway its considerable part, against communism. «For that Jozef Pilsudski deserves eternal gratitude of the Polish citizens and the whole Christianity» said his contemporary Poland’s Primate August Hlond. […] Karol Wojtyla as a young priest, then as a bishop and cardinal often prayed at the Marshal’s coffin in the crypt of the Silver Bells in the Wawel Cathedral, just near the picture of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, which Pilsudski venerated all his wife.’
[…] Among the statements of the Marshal himself, the most accurate, almost encyclopaedical, definition of the Miracle on the Vistula is, «This war almost shook the fate of the whole civilised world and the work of our victory created the historical foundations.» On some other occasion, addressing young people, he said, «We have won our Homeland’s independence for you but you will live, work and govern Poland. Remember: if you turn to the East you will go at least one century back as for your culture, economy, etc. If you turn to the West, Poland will develop at least one century faster.» This is the adequate message to all future Polish generations, including the contemporary generation of the 21st century.
[…] Perhaps this most universal and timeless message of Marshal Pilsudski, referring not only to big politics and military struggles, will find its way to the hearts and minds of young people, «To be conquered and not to surrender – it is victory. To win and rest on laurels – it is defeat.»’

* * *

Jozef Szaniawski
Doctor of history, professor at the Higher School of Social and Media Culture and the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University. His books include the monographs entitled ‘Marszalek Pilsudski w obronie Polski i Europy’ [Marshal Pilsudski Defending Poland and Europe] and ‘Pulkownik Kuklinski – tajna misja’ [Colonel Kuklinski – Secret Mission].

"Niedziela" 33/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl