‘Cinematic first’ reveals WWII heroism of two of Poland’s greatest spiritual figures
Two of Poland's greatest spiritual figures from the 20th century were raised to the altar yesterday in a ceremony in Warsaw.
To mark the occasion, in what may be a cinema first, an official Church-supported beatification film revealing the pair’s shocking experiences during the Warsaw Uprising received its cinema premiere later in the evening.
For Stefan Wyszyński, who became the head of the Catholic church in Poland during the testing time of Stalinism, the events shown in the film Wyszyński - Revenge or Forgiveness forged his character and set the course for his later spiritual mission.
For Mother Elżbieta, who had set up a school for blind orphans, which still operates today, the trials of the war forced her to protect what she had already achieved.
Around 7,000 people took part in their beatification celebrations at Warsaw’s Temple of Divine Providence, including around 600 priests, 80 bishops from Poland and 45 bishops from abroad.
Stefan Wyszyński was a towering figure in post-war Poland. As Primate of Poland from 1948 until his death in 1981, he guided the Church through a gauntlet of difficulties and suffered repression at the hands of the communists.
In 1949, he initiated talks with the communist authorities, which resulted in an agreement in 1950 that allowed the Church some degree of freedom.
In exchange for condemning the actions of underground partisans and recognising the new borders of Poland, the Catholic church received a guarantee that religion would be taught in schools and it also got the go ahead for the Catholic University of Lublin.
In 1953, though, when the authorities reneged on their earlier agreements, Wyszyński was arrested. He was held until 1956 in internment camps. He suffered hunger and cold, yet he maintained his resolute Christian faith.
For over thirty years, he would remain under close surveillance by the Security Service through wiretaps, film and tape recordings, photographs, observations, denunciations and reports.
In the 1960s, Wyszyński was instrumental in achieving reconciliation with Germany. During the Vatican Council, he penned a special letter from the Polish bishops to their German counterparts.
It analysed one thousand years of Polish-German relations and ended with the famous sentence: 'We forgive and ask for forgiveness'.
At the end of the 1960s, Wyszyński was dubbed the Thousand-Year Primate when he led the fight against the government in the battle for the soul of Poland when the nation celebrated it’s 1000-rear anniversary in 1966.
For the Church it was a millennium of Christianity, while for the government it was one thousand years of statehood.
Wyszyński was an unquestionable moral authority and spiritual leader in the social changes that led to the fall of Communism. In 1980-81 he supported and protected the nascent Solidarity movement from danger.
Also beatified yesterday was Róża Czacka, who became known as Mother Elżbieta. Her achievements in setting up an education and care centre for blind orphans in Laski, near Warsaw, and adapting the Braille alphabet to the Polish language are less well known.
Having lost her sight at a young age after falling off a horse, her doctor suggested that although she would be blind for the rest of her life, there were many blind orphans in the Kingdom Poland who could use her help.
She would end up establishing the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross, and then with land donated to the new order she would establish the school in Laski.
Wyszyński – Revenge or Forgiveness finds the lead characters in 1944, when in the heat of war Wyszyński as a young priest has recently been appointed chaplain to a unit of Home Army soldiers in Kampinos Forest near Warsaw.
The unit is based in Mother Elżbieta’s institution in Laski, which has been turned into an insurgent hospital. Everyone knows him there under the nomme de guerre Radwan III.
The film follows his fate during the Warsaw Uprising. Successive transports of the wounded from the capital require immediate care.
German patrols scour the area in search of retreating Polish soldiers.
Among the wounded brought to the hospital is an SS-man unrepentant for his crimes against Jews and Poles, which causes Wyszyński to question his commitment to forgiveness.
Wyszyński is also pulled out of a street execution at the last minute by an SS officer who strangely offers clemency to him because he is a priest but orders the remaining civilians to be gunned down.
Ksawery Szlenkier, who played the role of Wyszyński, told TFN: “He was such a great figure because he lived through terror, German and Stalinist. He had to decide between revenge or forgiveness. Yet, despite everything he saw, he chose his faith.
“After the war, he was able to use this great spiritual strength to lead the church in a very difficult time for it.”
Mother Elżbieta is shown in the film as a moral support for Wyszyński.
Her Christian resolve is more unwavering than Wyszyński's.
Playing the role of Mother Elżbieta, Małgorzata Kożuchowska told TFN: “Mother Elżbieta is not well known abroad but she is also not well known in Poland. I hope this film changes that a bit. The fact that the centre for the blind has survived up to today is the greatest proof of her greatness.
“She is testimony to her faith, to overcoming difficulties, not giving up and finding meaning in life.”
The beatification mass in Warsaw’s Wilanów district yesterday was headed by the Vatican’s Cardinal Marcello Semeraro. He publicly announced the beatification decree previously issued by Pope Francis.
It means that Wyszyński and Mother Elżbieta now officially bear the title Blessed and are a step closer to full sainthood.