· Priests and the Church in Poland at the beginning of the 1970s in an interview with Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Metropolitan Archbishop of Krakow ·
We are publishing below the text of an interview that the Metropolitan Archbishop of Krakow granted the Spanish publication “Palabra”. The interview came out in this journal’s special issue on Karol Wojtyła: n. 86 in October 1972. The future John Paul II answered questions on the priesthood — which had been the theme of the Synod of Bishops held the in the previous year — and on the situation of the Church in Poland. At the top of every page in the hitherto unpublished Polish manuscript of his replies the Cardinal transcribed verses of the “Veni sancte Spiritus” and of other sentences in Latin: “nihil est in homine”, “nihil est innoxium”, “lava quod est sordidum, et omnia mea tua sunt, totus tuus”. The following is a translation of the interview which was given in Spanish.
Poland is one of the countries that has recorded an increase in vocations to the priesthood in recent years. The image of the priest whom Polish citizens want for their Church undoubtedly plays an important role in this phenomenon. Could you explain, Your Eminence, what the expectations of the Polish Church are in this regard?
I must say first all that it is thanks to the last Synod of Bishops that the reflection on the topic of the ministerial priesthood has been intensified and organized with the involvement of the whole of the Church, spreading from the Bishops’ Conferences to the local Churches and to all the faithful. In this way we have addressed one of the fundamental points of the Church’s awareness. To this awareness of Church, rekindled by the Synod, as regards Poland, is added the question of what Catholics expect of the figure of the priest.
It is true that due to the dearth of Catholic organizations in our country it was not always possible for us to consult all the sectors of the laity in the preparatory phase of the Synod. However other events have enabled us to ascertain how lay people feel about the problem of the priesthood. The celebration in 1970 of the 50th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Paul VI, commemorated with special fervour in Poland, the 25th anniversary of the release of 250 priests from the concentration camp of Dachau and, last year, the preparation of the beatification of Maximilian Kolbe — the Catholic priest who gave his life in Auschwitz in exchange for the life of a father with a family — for our faithful were a sort of spiritual introduction to the Synod, and provided us with an opportunity to note that the figure of the priest is situated at the heart of the awareness of the Church in Poland.
The answers our priests gave to the questions formulated by the Secretariat of the Synod in the preparatory phase also demonstrate this. These answers fit into this awareness: namely, they define the figure of the priest with his own convictions and at the same time are in conformity with the practical needs of the rest of the People of God. A comforting element in Poland is the close relationship that exists between the actual priestly life — the way in which the priest sees himself — and the demands of the living faith of the Church: the sensus fidei of the People of God, for which he was called to the ministry.
From these answers it is clear that for Polish Catholics the problem of the priesthood focuses above all on the actual moment of the vocation to the priesthood. It is rightly conceived of as a very special personal call from Christ, as the natural extension of the call that Jesus addressed to the Apostles. All the faithful in the different contexts of human life, seek to lead a life in harmony with the special intention of God contained in Baptism, but the priestly vocation is understood in its own particularity.
Our faithful feel sure that Christ’s new imperative to “come, follow me” will result in the person’s total commitment to this call. To sum up, they take literally the expression with which the Letter to the Hebrews describes the priest: “ex hominibus assumptus” (Heb 5:1).
This explains how, despite the objective difficulties, seminarians are the object of special attention on the part of all and are exclusively maintained by the donations of the faithful. It also explains the extraordinary participation with which the faithful — in particular in provincial communities but also in the large cities — follow priestly ordinations and the celebrations of first Masses. Let us continue to use the Pauline text as a model to illustrate a second important aspect of this awareness of the priesthood among Polish Catholics: pro hominibus constitutuitur. The faithful see the priest as the substitute and follower of Christ who can face with pleasure any personal sacrifice for the salvation of the souls entrusted to his care. They trust him and in particular they appreciate his practical apostolic zeal and his unflagging spirit of sacrifice for his neighbour, lived out in the spirit of Christ. And I think that it is precisely by insisting on these dimensions of the priestly existence that any kind of “identity crisis” may be overcome.
The priest is useful to society if he succeeds in exercising all his physical and spiritual abilities in his pastoral ministry. Members of the faithful have no need of Church officials or of efficient administrative directors; rather, they need spiritual guides and educators (among my people there is a widespread conviction that Christianity has irreplaceable moral principles and educational possibilities).
In returning to the Synod Document in order to see the Polish situation reflected in it, a small correction would be necessary. Rather than insisting on the crisis identitati s, it would be better to emphasize the identificatio per vitam et ministerium that constitutes the most important element of the way in which our faithful view the priesthood in the light of all that certain documents of the Second Vatican Council — Lumen Gentium and Presbyterorum Ordinis — have already expressed. This does not mean that Polish priests do not look gratefully at the Synod’s work.
In many Western countries where industrialization has spread an ever more typical mindset of secularized society, people are talking of a “part-time” priesthood, and of priests with professional activities. How do you view this problem, Your Eminence, in relation to the problem of the shortage of clergy?
The Final Document of the Synod answers this question concisely. The part on the doctrinal principals says: “The lifelong permanence of this reality, which is a sign, and which is a teaching of the faith and is referred to in the Church’s Tradition as the priestly character, expresses the fact that Christ associated the Church with himself in an irrevocable way for the salvation of the world, and that the Church dedicates herself to Christ in a definitive way for the carrying out of his work. The minister whose life bears the seal of the gift received through the sacrament of Orders reminds the Church that the gift of God is irrevocable”.
In accordance with the whole of Tradition, the Synod said that the priestly ministry, as a fruit of the particular vocation of Christ, is a gift of God in the Church and for the Church; and this gift, once it has been accepted by a man in the Church, is irrevocable. Indeed, the Synod reaffirmed that: “This special participation in Christ’s priesthood does not disappear even if a priest for ecclesial or personal reasons is dispensed or removed from the exercise of his ministry”.
In practice it is the Church, through the bishop, who calls specific individuals to the priesthood and transmits it to them sacramentally, but this must not make one forget that the author of the gift, the One who instituted the priesthood, is God himself.
“By the laying on of hands there is communicated a gift of the Holy Spirit which cannot be lost (cf. 2 Tim 1:6). This reality configures the ordained minister to Christ the Priest, consecrates him and makes him a sharer in Christ's mission under its two aspects of authority and service. That authority does not belong to the minister as his own; it is a manifestation of the “exousia” of the Lord, by which the priest is an ambassador of Christ in the eschatological ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor 5:18-20)”.
So ‘what can be said of the “part-time’ priest? Here too the answer is provided by the Final Document of the Synod: as a general rule, the priestly ministry shall be a full-time occupation. Sharing in the secular activities of men is by no means to be considered the principal end nor can such participation suffice to give expression to priests’ specific responsibility”.
It is therefore a question of finding a satisfactory answer to the question: what is the priest? And in this perspective the Synod takes up the words of Presbyterorum Ordinis. “ Priests, without being of the world and without taking it as their model, must nevertheless live in the world (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, nn. 3, 17; Jn 17:14-16) as witnesses and stewards of another life, different from this earthly life (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis , n. 3)”.
Only by starting from these premises is it possible to find a realistic solution in conformity with the faith. The Synod did not forget that also in past epochs of the Church’s history there have been priests who were dedicated to extra-priestly activities, but who always exercised them in close connection with their specific pastoral mission; for this reason, “in order to determine in concrete circumstances whether secular activity is in accord with the priestly ministry, inquiry should be made whether and in what way those duties and activities serve the mission of the Church, those who have not yet received the Gospel message and finally the Christian community. This is to be judged by the local Bishop with his presbyterium and, if necessary, in consultation with the Episcopal Conference”.
The decision of the Bishop or Episcopal Conference must therefore take these premises into account. Lastly with regard to carrying out the properly extra-priestly activities, the Synod permits them, but with several important provisos: “When activities of this sort, which ordinarily pertain to the laity, are as it were demanded by the priest's very mission to evangelize, they must be harmonized with his other ministerial activities, in those circumstances where they can be considered as necessary forms of true ministry (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis , n. 8)”.
The Synod therefore assumed the responsibility to protect the divine gift of the priesthood in the Church from the risk of being diminished. In conformity with this sense of responsibility, I consider that the problem of the scarcity of clergy should be framed in its proper dimension. It is impossible to solve the problems that derive from their scarcity by sacrificing their quality. It is a question of improving the priest’s commitment in the Church, but without forgetting that it is only “The Lord of the Harvest” who can multiply this gift and that it is the task of human beings to welcome it with the disposition which it requires by nature.
From your words one understands that the crisis involving the priesthood derives above all from difficulties of faith and from the lack of a genuine priestly spirituality in the Church today. Nevertheless, would you agree that over and above this crisis a vast de-Christianized culture is at work? The Synod to which you have referred also addressed this aspect: what is your opinion in this regard?
During the work of the Synod much was said about the identity crisis of the priest, framing it in the more essential identity crisis of the Church herself. Certain expressions however seem to me to remain vague: it is clear that during the Synod an allusion was made to the subjective awareness of a crisis, rather than to one objective crisis. Having explained this, I shall answer your question directly. Although the Final Document on the priesthood avoided the expression “identity crisis” — used instead in the Preparatory Document — the points it lists to illustrate this crisis calls this idea to mind.
Here is an example: in the face of this situation, “a number of questions are being asked: Does the priestly ministry have any specific nature? Is this ministry necessary? Is the priesthood necessary? Is the priesthood incapable of being lost? What does being a priest mean today? Would it not be enough to have for the service of the Christian communities presidents designated for the preservation of the common good, without sacramental ordination, and exercising their office for a fixed period?”.
It can certainly be said that questions such as these arose in the past in the theological context, making use of presupposed theories elaborated systematically by several theologians as a form of protest against the traditional methodology. Yet, once formulated and communicated to public opinion in the Church, they express a more profound attitude of existential protestation.
The text is concerned precisely with reconstruction of the genesis of this second type of protest. In this regard it continues to refer to the global context of contemporary culture. “The above-mentioned questions, some of them new, others already long familiar but appearing in new forms today, cannot be understood outside the whole context of modern culture, which has strong doubts about its meaning and value. New means of technology have stirred up a hope based excessively on enthusiasm and at the same time they have aroused profound anxiety. One rightly asks whether man will be capable of being master of his work and of directing it toward progress.
“Some, especially the young, despair of the meaning of this world and look for salvation in purely meditative systems and in artificial marginal paradises, abandoning the common striving of mankind. Others dedicate themselves with ardent utopian hope devoid of reference to God to the attainment of some state of total liberation, and transfer the meaning of their whole personal lives from the present to the future. There is therefore a profound cleavage between action and contemplation, work and recreation, culture and religion, and between the immanent and the transcendental aspects of human life”.
The question is: is this diagnosis correct? Or rather: is this background of contemporary culture truly global? The members of the Polish Episcopate, who must face difficulties of every kind, feel that the document generalizes a collection of symptoms characteristic of the Western world with the great technological developments: the situation of the Church in other countries has very different aspects.
The Synod did not of course overlook this reality: “We know that there are some parts of the world in which that profound cultural change has hitherto been less felt, and that the questions raised above are not being asked everywhere, nor by all priests, nor in the same way”.
Well, in Poland, perhaps because of the influence of a different political and social-economic regime, not only was awareness of the cultural transformation less pronounced, but also it was quite differently perceived. The polls conducted recently among Polish priests show that among us it is impossible to speak of an identity crisis of priests or an identity crisis of the Church.
The Church did not lose her identity in the impact with Marxist ideology and the atheist propaganda it spread. When crises exist they are individual; and here we return to the problem of faith and spirituality. Faith is a supernatural grace that develops in the most varied and contradictory circumstances. Given that in this era the increase in material progress creates strong tensions for spiritual life. I think that it should be offset by a radical and proportional increase in the life of faith. This was always the Synod’s fundamental response, over and above diagnoses.
On a par with the mission to promote and guarantee the faith (Magisterium) is the office of guiding believers, faithfully transmitting to them the directives of the Magisterium. In this regard could you explain the above-mentioned allusion to theology?
It is not only a matter of theology but rather, in general, of the formation of public opinion in the Church. In this area the mass media play a crucial role. As is well known they are structured on the basis of their own laws. The latter cannot, of course, work to the detriment of their fidelity to the message.
The problem is so real that the Synod itself echoed it with these words in the Document on Justice in the World: “contemporary consciousness demands truth in the communications systems, including the right to the image offered by the media and the opportunity to correct its manipulation”.
The Church addressed the problem of communications in an increasingly positive and trusting manner (it suffices to think of the Conciliar Decree on the Means of Social Communication Intermirifica , and of the Instruction Communio et Progressio , but at the same time one cannot conceal the objective existence of the risk that the means of communication might violate the right to truth and become one of the main hotbeds of injustice in the contemporary world.
For this reason, in assigning their proper aim to the mass media the synodal text explicitly states: “Since this education makes people decidedly more human, it will help them to be no longer the object of manipulation by communications media or political forces. It will instead enable them to take in hand their own destinies and bring about communities which are truly human”.
These texts concern our topic, even though in a certain sense they transcend it. They help to dispel the doubts that arise in moving from the level of the Church’s life to which pastors and theologians make their own specific contribution, faithful to the pastoral and priestly ministry — to the level of communications and the creation of public opinion. I therefore consider the Synod Fathers’ concern justifiable — in the transfer to social communications — to prevent the distortion of elements fundamental to the Church’s life. It is a matter of fostering a greater awareness of their responsibility in those in charge of communications a greater awareness of their responsibility in building the Church in accordance with Christ’s will, realistically identifying those factors which, — because of private interests and the widespread influence of hero-worship — have a negative influence.
The warning addressed to priests by the Church’s recent Magisterium against the temptation to adjust the proclamation of the word and the criteria for pastoral action to a worldly mentality stands out among the recommendations. Seeing that this mentality is proving to be more and more imbued to the point that “permissive ideology” is spoken of openly. Do you think it necessary to extend this warning also to theologians?
Permissiveness and its manifestations in the theological context are phenomena typical of Western society which, for the time being, have a relatively little influence in countries such as Poland. As an outside observer I can therefore only limit myself to making reflections of a general kind.
In the first place, it is clear that an exclusively horizontal conception — hence somewhat reductive — of freedom is at the root of permissiveness. Freedom is the constitutive element of the dignity of the person proclaimed continuously and defended by Christian thought. It is also necessary, however, to bear in mind that Christian freedom is never an end in itself. Rather it is has an obligatory aim: it is the means for the achievement of true good. A misconception of permission reverses the goal. The end becomes the search for individual freedom, with no reference to the good to which freedom is committed. The practical consequence is that beyond the aim of goodness, freedom becomes abuse and instead of providing the person with the environment for self-fulfilment, determines his emptiness and frustration; all that remains of freedom is the slogan.
Such a setting must certainly be considered absolutely contrary to the criteria that must guide upright theology and effective pastoral action. Theologians and pastors in this situation, should ceaselessly question themselves on the true Christian values. Man carries the norm of his freedom “in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7), to use the Pauline expression.
There are many temptations but there are as many opportunities for recovery. It will be possible to avoid much confusion not by being closed to the problems of the permissive society but rather by recalling that it must be the Christian message — its rooting in the natural conscience — and not permissiveness that dictates the laws of the struggle for authentic freedom, which is also and always one of the indispensable elements of the Church’s mission.
What, in your opinion, Your Eminence, is the teaching that priests today, especially Polish priests, can draw from Maximilian Kolbe’s shining examples?
The fact that Maximilian Mary Kolbe was beatified during the Synod attributes to his figure — as Cardinal Duval, President-Delegate of the Synodal Assembly stressed — a significance that surpasses the national boundaries and makes him an example for all priests: the symbol of a time marked by inhuman cruelty but also by comforting episodes of holiness. Then for Poles, his Beatification clearly acquires a special character: it reminds the oldest among us priests of the torments suffered with the rest of the people in the extermination camps where suffering and solidarity prepared the Church in Poland to withstand new trials. For the younger ones, however, Fr Kolbe is an indication of what a priest must ask of himself in the service of others.
Other aspects of his personality can also be considered paradigmatic (it is enough to think of his devotion to Our Lady and to his apostolic action in the press).
His figure as a whole, so closely portrayed by the Cross, is a pressing appeal to the apostolic aim of the Christian vocation and to the total renunciation of self which constitutes a permanent dimension of priestly life.
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