The steadfast Cardinal Swiatek
Stanisław Marek Krolak
He experienced dramatic years of poverty, transportation to Siberia, occupants' pressure and foulness of totalitarianism. However, he never doubted, and facing the biggest trials he showed peace and dignity.
Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek was born on 21 October 1914 in Walga as the second son to Weronika Kromplewska and Jan Swiatek. His father could not enjoy his son's birthday since he fought in the fronts of World War I. In 1917, just after the Bolshevik revolution, the Kromplewski family together with Weronika Swiatek and her sons were transported to Siberia in the vicinity of Tomsk. After the treaty of Riga the Swiateks and the Kromplewskis returned from Siberia. At first they settled in Dukszta and there Kazimierz and Edward received their First Communion in the Church of St Stanislaus Kostka. After five years, in the summer of 1926, Weronika and her sons moved to Baranowicze. The living conditions of the Swiatek family were very hard. 'My mum was a dressmaker and what she managed to sow provided for our living. God, how many times we did not eat any hot meal and any breakfast,' the Cardinal recollected after years.
In 1933, after having passed his final high school examinations, Kazimierz applied to the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, wanting to pursue Polish studies. Towards the end of high school, the alumni went on their last excursion to visit Pinsk. And there was an event that turned out to be crucial for Kazimierz. He recollected, 'After having visited the cathedral we went to the crypt where Bishop Lozinski was buried. All my classmates put their hands on the metal coffin but I had some internal doubts and did not put my hand there. We went out of the crypt. And then I thought I had to come back there. I entered the crypt and standing at the coffin I asked God to be a true servant of Christ the Lord. I did not mean to be a priest. I did not even think about that as I had been accepted to study Polish philology at the University of Vilnius. But he answered my prayer.' After his visit to Pinsk Kazimierz Swiatek took his application from the university and applied for the Major Seminary in Pinsk. His application was accepted and he began his studies in the autumn of 1933.
Dramatic beginnings of priesthood
In 1939, on Holy Saturday, 8 April, Kazimierz Swiatek received the Holy Orders from Bishop Kazimierz Bukraba in the cathedral in Pinsk. On 21 April, he became an assistant to the parish priest in the Church of the Assumption of the Most Holy Virgin in Pruzany near Brest. After Germany's aggression against Poland on 1 September 1939 he tried to support spiritually his parishioners as well as the soldiers and civilians escaping to the East. The aggression of the Soviet Union against Poland on 17 September 1939 created a new situation. The Soviets began fighting against faith, religion, the Church and clergy. They used all methods that had implemented in the USSR earlier. On 21 April 1940, Fr Kazimierz Swiatek was arrested and transported to Brest. He was held in a solitary cell in the former Polish prison on the River Muchavec, which was the main place of tortures in the whole region of Polesie. He was interrogated severely. His attitude deserved the highest esteem. His torturers never saw tears in his eyes. Fr Kazimierz was deeply convinced that it was the late Bishop Zygmunt Lozinski, who had died in the opinion of sanctity, helped him endure tortures from the hands of the NKWD officers. After being tortured he was sentenced to death and waited for the execution. But the quick seizure of Brest by the Germans on 22 June 1941 caused that the Soviet torturers did not have time to murder and evacuate the prisoners. Fr Swiatek returned to Pruzany and was arrested by the Gestapo. After being examined he was released and began official and underground pastoral work. He was a chaplain for the Home Army. At the beginning of July 1944, he was warned that he would be shot. Several days later, on 17 July at noon, the Soviet forces captured Pruzany. The Soviet counter-espionage came to him at 3 a.m. After being examined Fr Swiatek was released and returned to his duties.
On 17 December 1944, he was arrested and imprisoned in the NKWD prison in the centre of Minsk. He experienced brutal interrogations for seven months. Like three years earlier in Brest he kept an unshaken attitude and showed full dignity. On 25 July 1945, the so-called famous three judges sentenced him to a 10-year stay in severe gulag and 5 years of deprivation of civil rights. After being imprisoned in the distributing prison in Orsza he suffered from dysentery, but he was miraculously saved. From Orsza he was sent to the vicinity he knew from his childhood - region of Krasnoyarsk where he worked felling trees. On 3 September 1947, he was evacuated from the gulag in the taiga, being informed that he would return to Poland. On 3 December, he found himself in the gulag near Vorkuta. Three weeks later he arranged a Christmas Eve meal in one of the barracks. As punishment he was sent to the tundra where there were no labour camps and houses. Literally there was nothing there. Only snow. Prisoners slept in the open air, without any tents, being dug in snow. Fr Swiatek spent seven years there. When he left that place there was a district town of Inta, built by him and other prisoners.
Freedom in the times of slavery
From the beginning of his stay in the gulags Fr Kazimierz Swiatek tried to help and offer spiritual care for other prisoners. The most important of all possible forms of help was the sacrament of reconciliation. Unfortunately, he himself could not use this sacrament. He confessed once in the first year. Then he lived without confession nine years - he did not meet any priest. He was released on 16 June 1954. After a short stay in Polonne in Ukraine, where he was sent from the gulag, he came illegally to Pinsk where there had been no priests for six years. The local believers attempted to obtain the authorities' consent to have a priest in the Pinsk cathedral. Their attempts lasted five months.
During that time Fr Swiatek was harassed by the local KGB. He was taken directly from the street for questioning, which lasted days and nights. He was proposed various posts if he gave up his priesthood. He endured everything and on 1 December 1954, he obtained consent to work in the Pinsk cathedral. During those times there were only three priests in the whole Diocese of Pinsk. In the years 1981-86 he restored the historical cathedral in Pinsk in spite of many material difficulties. In 1990, when the Polish Association was founded in Belarus, he was its president for a certain period.
On 13 April 1991, Pope John Paul II reorganised the Catholic Church in Belarus. He established the Metropolis of Minsk-Mohilev, which embraced the whole territory of Belarus. Apart from the Archdiocese the Metropolis consisted of the Diocese of Pinsk and the newly created Diocese of Grodno. Fr Kazimierz Swiatek became Metropolitan Bishop and at the same time the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Pinsk 'ad nutum Sanctae Sedis.'
The new Metropolitan was over 76. On 21 May he received the Episcopal Ordination. The reconstruction of the Church began; her condition was tragic. '70 years of the materialistic-atheistic Soviet regime in the Eastern territories and 50 years in the western territory of Belarus led to terrifying results: over 80% of churches, priests, nuns were destroyed; all monasteries and the Major Seminary were closed. Children and young people were not allowed to participate in services and classes of religious instruction. Those who confessed God and conducted religious-church practices were fought down with indeed Satan's fierceness. There was a spiritual emptiness in the souls of those who were devoid of the sacraments, the word of God, the knowledge of the truths of faith and morality, lost in the slogans of the atheistic propaganda,' Archbishop Swiatek described the beginnings of the reconstruction of the Church in a pastoral letter.
The working plan for the first period accepted by Metropolitan Kazimierz Swiatek was based on three pillars. Firstly, formation of priests and their strengthening. The monthly meetings of all priests with their bishop in every diocese served that aim. Secondly, gathering the dispersed sheep and strengthening them in faith. Strengthening and teaching those who endured and preserved faith, seeking and gathering those who lost their relationships with God or did not experience any. Teaching the fundamental truths of faith in the simplest form. Preaching the Gospel. Thirdly, building the structures of the Church, regaining churches and sacral buildings and constructing new ones. All these things had to be rebuilt from scratch like during the times of the early Church. For the authorities of independent, democratic and not Lukaschenko's Belarus there was no metropolitan - he was a private man. He was called Mr Swiatek. Everything changed in October 1994 when John Paul II announced that he called Archbishop Swiatek to the college of cardinals. From that time on he was treated with the highest respect.
After the first days of his ordination Archbishop Swiatek did his best to revive the ecclesiastical province and to have efficient structures. Since there was no venue in Minsk the life of the metropolis concentrated in Pinsk. In the belfry two small rooms were made for the curia. It was also the house of the chancellor who was the new parish priest of the cathedral parish. The Metropolitan himself lived in a tiny room in a wooden house. But the tempo of the development of the structures of the Church was amazing. From Brest up to Orsza the church committees were created and they made attempts to register churches or regain churches wherever it was possible. But the lack of churches, although very bothersome, was not the biggest problem. The lack of priests was a bigger problem. And there was plenty to do everywhere. Priests often had to begin their ministries teaching the fundamental truths of faith. Many believers could only make the sign of the cross; even those who wanted to become priests. From the beginning the Metropolitan was concerned most of all about priests for whom he was accessible day and night. After years of personal experiences he knew what it meant for priests to be able to contact their bishop.
The numbers testify about the dynamics of works. In the autumn of 1993, there were already 45 parishes in the Diocese of Pinsk. And in the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev there were ca. 110 parishes. At the end of 2000, 17 new churches were erected and 37 churches were restored in the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev. To make that possible enormous pastoral efforts were needed. Canonical visitations were the basis. Archbishop Swiatek had an especially difficult task as he had almost 90% of the whole country under his jurisdiction. The pastoral work of a new metropolitan is indeed heroic. Throughout the autumn of 1991 Archbishop Swiatek visited the parishes of his metropolis. Wherever he went he was more and more convinced that the Soviet communism did not succeed to destroy faith despite its crimes, persecutions and tragedy, despite the horrible devastation.
They stopped fearing...
Despite the severe control of the state over the parish life of the Church through the obligation to register parishes and obtain consent to employ foreign priests, the relationships between the Church and the authorities were undoubtedly improving, which was expressed by the meetings between Cardinal Swiatek and President Alexander Lukashenko. It should be stressed that Belarus is the only post-Soviet republic belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States where the dates of Christmas, celebrated by Catholics and Orthodox Christians, have been public holidays since 1990. The Metropolitan's pastoral letters for Catholic feasts were published in national papers. Every year President Lukashenko directed wishes to Catholics on the occasion of their holidays. The first channels of the Belarusian television and radio broadcast the most important church services. People stopped being afraid of going to church. One should emphasise there were was no anti-religious propaganda concerning the liturgy, religion and faith in the discussed period. There were no anti-religious publications. There were no statements against God, the Church and religion during meetings and in public speeches. These facts were more worthy noticing since Catholics constituted only ca. 15% of the Belarusian population whereas the Orthodox Christians were ca. 75-80% (nominally) of the citizens.
The crowning of the great work of Archbishop Swiatek was certainly the pastoral synod of the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev, the Diocese of Pinsk and the Diocese of Vitebsk, which was separated from the Archdiocese. He revealed his intention to organise a synod during priests' retreats in the second half of 1995. The decree summoning the synod was issued on 25 March 1996. The special envoy of the Holy Father Cardinal Camillo Ruini, Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, came for the solemn closing of the Synod in the Pinsk Cathedral on 29-30 September 2000.
Another symbol of Cardinal Swiatek's victory was the solemn re-consecration of the Pinsk Cathedral, which was held on 21 October 1997. Since his appointment to the Metropolis he kept saying that the Cathedral of Minsk should be the historical sanctuary, which was unfortunately changed into a sports palace by the communists. After six years the palace disappeared and the again beautiful three-nave basilica was reopened.
His next achievement was the opening of the beautifully restored building of the Major Seminary in Pinsk on 12 September 2001, after a 62-year break. The seminary is continuing the tradition of the seminary he left in 1939.
On 13 June 2006, Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek dedicated a chapel in the Archbishops' House in Minsk. With that symbolic act he completed his efforts to rebuild the Church in Belarus. Since then the Metropolis has had all institutions needed for normal functioning. The curias had their headquarters, the bishops had decent houses. The church structures and institutions were built. Only in the Diocese of Vitebsk a new cathedral, curia and bishop's house were being constructed. On 14 June 2006, Cardinal Swiatek presided over the 29th Plenary Assembly of the Belarusian Catholic Bishops' Conference. At the end of the assembly the Papal Nuncio informed the gathered that the Holy Father Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Cardinal Swiatek from the office of the Metropolitan of Minsk-Mohilev on that day. Then Archbishop Kazimierz Cardinal Swiatek submitted his resignation from the office of the President of the Bishops' Conference as a gesture of humiliation (he could have been the President as he was the Apostolic Administrator of Pinsk). Afterwards he directed the Diocese of Pinsk with enormous energy. Even when in 2010 he was in hospital in Lublin for a long time he directed his diocese by phoning it every day. He returned to Pinsk. He kept working. In March 2011, he suffered from the broken hip joint. He went to hospital to Pinsk. He was operated on and then he suffered pain. He suffered very much. On 30 June, Pope Benedict XVI recalled him from the office of the Administrator of the Diocese of Pinsk. On 21 July 2011, exactly three months before his 97th birthday, he passed away to the Lord.
The Author is a publicist and theologian. He is preparing a book about Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek. Together with Pawel Woldan he made the documentary 'Pasterz - Kardynal Kazimierz Swiatek' [The Shepherd - Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek].