Fr. Inf. Ireneusz Skubiś talks with archbishop Józef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, about the beginnings of nunciature and building the normality between Poland and the Holy See, about why the Polish concordat was a model for other countries of the former socialistic block, and about the backstage of administrative reform of the Church in Poland

FR. INF. IRENEUSZ SKUBIŚ: - After the free elections in 1989, Priest Primate was the first apostolic nuncio in Poland. Could Primate tell us how it happened, why did the Polish priest become an apostolic nuncio in Poland?

ARCHBISHOP JÓZEF KOWALCZYK: - I would like to thank the Chief Editor of the meritorious weekly ‘Niedziela’ for undertaking the interview on this issue about my ministry as an apostolic nuncio in Poland, and the Primate of Poland at present. Today, when I am looking at the ministry of the nuncio which I finished in May 2010, I feel more independent and I can look at the special trustfulness more objectively which blessed pope John Paul II gifted me with.
However, returning to the question. The authorities of the Polish People’s Republic were slowly coming to the conclusion that it was necessary to regulate mutual relations with such an important subject of the international law which is the Holy See, popular in the world in its great moral authority, especially that the prevailing majority of Poles are the Catholics. Our compatriots knew the principle of religious freedom, precisely defined by the Second Vatican Council and for the sake of this principle, they demanded in various ways to have Catholics’ right guaranteed and defined in the reality of the Poland and duties which they have towards the country whose citizens they are.
The Holy See, in agreement with the Polish Episcopate, has always had an positive attitude towards regulating these referring points – certainly, after meeting particular requirements. Whereas the authorities of Poland at that time were more and more aware of the need of this normalization. It was noticeable in the mid of 70s, when Poland was visited by representatives of the Holy See and there were talks with the authorities of the Polish Episcopal Conference and the Office for Religions. The representatives of state authorities used to conduct similar talks with the Holy See with the help of the Embassy of Polish People’s Republic of the Italian government. As a result of these contacts, special teams for permanent working relationships were established, which were supposed to make bilateral agreement between the Holy See and Polish People’s Republic and making diplomatic relations. These intentions were intensified after the election of cardinal Karol Wojtyła for pope of the Universal Church. The authorities of Poland at that time were implementing the requirements, which were set by cardinal Stefan Wyszński, the Primate of Poland and the chairman of the Polish Episcopate, whose aim was statutory guaranteeing rights and duties of the Catholic Church in Poland and making an agreement of international significance with the Holy See. It was reflected in elaborating this kind of contract by the commissions appointed for this purpose: the governmental one and the Polish Episcopate.
The establishment of the social movement ‘Solidarity’ and appearing of the whole group of phenomena in the 80s, led to system changes in our Homeland and establishment of structures of the democratic country, which led to making diplomatic relations with the Holy See, establishment of the ambassador of Poland of the Holy See and an apostolic nuncio in Poland.
I found out about my nomination on Sunday of July in 1989. Pope John Paul II invited me to Castel Gandolfo, where he was on his holiday, and after the Angelus Prayer, which he usually said with believers every Sunday and feasts, he gave me his personal will, to undertake the mission of an apostolic nuncio in the new reality of Poland becoming democratic. He justified his decision with the fact that on the one hand I knew the structures of the Holy See, because I had started working there from the will of the Polish Episcopal Conference during internationalizing of the Roman Curia in 1969, whereas, on the other hand, I had a knowledge about the Church in Poland, because I came from it. Pope thought that this solution would contribute to implementing an institution of an apostolic nuncio in Poland and the ministry of a nuncio who would gradually take over his competences, which belonged to the Primate of Poland during his absence.
It was a personal decision of John Paul II, about which he had informed his collaborators from the Secretariat of the State and he had received their approval. They knew my person, because in the 70s they included me in the work of the team of the Holy See for permanent working contacts with a similar team of the authorities of Poland at that time. This kind of nomination was not a precedent in the history of the Catholic Church. We can only mention the fact that an Italian bishop is always an apostolic nuncio in Italy.

– Was it easy to make the decision about taking over this important post?

– The will of the Holy Father, expressed in giving me this mission, was a real surprise for me. I remember that I said spontaneously: ‘Holy Father, these are Himalayas for me’. I was aware of the fact how much effort was needed to realise this mission, I was aware of various difficulties resulting from such a long absence of the apostolic nuncio in Poland. John Paul II gave me an answer then: ‘Having your personality structure, which is familiar to me, you will be realizing tasks belonging to the nuncio, and I will pray and you will see that there will be something out of it’. I had nothing else to do but repeat the words of Our Lady: ‘Fiat voluntas Tua’, which became a motto of my bishopric ministry.

– How would Archbishop evaluate today’s authorities and their preparations for the new situation?

– As an apostolic nuncio I arrived in Poland in November 1989. Before that, on 20 October 1989, John Paul II gave me bishopric ordination in the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter. The consecration liturgy was also attended by the representatives of democratic Poland: the prime minister, representatives of the parliament, a new ambassador of the Holy See and employees of the embassy, which created a positive atmosphere, making it easy for me to start nunciature and start the mission of a nuncio in our Homeland. I was welcomed very cordially, first at the airport in Warsaw and later in ecclesiastical and governmental institutions. The Secretariat of the Polish Episcopal Conference helped me in organizing work in the nunciature in Warsaw, and diocesan and religious order priests, nuns and reliable God people showed me much approval and support.
The Foreign Ministry, with which the Holy See has a direct official contact ex officio, especially the minister at that time Krzysztof Skubiszewski, as well as a diplomatic protocol – everybody expressed their friendliness to me. According to their wish and according to the traditional practice, as an apostolic nuncio I also became a dean of the diplomatic corpus. These were new tasks and duties for me, which I recall with joy and attention towards all accredited ambassadors in Warsaw from the perspective of time. As a dean of corpus, I treated all ambassadors with equal respect, welcoming them when they started their missions and expressing farewell to them after the end of their missions. They expressed an equal respect and friendly memory towards me. A dozen of them, who have had their functions till today, visit me in Gniezno every year, to thank for that atmosphere of friendliness and mutual respect. I hope that it also contributed to presenting Poland and the Holy See to the world in a positive light.
As it concerns the cooperation with state institutions, which are the legislative, executive and judicial power, I must admit that it is doing quite well. I want to emphasize specially a positive cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and the diplomatic protocol, especially in the context of organizing papal visits in Poland.

– What priorities accompanied the new nuncio in building the relations between the Holy See and Poland?

– I have already mentioned one of the priorities – the will of John Paul II was that the new nuncio would take over these functions which had vicariously been held by the Primate of Millennium and his successor, and that he would implement the ministry of the nunciature towards the Church in Poland and towards the Holy See. As an example of these duties I can mention the whole procedure connected with looking for candidates for bishopric ministry in Poland and collecting documents among priests and laymen giving opinions on the ability of a particular candidate. It was a very responsible and difficult work, especially if one considers the fact of moving from conditions created by the structures of the previous system, to the requirements and structures of the democratic country. Righteous consciences of citizens and people of the Church, or deformed consciences either helped or hindered in this work.
Another important task of the nuncio was elaborating and submitting statutes of the Polish Episcopal Conference to the Holy See to be approved, as well as statutes of the Conference of Major Superiors of Female and Male Congregations, and also defining competences of Papal Missionary Works and distinction of them from the Episcopal Commission for Mission, etc.
A particular task was restoring the military Ordinariate of the Polish Army, elaborating and deciding about the statute of this Ordinariate and military chaplains working within its structures with the military authorities of the Polish Republic, and also preparing and submitting a whole project to the Holy Father, concerning the administrative division of the Church in Poland, with the cooperation of the whole Episcopal Conference, which was a non-precedent event in the history of Poland. It was reflected in the papal bulla ‘Totus Tuus Poloniae populous’ of 25 March 1992.
Another priority task was elaborating a concordat between the Holy See and the Polish Republic and negotiations with the Polish government of particular legacies and completing these works, which was crowned with signing the concordat in 1993 and its ratification in 1998.
A difficult but an important task was also the development of the headquarter of the apostolic nunciature in Warsaw in the first years of changes. This work required special operations and care in reference to funds and materials which we had to strive for, asking bishops of particular dioceses for help, who were also struggling with similar deficits and problems.
Besides these tasks there were also many pastoral and administrative duties, such as visitations in particular dioceses and religious orders, liturgical ministry, help in solving various disagreements and inner conflicts, etc. I humbly admit that I managed to realize all these tasks, according to the will of pope John Paul II and his support in prayer and it is surprising to me.

– How did hierarchs accept the new nuncio? Did the Polish nationality help the works undertaken by Excellency on behalf of the Holy See, or did it hinder them?

– Bishops accepted me very cordially and treated me more as their co-brother than a Vatican clerk, for which I am grateful to them. It is obvious that Polish bishops had to get accustomed to the new institution and to the tasks of the nunciature, as it happens in any other situation connected with changes and introducing something new. However, it seems to me that it came easy to me. The fact that a nuncio comes from the country to which he is being sent, bring many positive things, but also some understandable obstacles. From the perspective of time, I consider our common road in the ministry to God and the Church as positive and I thank everybody – especially God’s people – for their participation in this pilgrimage.

– Surely, the matter which was lying in the heart of the Pope were Catholic universities. During the time when Archbishop was holding post of the apostolic nuncio in Poland, a few theological faculties were established at state universities. What were the kind of the solutions of serious issues in which both the Vatican authorities and Polish civilian authorities were engaged?

– Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, as the archbishop and the metropolitan of Cracow, within the polish Episcopal Conference, was responsible for, among the others, matters of education and Catholic universities in Poland. Thanks to his efforts and care, a few papal theological faculties were established, set up to exist according to the requirements of the papal document ‘Sapientia Christiana’. These faculties were established by the Holy See, and diplomas gained in them were granted by the Polish state – and also for this reason, that they met formal requirements set by law in our Homeland. It was a great achievement at that time.
In the 90s, in the realities of the democratic country, there appeared a possibility of establishing theological faculties within university structures. However, it required meeting the demands set by the state and ecclesiastical authorities. For example, these were the demands connected with a number of qualified lecturers, with abiding to the university statute and code of rules of the theological faculty elaborated with university authorities and ratified by a competent state authority. The ecclesiastical party insisted on respecting provisions of the Congregation for Catholic Education and appointing a bishop for the post of the great chancellor of theological faculty, who has a right to give canonical mission (‘missio canonica’) to theology lecturers, and a consent for giving a lecture (‘venia docendi’) to others. It required negotiations of nunciature with the authorities of a particular university and elaborations of the code of rules of the theological faculty, which would be acceptable by ecclesiastical, university and state authorities. After elaboration of these findings and meeting bilateral requirements, the chairman of the Polish Episcopal Conference and the education minister signed suitable documents in the nunciature, with the cooperation of the university rector and the great chancellor of the theological faculty. The faculty established in this way by the Holy See, was included in the structures of a particular university as a full-fledged faculty of an academic university. In this way a few theological faculties were established, and the Academy of the Catholic Theology in Warsaw was renamed into the University of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the Papal Theological Academy in Cracow was renamed into the Papal University of John Paul II.
On this occasion I want to express my gratitude to the university and state authorities for their openness and exemplary cooperation in realizing these plans, which are serving to many people today, both in Poland and abroad.

– What other matters had to be considered in those years?

– The nunciature contributed to creating a new consciousness in our society, as far as mission and the ministry of the Church are concerned, not only in the dimension of religious-sacramental ministry, but also in the dimension of the social teaching of the Church, respecting human dignity and human rights and duties – according to the main thought of the encyclical of John Paul II ‘Redemptoris hominis’ that ‘the man is a road of the Church’.

– A great success for the Church and the state was the concordat. What were the origin and backstage of the concordat? Why was it necessary to wait with ratification?

– Negotiations about elaboration and signing the concordat between the Holy See and the Polish Republic belonged to the most important tasks of the apostolic nuncio in Poland, which I have already mentioned. I also spoke about the historical context in which it had taken place. Here I want to add that the concordat commission set up by the Holy See, which I presided over as a nuncio, submitted a project of the concordat prepared on the basis of the aforementioned convention, elaborated in the 80s by the representatives of the government of that time and the Episcopate, as well as referring to the Act about the relation of the State to the Catholic Church in Poland of 17 May 1989, as well as on the basis of the Code of Canonical Law of John Paul II of 1983.
This project was sent to minister Krzysztof Szkubiszewski on 23 October 1991. The governmental party prepared its project of concordat and sent it to me on 12 March 1993 with a request to submit it to the Holy See and express a consent to carry out negotiations about the legacies of particular articles on the basis of the governmental project. After thorough consideration of this presentation and after consultations with the Holy See, considering the fact that the governmental project in its form did not differ from the project of the nunciature, bilateral consent was expressed, so that decisions about the text of the concordat would be made on the basis of the both projects, but the basic project was the governmental project. The works on the decisions about the text of the concordat started on 3 April 1993. Finally the concordat was signed by me under the authority of John Paul II and by the Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski under the authority of the president at that time, Lech Wałęsa on 28 July 1993. This concordat required exhaustive negotiations and many findings, which, as an apostolic nuncio, I had to conduct with the Holy See, because some of its legacies differed from the previous text of concordat in other countries.
It can be said that in the countries of the former socialistic block, the Polish concordat is a model document because it includes general principles of normalizing mutual relations between the Church and the state in a particular country, and particular solutions of particular problems are left to inner legislation of a particular country after the previous decision of the acts project in this sphere with the Episcopal Conference of this country. One can enumerate many modern solutions, which are included in the Polish concordat. Those who are interested in this issue are recommended to study my latest book entitled: ‘Concordat between the Holy See and the Polish Republic 1993/1998’.
Ratification of the concordat which took place not earlier than after five years, was caused by many reasons. We can read about them in the aforementioned book. The period, which passed from the moment of signing to ratification of the concordat, was not in vain. It let the public opinion get more familiar with particular articles of this document. I also received thanks from non-Catholic representatives of churches and religions, who, basing on the equality principles in religions in the Polish Republic, could directly take advantage of the concordat in these spheres in which they were interested, demanding suitable legal provisions from a legislator.

– Another issue is a new administrative division of the Church in Poland, announced by John Paul II with the bulla ‘Totustuus Poloniae populus’. Were the preparations for the new structure of Polish dioceses a work of only a nuncio, or the whole Episcopate, including the Holy See?

– One of the priorities presented to the apostolic nuncio in Poland and the Polish Episcopal Conference by John Paul II – which I have mentioned before – was the administrative division of the church structures in Poland. It is proved by the letter of the Holy Father to cardinal Józef Glemp, the archbishop and metropolitan of Gniezno and Warsaw, the Primate of Poland, of 4 October 1991. The photocopy of this letter is in the book entitled: ‘Progrediamur oportet in spe’, edited on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the bulla of John Paul II ‘Totustuus Poloniae populus’. The new administrative division was a very important task, obliging the whole Polish Episcopate for cooperation, therefore, in a short time, after taking over the function of the apostolic nuncio in Poland, I addressed to all diocesan bishops with a request for submitting a project of a new demarcation of dioceses, so that it would be possible to meet the contemporary pastoral needs, which means that every bishop of a diocese could easily visit particular parishes, and priests and believers would have an easy contact with their pastors. Polish bishops expressed their lively interest and willingness of cooperation, sending a lot of projects. As an apostolic nuncio I invited all diocesan bishops for a special conference to nunciature, so as to elaborate the project of the division of administrative structures of the Church in Poland. Next – with more and more other consultations, which bishops were supposed to conduct in their diocese – the nunciature was doing correction of the original project and in this way we reached the final elaboration of boundaries of the previous and newly established dioceses and metropolis. The elaborated division project was submitted to the Holy Father John Paul II as a gift for Christmas 1991. The Holy See analysed the project, suggesting its own hints and gave it to the Holy Father for final ratification. It happened under the power of the papal bulla of John Paul II ‘Totus Tuus Polonae populus’, dated for the feast of Annunciation of the Lord, on 25 March 1992.
During the special conference of the Episcopate in Gniezno on 24 March 1992, the letter of the Holy Father to the Church in Poland was submitted to the Holy Father, as well as a decree containing essential text of the bulla and documents concerning particular dioceses on the basis of the aforementioned bulla. Here I want to thank all bishops for discipline, loyalty and reliable cooperation and I would like to emphasize that it is the common work of all of us.

– Does Excellency see the need of structural changes concerning boundaries of dioceses today, from the perspective of time?

– Answering this question, I must state clearly, that the evaluation of the undertaking was done by Polish bishops in their letters, which were published in the aforementioned book entitled: “Progrediamur oportet in spe’. The evaluation of bishops is explicit and does not require any comments. However, we can always speak about some improvements concerning detailed boundaries of a particular diocese. This kind of correction, if there was a justified necessity, can be done after earlier decisions among interested dioceses and submitting the project to ratification by the Holy See. I can say from experience that it is difficult to reach decisions concerning boundaries not only of parishes but also dioceses – especially when in the memory of God’s people there appeared facts of historical significance, which were sanctioned with tradition and ordinary human habits.
Finally I would like to say that I entrust the work of reorganization of administrative structures of the Church in Poland to blessed John Paul II and I ask, through his intercession, so that the work would give the best fruits in the life of the Church in our Homeland.


"Niedziela" 42/2013

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