Polish House in the centre of the Eternal City

Rev. Msgr. Ireneusz Skubis talks to Msgr. Dr. Boguslaw Kosmider, the Rector of the Pontifical Polish Ecclesiastical Institute in Rome.

Fr Ireneusz Skubis: – Father Rector, there are special events in the Pontifical Polish Ecclesiastical Institute in Rome...

Fr Boguslaw Kosmider: – Yes, there are. On 18-19 January 2011 we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Polish Ecclesiastical Institute in Rome. We want to share our joy with the Holy Father Benedict XVI who will receive our whole community in an audience on Monday, 17 January. On Tuesday, 18 January, we are celebrating Mass at the grave of John Paul II. In the afternoon we have a two-day symposium dedicated to the history of the House and the present matters. We have planned many lectures that are to present the figure of Bishop Sebastian Pelczar, the figures of the Primates; there will be talks on the formation of priests-students and a special commemorative book will be presented. On the liturgical feast of Saint Jozef Sebastian Pelczar the solemn Eucharist will be presided over by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. Then he will bless and unveil a commemorative tablet.

– In which circumstances was the thought to found an institution to educate Polish priests in Rome conceived?

– The idea to found a house for Polish priests arose in the second half of the 19th century when Poland did not exist on Europe’s map. The authorities of the powers that had partitioned Poland forbade sending seminarians or priests abroad, fearing to lose control of the priestly education. The restriction also concerned Rome. The task to create a house for priests-students from Poland (Polish College) was entrusted to the Resurrectionist Fathers. The opening was held on 24 March 1866 in the building in Via Salara Vecchia (close to the Forum Romanum). The building has not been preserved. The history of our House began there. One of the students who witnessed the opening was young Fr Jozef Sebastian Pelczar. He spent two and a half years there. He was the prefect of the alumni. Several years later he was appointed the Metropolitan of Przemysl. It was him that approached the Galician bishops with the initiative to open another house for Polish students in Rome.

– What were the aims of the founders of the Institute?

– The College received only seminarians. It was some kind of major seminary. Whereas the institute was to be a house open for priests who besides their studies were to get to know the reality of the Church through the prism of Rome. As Bishop Pelczar wrote it was to be ‘a house for those priests who wanted to seek profound scientific knowledge and practical experience of the life of the Church.’ Their stays in the Polish Institute in Rome was to teach them to look at the matters of the universal Church and to care for the Polish interests. Another very essential task of the Institute was to integrate priests coming from the three partitioned lands, laying the foundations to build the Church in independent Poland. The house was also to be a support for the Polish bishops coming to the Eternal City with the ad limina apostolorum visits or to help them settle various matters between the dioceses and the Apostolic See. It was also to serve pilgrims from Poland, becoming ‘a centre which will gather all Poles from the different regions.’ It is worth stressing that zealous patriotism and love of the Homeland were important motives of the founders’ activities.

– Who was engaged in founding the Institute?

– The initiator of the Polish Institute in Rome was St Jozef Sebastian Pelczar, Bishop of Przemysl. Apart from him the fervent advocates were: St Jozef Bilczewski, the Metropolitan of Lwow, Cardinal Jan Puzyna of Krakow, Archbishop Franciszek Albin Symon of Plock, Msgr. Adam Sapieha from the Archdiocese of Lwow, Msgr. Kazimierz Skirmunt from the Diocese of Krakow, Fr Wlodzimierz Ledochowski, SJ, and many others who initiated collections for the purchase of a building and its maintenance. We owe deep gratitude and prayers to all of them.

– What was the attitude of the Holy See towards the Institute?

– The Holy See showed great concern and openness for the newly created centre. During the audience on the occasion of the canonisation of St Clement Hofbauer, on 13 May 1909, Bishop Pelczar asked Pope Pius X for apostolic blessing for the idea to found the House. The Pope gave a spontaneous consent, writing by hand the words of the blessing on the submitted request. Giving his blessing he opened the way to realise this godly intention. Considering the political situation of those times the Holy Father’s blessing and protection were fundamental steps to found the Institute, especially when the hostile powers, i.e. the authorities of Russia and Prussia, realised that the newly created institution was a real threat to their interests.
The house was founded on 19 March 1910 with the decree of the Sacred Consistorial Congregation Religioso Polonae gentis, receiving the name Ospizio Polacco (Polish Hospice) and located at 38 Via Pietro Cavallini, in the district of Prati Castelli, in the building purchased by the Congregation of the Poor Sisters of St Joseph Calasanzio. On 13 August 1910 the Congregation approved the statutes of the Polish Hospice, defining that the House would be under the highest authority of the Pope, would have the Cardinal Protector and directed by the Rector presented by the Polish bishops.
The Cardinal Protector guaranteed the canonicity of the institution and its patron. On 31 December 1910, Pope Pius X approved the regulations of the Institute. In 1928 the Institute received the status of a pontifical institution as the Pontifical Polish Institute in Rome.

– When was the Institute opened?

– Bishop Pelczar opened the Hospice on 13 November 1910 and the first seven priests came to the Institute in January 1911. The first rector was Fr Adam Potulicki from the Archdiocese of Olomuniec.

– What was the role of the Institute during the times of the Polish People’s Republic?

– The Polish Institute became an important reference for many countrymen. Towards the end of World War II the empty rooms of the Institute were available for the demobilised Polish soldiers, including some students of theology. They broke their studies when the war broke out. The building of the Institute hosted the Major Theological Seminary (Pontificio Seminario Polacco) for seminarians recruited from among former soldiers. After the seminary had been closed the inhabitants were mainly priests whom the war threw to the West and who could not return to their Homeland for various reasons. The first students from Poland came after the political changes in October 1956.
The Servant of God Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was an important person in the history of the House. The Polish Institute was the Roman headquarters of the Primate of the Millennium. The Primate cared for the Institute for years. He cared for students, their material and spiritual situations. As the head of the persecuted Church in Poland he was the father for many generations of priests-students, an example of inflexibility, endurance in suffering and persecutions. He used to stay in the Institute when he came to Rome. He met important personalities here. There were meetings within the framework of the conciliar sessions. Here the famous ‘millenium’ letter of the Polish bishops to the German bishops was written in 1965, and both Primate Wyszynski and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow were active in the realisation of the document. In the mid-1980s the Institute hosted sessions of the Joint Commission consisting of the representatives of the Vatican Secretary of State and the Polish Bishops’ Conference.

– People who were important to the Polish Church studied or worked in the Institute. Who could you mention? How many bishops are alumni of the Institute?

– The complete list of bishops who have stayed in the Institute can be found at www.pontipol.opoka.org . Let me list only the living ones (according to the dates of their ordinations): Jozef Glemp, Jan Srutwa, Ryszard Karpinski, Adam Odzimek, Piotr Skucha, Andrzej Suski, Gerard Bernacki, Jan Bernard Szlaga, Jozef Kowalczyk, Slawoj Leszek Glodz, Stanislaw Gadecki, Jan Kopiec, Tadeusz Pieronek, Tadeusz Rakoczy, Pawel Cieslik, Piotr Jarecki, Jacek Jezierski, Teofil Wilski, Marian Golebiewski, Edward Janiak, Stanislaw Gebicki, Jan Watroba, Zbigniew Kiernikowski, Kazimierz Gurda, Andrzej Siemieniewski, Antoni Stankiewicz, Grzegorz Kaszak and Krzysztof Nitkiewicz.
During the period of 100 years ca. 700 students lived in the Institute, 46 of them were appointed bishops. Several hundred alumni, including a large group of priests, became bishops, university professors, lecturers in seminaries...

– Who runs the House besides the rector?

– Besides the rector there are the Sisters Servants of Pleszew and Brothers of the Heart of Jesus. Thanks to the sisters’ work we can enjoy Polish meals. The precious creativity of the sisters is shown in dishes prepared every day and even more in dishes prepared for holidays. Currently, three brothers are working in the Institute. They care for the order in the House. They also answer phone calls and serve as drivers.

– Has the Institute some memories related to Pope John Paul II?

– Yes, it has. Bishop Karol Wojtyla stayed in the Institute during the two sessions of the Second Vatican Council. As Pope John Paul II he visited our House on 5 November 1980. Then he said that he was glad to be there because he returned – at least for a few hours – to what was part of his life and what was also part of the history of work for the Church and the Nation. He added that it was some important centre of the Church in Poland and also the Homeland, the Nation, in Rome, one of others, which was especially important and deserved. He wanted to express that and on that occasion thanked for all the historical merits of the Polish Institute in Rome. The Polish students went to the Holy Father to the Vatican for Christmas or Masses in the private chapel of the Pope.

– What are the aims of the Institute?

– The first and fundamental aim of the Institute has been the creation of suitable atmosphere and conditions for students, for their spiritual and intellectual growths. The thing is to fathom the relationships of the students with the Holy See and the person of the Pope. And the cultural treasures of Rome favour the integration of priests coming from various dioceses. We still host the Polish bishops coming to Rome.

– What does an ordinary day in the Institute look like?

– As usual work and prayer set the rhythm of life. Generally, priests themselves decide about the schedules that depend on their classes or work in libraries. I feel most deeply that community is the key word of our daily life. We begin every day with Mass, preceded by the breviary. Our community, which we create consciously, helps us experience this beautiful and difficult time of studies in Rome. It is connected with our spiritual formation. That’s why we have a day of reflection once a month. There is also a possibility of daily individual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We have also three-day Lenten retreats...

– What would you wish for yourself and the Institute at the threshold of this jubilee year and future years?

– Firstly, I would like to thank all those who care for our House, its spiritual and material condition. We receive very many proofs of extreme kindness towards our House from the Congregation for Catholic Education or the Polish Bishops’ Conference with its President Archbishop Jozef Michalik, or from laymen, former inhabitants of the Institute and frequently from those who were not connected with the House at all. May God thank them all!
And jubilee wishes? I would like all inhabitants of this House to seek and strive for sanctity. May them be brave, faithful and righteous and radiant with the joy of priestly dedication to Christ. I wish the House would be always full of student voices and may the open door receive every person coming to the Eternal City. May good God still bless us!

"Niedziela" 4/2011

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