Bishop Sapieha became a model for how clergy should live under tyrannical Communism

The recent death of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Kiev, and the forthcoming beatification of Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, the first Lithuanian martyr of the Soviet era, remind us of one of the most noble periods in Church history: the great lions of the East, the bishops who were heroic witnesses and pastors under totalitarian persecution.

In this year of significant religious anniversaries, there are any number one might choose to honour the great drama of the Church’s struggle against totalitarian atheism, the most lethal phenomenon in human history.

I might suggest that we go back 150 years to the birth of Adam Sapieha into a noble Polish-Lithuanian family on May 14, 1867. He would be the Archbishop of Kraków for 40 years, from 1911 until his death in 1951, by which time he had been made a cardinal. He lived the great drama of the 20th century, and would be the decisive influence on the century’s great liberator, Karol Wojtyła, St John Paul II.

The eventual Prince of the Church was born into a princely family; the current Queen of Belgium is the great-granddaughter of his brother. Setting aside the aristocratic life, Sapieha studied for the priesthood. His academic gifts set him apart, and in 1905 the 38-year-old priest and seminary rector went to Rome to serve in the papal household. He made an impression, and six years later Pope St Pius X appointed him Archbishop of Kraków, one of Europe’s most historic sees, the royal and ancient capital of Poland.

The Great War led to the dissolution of the three royal houses that had partitioned Poland – the Habsburg Emperor, the Prussian Kaiser and the Russian Tsar. The end of the war restored Poland to the map of Europe, but already ominous winds were blowing. Lenin’s Bolsheviks invaded the newly independent Poland, only to be rebuffed by the miraculous victory of Polish forces.

On September 1, 1939, as the Luftwaffe screamed through the skies over Kraków, Archbishop Sapieha was asked what he was going to do. “I stay,” he replied, committing himself immediately to a role that Kraków’s archbishops had played for nearly nine centuries. In City of Saints: a Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków, George Weigel writes: “It had long been the tradition that the Cracovian bishop was the defensor civitatis – the ultimate defender of the city, its citizens and their rights – in a line of episcopal heroism that ran back to the 11th century and the martyrdom of St Stanisław by King Bolesław the Bold. In the 20th century, that role had been brilliantly played by Cardinal Sapieha, who defied Nazi gangster Hans Frank during the German Occupation of 1939-45.”

It was during World War II that Sapieha set the model for how a bishop lived under totalitarianism atheism, a model that would inspire a series of heroic bishops behind the Iron Curtain: Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński of Warsaw, Cardinal Kazimierz Świątek of Minsk, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb (already beatified), Cardinal Josyf Slipyj of Lviv, Cardinal Josef Beran of Prague, Cardinal Alexandru Todea of Romania and Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, the Primate of Hungary.

His greatest impact would be on the man whom he would ordain a priest and who, in 1964, would succeed him in the See of St Stanisław, Karol Wojtyła.

Sapieha operated a clandestine seminary out of his residence. Wojtyła and the other seminarians witnessed first-hand the “archbishop of the long, dark night of Occupation” – as the statue that Wojtyła had installed outside the residence puts it – as he waged a spiritual and cultural battle against the occupying power. They saw him retire every night to the chapel to pray, the very chapel where Wojtyła would be ordained by Sapieha on All Saints’ Day, 1946.

Sapieha courageously employed every measure possible to strengthen the life of the Church. In 1934, he began Caritas Kraków, an agency whose importance would grow under the carnage of war. He defended the city’s Jews during the Holocaust, in which three million Polish Jews were killed. He attended to the world of culture and letters, founding a university chaplaincy for students soon after becoming archbishop. As the war ended, Sapieha founded the Catholic cultural journal Tygodnik Powszechny (“The Universal Weekly”), which today is still one of Poland’s most influential and widely read intellectual publications. During the communist period it was one of the few publications where (limited) freedom was ­­permitted.

After the horrors of Nazi occupation, he spent his last years, now in his 80s, fighting Stalinism. When he died in 1951, the heroic resistance was already in place, with Wyszyński in Warsaw, and a young priest Sapieha had sent to work with students, Fr Wojtyła.

Sapieha would not live to see the victory that would be won. But without him and the other lions, it would not have come.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the June 16 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here