VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Retired Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Warsaw, who served as primate of the Catholic Church in Poland during the final years of communism and during the restoration of democracy, died on 23 January at the age of 83.
Offering his condolences to Polish Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI said Cardinal Glemp had a “profound love for God and for man, which was his light, inspiration and strength in the difficult ministry of guiding the church at a time when significant social and political transformations were taking place in Poland and Europe.”
Vatican Radio reported that Cardinal Glemp died in a Warsaw hospital; he had undergone surgery almost a year ago as part of his treatment for lung cancer. In a telegram released by the Vatican on 24 January, Pope Benedict said the cardinal’s last days were “marked by a suffering that he endured with a serenity of spirit.”
“Personally, I always appreciated his sincere goodness, his simplicity, his openness and his dedication to the cause of the church in Poland and in the world,” the pope wrote. “That is how he will remain in my memory and in my prayer.”
The cardinal was a controversial figure in Poland during the communist regime’s imposition of martial law in the early 1980s. While he had urged Catholics not to resist the clampdown, he continued to support the right of priests to speak out in defense of freedom and respect for human rights.
The cardinal was just a young boy when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and sent him to the wheat fields of the German Reich to perform forced labor.
The dual experience of Nazism and communism bred in him a deep-seated wariness toward both West and East. It contributed to Cardinal Glemp’s vision of the Catholic Church as protector of the common man against the powerful.
Born on 18 December 1929, in the western town of Inowroclaw, he enrolled at the seminary in Gniezno in 1950 and was ordained a priest six years later. He was sent to study in Rome, where he earned civil and canon law degrees from the Pontifical Lateran and Gregorian universities during the Second Vatican Council.
In 1967, he became secretary to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw. Ordained bishop of Warmia in 1979, he held the post for just two years until, to the surprise of many, he was named to succeed Cardinal Wyszynski in the Archdioceses of Warsaw and Gniezno.
By his September 1981 installation, Poland was strike-bound, with the Communist Party and Solidarity labor movement bracing for a showdown.
His meetings with Poland’s communist strongman, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, fueled accusations that he was too ready to accept the regime’s promises. The verb “to glemp,” meaning to please both sides, was coined.
At the same time, throughout the 1980s, his 500-member aid committee provided shelter for harassed opposition members and their families; and he was known for frequent hard-hitting sermons, as well as for allowing Catholic churches to host independent groups and activities forbidden under the communist regime.
After communist rule collapsed, he was at the forefront of struggles to ensure the church and its teachings remained prominent in a democratic Poland. Yet he also provoked controversy.
In August 1989, he angered Jewish groups by defending a Carmelite convent at the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. In 1992, he offended AIDS victims by asserting the disease is a “moral evil.” In 1998, striking farmers threatened to sue when he accused them of resorting to terrorism.
Yet the cardinal showed a readiness to confront thorny issues, actively encouraging Catholic-Jewish contacts and taking the lead to highlight the plight of those with HIV/AIDS.
In the telegram, Pope Benedict wrote that “love of God and love for the church, concern for the life and dignity of every person made him an apostle of unity in the face of division, of harmony in the face of conflict and of the need for the joint building of a happy future” that recognized both the richness and the painful experiences of Polish history.
Cardinal Glemp resigned as archbishop of Gniezno in 1992, when the Vatican restructured the Polish church, but he continued as archbishop of Warsaw until 2006 and as administrator of the archdiocese until 2007.
During his 25 years as Warsaw archbishop, he ordained more than 1,200 priests, created 118 parishes and consecrated 59 new churches. He hosted visits by Blessed John Paul II multiple times and by Pope Benedict in 2006.
His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 210 members, 119 of whom are under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave.