President of Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop of Poznań
We forgive and ask for forgiveness. Intervention on the 50th Anniversary of the Message of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops (Rome, Campo Santo Teutonico – 10/26/2015)
On the 50th Anniversary of the Message of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops, we have gathered to give thanks for this groundbreaking event in the post-war history of the Polish-German relations.
- THE MESSAGE OF THE POLISH BISHOPS
This document, which is so important for the post-war history of the Church in Poland and Germany, contains words—often quoted and commented—expressing the essence of its message: “We extend to you who are sitting here on the benches of the Council, which is coming to an end, our hands and we grant you forgiveness and ask for it.” These words were spoken at the end of the Second Vatican Council and at the approach of the celebrations of the millennium of Poland’s baptism. In these circumstances, the Polish Bishops present at the Council addressed 56 letters to the Episcopal Conferences of different countries, announcing the upcoming celebrations and asking them to pray for this intention.
One of these letters, also dated 18 November 1965, was the Message of the Polish Bishops to their German brothers in Christ’s pastoral office. In the “year of our Lord 1966—wrote the Bishops—the Church of Christ in Poland, together with the entire Polish nation, will celebrate the Millennium of its baptism.” Baptism is—both personally and socially—the sacrament of liberation, which introduces the baptized into a single community of faith and brotherhood. Therefore, true Christianity cannot tolerate a situation in which neighboring Christian nations remain at loggerheads with each other.
The great wisdom of the Polish bishops of that moment—led by Cardinal Primate Stefan Wyszyński and Cardinal Boleslaw Kominek, a great promoter of reconciliation between the Polish and German peoples—was to try to look at the common history of our nations in the perspective of the Millennium. The Message was a great synthesis of Polish history, with special emphasis on the relations with our western neighbor. The mere fact of presenting that history from the perspective of 1000 years of Christianity had great importance in the so-called Polish People’s Republic, whose world history began with the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution. In the millennial perspective, it became clear for the recipients of the Message that our peoples and States are united by a stable value that overrides all political divisions: our shared Christian faith. This vision was marked by Poland’s inclusion in the great Christian family of Europe. It was a vision, in which—beyond the political borders—there was a great spiritual community.
The letter was an attempt at a moral account that would have been impossible without taking the past into consideration, without due attention to the plight of the Polish and German peoples, during and also after World War II. This was part of the effort that contributed to our nation’s moral renewal. It was also an act of courage on the part of the Polish Episcopate, which, in those political circumstances, dared to take this initiative on the international forum without the will and the knowledge of the party.
The appraisal of history from the Christian viewpoint became an assessment that cannot be equated in the perspective of merely legalistic justice. This conviction also later inspired the reflection of Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, who had signed that Message: “The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions. It has been precisely historical experience that, among other things, has led to the formulation of the saying: summum ius, summa iniuria. This statement does not detract from the value of justice and does not minimize the significance of the order that is based upon it; it only indicates, under another aspect, the need to draw from the powers of the spirit which condition the very order of justice, powers which are still more profound” (John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 12).
- THE ANSWER OF THE GERMAN BISHOPS
Two days after the release of the Message, the German reply was published in the form of “Greetings from the German Bishops to their Polish brothers in the episcopal mission and response to the letter dated 18 November 1965.” This lengthy reply of the German bishops, who expressed their thanks and asked for forgiveness but refused to accept the loss of the German territory that, as a result of World War II, had become a part of Poland, did not bring the expected breakthrough and, instead, caused the Polish Bishops more disappointment: “Our warmly outstretched hand was not received without reserve” (Cardinal Primate S. Wyszyński later, in 1970, wrote to Cardinal Döpfner).
This Message was an important step in the work to weaken the antagonism between the Polish and German peoples. It was, however, an extraordinarily courageous step for the Catholic Church in Poland. Given the mood of Polish society at that time, remembering the years of occupation, while constantly threatened with German revisionism by the Polish authorities, asking for forgiveness meant going very radically “against the tide.” Many Poles did not understand the sense of the Message, and there was a tendency to consider the intervention of Polish bishops incompatible with the interests of the Polish Nation.
The state authorities skillfully used it, preparing the vast plan of a propaganda campaign, whose goal was: “First, to condemn the attitude of the Church defined in the Message as anti-national and anti-socialist, and favorable to German revisionism. Second, to denounce the Church’s leadership as anti-national. Thirdly, to demonstrate that the Church falsified the history of the Polish nation. Fourth, to introduce a distinction between the hierarchy and the Roman Catholic clergy” (Administrative Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, December 1965).
On 10 December 1965, the Polish media began a massive attack against the Polish Episcopate. This was the largest anti-episcopal propaganda campaign in the entire history of communism. This propaganda stressed that the Polish Bishops illegally granted forgiveness to Germany on behalf of the Polish nation. In workplaces, mass demonstrations were organized, leading to demands for exemplary punishment of the authors of the Message. This action was intended to undermine the confidence in the episcopate within the Catholic part of Polish society and among the clergy. The first Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka exhorted the episcopate: “Let not the Church stand in opposition to the State. Let it not believe that it governs the souls in the nation. Those times have gone into the irretrievable past and will never come back” (Przemówienia. Lipiec 1964 – grudzień 1966, Warsaw, 1967, pp. 397–407).
- GOOD FRUITS OF THE MESSAGE
Jerzy Turowicz, editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, spoke out in defense of the Message, stating that the authors of this letter were “guided by the noblest desire for fraternity between nations” (Jan. 14th, 1966).
In the 1970s, this Message greatly facilitated the dialogue between Catholics from Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1968, three years after the letters of the Episcopates were exchanged, 160 German Catholic intellectuals (including Fr. Joseph Ratzinger) signed the Bensberg Memorandum, which called the German hierarchy to advocate the border along the Oder and the Neisse rivers. Only this memorandum was considered an adequate response to the Message of the Polish Episcopate. Gradually, after the ratification of the 1972 Warsaw Treaty, the German Catholic Church also fundamentally changed its relations with respect to Poland.
A clear example of this, of particular importance to the Polish Church and the Poles, was the material assistance given by German confreres in the 1970s and 1980s. It is impossible to forget the support of German cardinals who contributed to the election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope. These were very specific, historical fruits of the Message.
With gratitude and joy, I would like to mention, at this point, some of the other direct and indirect results of the reconciliation initiated by the Message: the visit of the Polish Pope in Germany and of the German Pope in Poland (both very kindly undertaken); frequent and friendly meetings between bishops, priests and faithful of both countries; friendly meeting between Kohl and Mazowiecki a Krzyżowa; many Polish-German marriages; the celebration of the Eucharist and of the other sacraments in Poland in German and in Germany in Polish; frequent contacts between young people, schools and parishes (we can expect this also next year when many young people from Germany will come to Krakow to take part in the World Youth Days, just as many Poles participated in the 2005 WYD in Cologne).
5. PERSPECTIVES FOR THE FUTURE
Today, with gratefulness for these fruits, I would like to finally draw attention to some of the premises concerning the present and the future of our two nations.
Firstly, the Message indicates the need for an ethos, in the life of the national and the international community. If we want to find the path of reconciliation and forgiveness in the name of charity, we must call truth by its name. It is necessary to look for our shared values, which unite and do not divide us. In this regard, we have special intercessors, whom the Church in our times has raised to the glory of the altars and who earnestly cultivated fraternal relations between the Polish and German peoples. It suffices to mention St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. John Paul II, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Bl. Bernard Lichtenberg and Bl. Anicet Koplinski.
Secondly, the Message indicates the need for the connection of identity and memory, which seems particularly important today in the German, Polish and European perspectives. The apprehensions of modern Europe’s faithful in the face of the inflowing foreign culture and religion are justified. Moreover, they seem to be intensified by the fact that Europe is affected by silent apostasy from Christ. In place of Christian values, some politicians are introducing detrimental ideologies that do away with the Christian vision of man and the family. It therefore seems necessary to develop and deepen cooperation of the Polish and German societies, especially among the faithful of both countries in order to promote the Christian values that have shaped Europe, and which are threatened today by internal as well as external factors. The defense of human life, from conception to natural death, care for the spiritual development of youth based on Christian education, and the defense and promotion of the Christian family appear especially important.
Thirdly, the Message teaches us to look with a perspective, which is necessary in life, and especially in social, political and religious coexistence. Although we would sometimes like to see the immediate fruits of our efforts, we must frequently arm ourselves with patience and perseverance in the pursuit of the good. Indeed, social life is not characterized by simple automatisms. Life’s tissue is, on the contrary, made of people, who are often characterized by mistakes, emotions and limitations of knowledge; and, hence, the path to building consensus and the community is a difficult one.
Fourth, in the name of the spirit of charity itself and of responsibility for the future, we call out to our sisters and brothers to continue together the work of reconciliation, always forgiving one another and expressing our unconditional trust in the Truth. Since the Message was written things have changed in the world and in the Church, including in the relations between the Churches in Poland and Germany. Poles are enjoying freedom they have acquired, and Germany the unity that was only a dream 50 years ago. What seemed impossible then, at least in the short term, has become a reality. In the context of Europe’s unification, the borders between our countries have opened, and this has facilitated and deepened the relations between their citizens at various levels.
The ancient Romans used to say: Historia est magistra vitae. We are aware of how much we still have to learn with our gaze fixed on Christ, precisely when it comes to reading and interpreting the history of our nations and with regard to the spiritual and material well-being of the generations of today and of the future. With this in mind, today, let us sing our Te Deum to the Lord. Let us give thanks for the authors and signatories of that Message, among others: Cardinal Primate Stefan Wyszyński, Cardinal Boleslaw Kominek, and Archbishop Karol Wojtyła. Let us ask for the light of the Holy Spirit, so that we may continue developing this great heritage, initiated—to such a great extent—by the Message of the Polish Bishops to their German Brothers.