Ex-Polish church head, Cardinal Glemp, dies at 83

AP News
Posted: Jan 24, 2013 1:07 PM
Ex-Polish church head, Cardinal Glemp, dies at 83

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — When he was appointed the new leader of Poland's influential Roman Catholic church in July 1981, many Poles were surprised, asking: Jozef who?

Five months later the new primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, was making a dramatic appeal, asking Poles to "save lives and avoid bloodshed" under the martial law that had just been imposed by Communist authorities who felt threatened by massive opposition from the Solidarity freedom movement.

Glemp, the longtime head of Poland's influential Roman Catholic church, died Wednesday in Warsaw from lung cancer at the age of 83, church officials said.

A complicated figure, Glemp helped lead Poland peacefully through martial law and the fight against communism but was later labeled an anti-Semite for his opposition to removing a convent near the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.

In the early 1980s, a time of great national turmoil, Glemp's goal was to protect the people, a mantle he carried through his 23 years leading the church in this predominantly Catholic nation.

Warsaw Archbishop Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz said Thursday that Glemp was a leader "in a difficult time" and praised his prudence and wisdom.

At the start, many Poles were disappointed to see the modest and little-known bishop from Warmia succeed such giant as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who had become a legend of the church's resilience and resistance under Communist repression. Many Poles wanted the church to lead them in their fight against the Communist regime. Few knew that Glemp had been Wyszynski's secretary and his choice as successor.

Glemp, a lawyer by education, was a person of "great humility and wisdom, guided by common sense," said Lublin Archbishop Stanislaw Budzik. "Many did not understand him at the time. It later turned out he was a prophet" who saw the dangers of violence and prevented it.

In a sermon after martial law was declared, Glemp said that an "act of mad despair means a defeat." He then protested vehemently when the Communist regime tried to interpret his words as siding with them.

The year when Glemp was appointed primate — 1981 — was tempestuous yet filled with hope. That was the heyday of the Solidarity freedom movement, when the nation openly opposed Communist authorities with massive strikes and when the threat of a Communist clampdown and even a possible Soviet intervention was mounting.

Glemp was criticized for his conciliatory tactics but they helped Poland go mostly peacefully through 18 months of harsh military rule and through the economic struggles of the 1980s.

Under Glemp's guidance, the church offered spiritual and material support to Solidarity activists and dissidents, many of whom lost their jobs. He supported Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, who won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of freedom.

Glemp's calm also disarmed the bitterness and anger that rose in Poland after the secret security abducted and murdered a pro-Solidarity priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, in 1984. Glemp later said, however, he had a sense of guilt for having failed to save the priest despite his efforts.

A clever political strategist, Glemp played an active role in helping end communism in Poland, when church authorities initiated and guaranteed the fairness of political negotiations between Solidarity and the weakening Communists in 1988 and 1989. The Communist regime ended peacefully through partially free elections in 1989.

When it came to religion, Glemp was a staunch conservative. In the 1980s, he opposed Jewish demands to have a convent —and its cross— moved from near Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp, considered by Jews to be the largest cemetery of Holocaust victims. His reluctance, before he finally obeyed orders from Polish-born Pope John Paul II, earned him the label of anti-Semite in much of the world.

In 2001, he did not attend a ceremony honoring Jews killed by their Polish neighbors during World War II. But prior to that, he led prayers by Polish bishops in Warsaw, asking forgiveness for the crimes of Poles against Jews.

Under Poland's young democracy and its painful transformation to a market economy, Glemp stressed the need to protect ordinary people who were losing jobs by the tens of thousands. He also campaigned to protect the Catholic faith, which for centuries was a defining feature for the Polish people, and which he believed to be threatened by lay attitudes coming from Western Europe.

People who knew him said he was open, friendly and attentive to the problems of others.

Glemp remained the head of the Polish bishops' conference until 2004, and retained the title of primate, the top leader, until 2009. His leadership largely coincided with the papacy of John Paul II, who was elected pope in 1979 and died in 2005, and whose words and first visit to Poland as pope in 1979 had inspired the Solidarity movement.

Glemp was awarded Poland's highest civilian distinction, the Order of the White Eagle.

Three days of funeral ceremonies will begin Saturday and he will be buried Monday at St. John's Arch Cathedral in Warsaw.