Cardinal Bolesław Kominek – architect of Polish-German reconciliation
Cardinal Bolesław Kominek (1903-1974) was one of the most prominent leaders
of the Catholic Church in Poland during the 20th century and the most
competent of the Polish bishops in terms of the broadly understood
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In the years 1956-1974, as a diocesan bishop in Wrocław, Cardinal Bolesław Kominek actively participated in the implementation of the plan – authored by Polish primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński – for the functioning of the Catholic Church in the difficult conditions of the totalitarian system of the state. Significantly, he contributed to the sanctioning by the Holy See of Polish ecclesiastical administration of the western and northern regions of the Polish state.
On the way to Wrocław
The future cardinal was born into a mining family in 1903 in Radlin, Upper Silesia, which, at the time, was in the part of the not yet existing Poland which belonged to Prussia (Prussian Partition). His childhood and early youth occurred at the end of Poland’s period of partition. He witnessed the birth of the Second Republic of Poland, the great struggle for its borders and the enormous efforts connected with the organisation of the State, including not only the formation of its structures and institutions, but also the great difficulties in overcoming the differences and divisions that were the consequence of the partitions. Bolesław was a pupil at the gymnasium in Rybnik, and although he started his studies at a German school, he belonged to the first year-group to sit their school leaving exams in a free Poland.
During the 20-year interwar period, he studied Theology at the Faculty of Theology of the Jagiellonian University.
This period culminated with his ordination into the priesthood (1927), followed by study abroad (Sociology in Paris), the defence of his doctorate and his first pastoral experience. During World War II he was in Lublin and Upper Silesia, where he became involved in charitable and pastoral activities with prisoners of war and inmates of concentration camps. There is evidence that he was also a chaplain in the Home Army in Upper Silesia and a representative of the government-in-exile for church and social affairs.
On 15 August 1945, the primate of Poland Cardinal August Hlond appointed him apostolic administrator of Silesian Opole. He held this post until 26 January 1951. It was then that the communist authorities forced him to leave Opole and forbade him to reside in the Opole administrative region. On 28 April 1951 he received his nomination to become a bishop in Wrocław, and he was anointed in secret on 10 October 1954, and it was not until 15 December 1956 that he ascended the bishop’s throne in Wrocław. He was a man with a strong personality shaped by his family upbringing and the environment operating in the specific historical realities of Upper Silesia.
Complex reality after World War II
Archbishop Kominek could not participate in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council, because the Communist authorities in Poland refused to issue him with a passport.
Despite the intervention of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, who stressed that the presence of Bolesław Kominek at the council was essential, the authorities did not change their decision. In the opinion of Primate Wyszyński, the absence of the Archbishop of Wrocław significantly weakend the position of the Polish episcopate in discussions of the western and northern regions which, on the basis of agreements between the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, had been annexed from Germany and ceded to Poland in recompense for the eastern territories of Poland taken by the Soviet Union. Kominek’s knowledge, commitment, awareness of border realities and diplomatic tact were invaluable.
The Second Vatican Council was a very important step in the attempts by the Polish episcopate to achieve canonical acceptance of the status of the Polish ecclesiastical administration in the western and northern lands. Due to the complicated international situation in Europe after the end of World War II, this was a very difficult task.
In accordance with the principles of the Apostolic See, only the signing of the Polish-German agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany confirming the western border of Poland allowed the initiation of a procedure completed by the adoption of the relevant document.
The meetings and talks between the bishops from Poland and Germany attending the council created the opportunity, almost twenty years after the end of the Second World War, for the very difficult topic of Polish-German reconciliation to be tackled. A key role in this endeavour was played by Bolesław Kominek, who, due to his upbringing, education, life experiences, as well as his personal characteristics, was an expert in the field of Polish-German relations.
The status of the Polish Church in the western and northern lands was not only an issue on an international level, but also it was connected with relations between Church and State at home. With great determination, Primate Wyszyński made attempts to find a solution during every visit to the Vatican. The position of the Holy See in this respect was unchanging and every time he heard that the relevant bull terminating the temporary status of the Polish church administration in these lands would not be issued before the conclusion of the agreement between the People’s Republic of Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. The agreement accepting the border on the Odra and Lusatian Nysa concluded between Poland and the communist German Democratic Republic in 1950 did not satisfy the Vatican formula.
Message of reconciliation
With this in mind, it was necessary to look for a solution that would lead the German bishops to accept the decisions of the Potsdam Conference, which would undoubtedly not be ignored by either the Apostolic See or the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. With a high degree of probability, it was possible to anticipate that the successful implementation of the plan would lead to the conclusion of a Polish-German agreement. This, in turn, would be a great success for the Polish episcopate and would strengthen its position in Poland against the Party–State authorities. Much points to the fact that the author of this idea for the solution of a peculiar Gordian knot was Archbishop Kominek, who persuaded the primate, in the context of a council in connection with the forthcoming Celebration of the Millennium of the Christianisation of Poland, to write an appropriate letter to the German episcopate, which would initiate the process of reconciliation between the two peoples.
As a result, on 18 November 1965, the Polish bishops who were present at the Council sent letters of invitation to the bishops of 56 countries to invite them to the Church millennial celebrations in 1966. The text – „Address by the Polish Bishops to their German Brethren in the Pastoral Office of Christ” – was worked upon by Bolesław Kominek. This document, whose essence was known by Pope Paul VI, was written at the request of Primate Wyszyński. Its content was debated among Polish bishops and was consulted upon with the German bishops.
The „Address” generated a great stir at the time on the international stage and caused heated conflict between the State and the Church in Poland.
Because of this document, the Communist authorities initiated a large-scale anti-church campaign aimed primarily at the person of the primate, as well as Archbishop Bolesław Kominek, as the author of the text. For this reason, the Church in Wrocław was also subject to special harassment, and one such attack was the largest programme of conscription to the army in the country aimed at clerics from Wrocław Seminary.
So heavily criticized by the Communists, the address contributed to a change in the international scene in a relatively short time. On 7 December 1970, an understanding was concluded between Communist Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany, which allowed subsequent decisions. On 28 June 1972, Pope Paul VI issued the Bull Episcoporum poloniae coetus, which sanctioned Polish ecclesiastical administration of the western and northern regions of the state. This event was partly a result of the Churches’ act of reconciliation.
Bolesław Kominek remained in Wrocław for the rest of his life. In 1973, he became Cardinal. He died on 10 March 1974, and his body was buried in the crypt of Wrocław cathedral.