Like a bride terminating a wedding at the altar, Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus, the newly appointed archbishop of Warsaw stepped into the cathedral that was to host his installation on Sunday, and before hundreds announced his resignation. Arrayed in gold vestments, wiping away tears, he announced that “after reflecting deeply and assessing (his) personal situation” he had submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict the XVI. There were gasps and pleas not to go, but in the end, it was the only decent way forward. This was a sad and promising moment in the life of the Church.
The “personal situation” the archbishop alluded to may be found in a series of recent reports suggesting that for three decades Wielgus had cooperated with the loathed Communist police, the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (SB); reporting on fellow clergy and tracking the whereabouts of pro-democracy forces in the church in Poland. When the accusations surfaced in early December, Archbishop Wielgus distanced himself from any connection with the communists and denied any wrongdoing.
In Poland, the wounds inflicted there by the Communists are still fresh and the memory of brave priests like Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who supported Solidarity and paid the ultimate price in 1984, lingers. The thought of a Communist operative assuming control of a major archdiocese was unthinkable to those who had lived through the Russian occupation.
In late December Communist-era documents began appearing in newspapers. One was an agreement of cooperation between then Father Wielgus and the Communist police. With these revelations now in the public forum, the archbishop confessed to cooperating with the SB but claimed he did so only to travel freely and to further his career. He maintained that he “did not report on anyone nor deliberately try to hurt anyone.” Which begs the question: what exactly did he share with the Communist authorities? Novenas and pierogi recipes?
As late as Friday, despite the public outrage, the Vatican and Archbishop Wielgus insisted that his installation as the leader of the Church in Warsaw would move forward. Indeed, the papal bull was delivered and Wielgus mouthed the formal vows to assume the post in a private ceremony on Friday. The Polish paper, Dziennik lead with the headline: “Stop the Installation,” warning that it would create a “moral scandal.” Then on Sunday, just before the public Mass of installation, the “moral scandal” was defused.
So what exactly happened here? According to journalistic and Church sources in Poland, members of a government commission reviewing communist era files warned Church leaders, early on, that the Wielgus appointment was fraught with difficulties. According to documents in the government archives, not only Archbishop Wielgus, but other sitting Polish bishops may also have been secret agents of the Communist regime. This is troubling. Once the Vatican realized that the archbishop had deceived them with his denials, the pope, according to Polish radio reports, personally urged Wielgus to reverse course and resign.
The tragedy of the Wielgus saga is that it could have been avoided. A wider consultation with the laity in Poland might have averted this public nightmare before it played out in such a pitiful fashion. Such consultation might also spare embarrassment in the future.
When he was elected pope in 2005 it was widely believed that Pope Benedict would reform the protocol for selecting bishops. One hopes that this latest imbroglio will hasten that reform and encourage more lay participation in the process. There can be no harm in consulting with the laity while vetting Episcopal candidates, so long as the consulters are carefully chosen.
I am not suggesting democratic elections of bishops (which would be a disaster) or mini-conclaves at the parish, but rather discreet conversations with Catholics who have publicly demonstrated their fidelity to the Faith and crave true spiritual leadership. With up to 20 bishops and 5 cardinals retiring in the U.S. alone this year, the stakes are very high, and their successors will profoundly shape the Church’s future both at home and abroad.
Good has come from the Warsaw debacle: confronted with the reality of the situation, Rome applied the appropriate pressure and the archbishop did the right thing. This is a promising turn of events. And it demonstrates, that at least within the Catholic Church, the possibility of causing scandal still means something. At a time when society delights in all manner of scandals, considering them passports into the upper echelon of pop culture, the Church, by admitting the error of this appointment is teaching that scandal should not be courted or rewarded. Let us pray that we see more of this, and that Rome will continue to take decisive steps to end scandals or potential scandals wherever they may arise.
– Raymond Arroyo is the author of the New York Times Bestseller Mother Angelica and editor of the forthcoming, Mother Angelica’s Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality.