In a stately marble corridor of the Polish bishops’ conference HQ a diminutive old man stands awkwardly among colleagues in the regalia of episcopal office. Outside, a line of dark Mercedes wait to transport their passengers back to spacious residences, while in the vestibule teams of assistants stand in readiness.
Cardinal Kazimierz Świątek, who died in July, was an unlikely ecclesiastical elder statesman, surviving imprisonment and exile before being called to lead his country’s Catholics through the difficult years of independence. But his contribution was acknowledged, as a beacon of the Soviet-era “Church of Silence” and guide on the path to forgiveness and reconciliation.
“Over its 2000-year history, the Catholic Church faced good years and bad, from the first centuries when they threw Christians to the lions, to the persecutions of the French Revolution and Stalinism. But it endured and will endure,” he told me in 1996, as newly independent Belarus settled into a new era of authoritarian rule under President Alexander Lukashenko.
“People fight each other, but eventually reach agreement. Some try to force divisions, while others build unity. As a realist, I never looked to any wide horizon, just at the factual situation as I found it. And I always believed God’s providence was guiding us.”
Born in October 1914 into an ethnic Polish family at Valga in Estonia, Świątek was exiled to Siberia, aged three, by Russia’s Tsarist regime, but allowed after the Bolshevik Revolution to return with his family to what was then eastern Poland, where he enrolled in the Catholic seminary at Pinsk and was ordained on the eve of the Second World War.
In April 1941, after just two years as a priest, he was arrested by the Soviet NKVD at his parish in Pruzany and condemned after two months’ brutal interrogation to be shot as a “reactionary cleric”. In June 1941, however, when an invading German army drove the Soviets back, Świątek escaped and returned to his parish.
But the respite was short-lived. Fr Świątek escaped another death sentence, this time from the Nazis, when the Soviet Army returned in 1944. But he was rearrested by the NKVD and sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour, serving them out in camps at Marvinsk and Vorkuta.
He finally made it back to Belarus in June 1954, where he served discreetly for the next 35 years as rector of Pinsk’s Catholic cathedral until Pope John Paul II made him a prelate and vicar-general in 1989.
He wrote a brief personal account of his “long winter in Stalin’s gulag”, recalling the “endless enclosure of barbed wire where thousands of prisoners died” and his own isolation in the Siberian arctic, where he had used a ceramic cup as a chalice and hid consecrated Hosts in a matchbox for dispensing to fellow prisoners. He remembered the camp commandant’s surprise that a man on whom “there was no need to waste a bullet” had survived the fatigue and hardship.
Arriving back at Pinsk cathedral, he wept when he was told its priest had been condemned to 25 years imprisonment, leaving local Catholics to conduct their own Masses. He took over immediately, but was regularly detained and threatened by the KGB until they “finally gave up trying” and granted him permission to minister.
“Despite knowing the Church’s situation in the Soviet Union, the West did not intervene in defence of believers oppressed and persecuted by the regime – perhaps influenced by certain reasons of its own or political motives,” he reminisced with a hint of bitterness. “And yet the Church, even when lacking ecclesiastical structures, suffering and even bleeding at times, remained alive and active.”
In April 1991, three months before Belarus became independent, John Paul II appointed him head of a refounded Archdiocese of Minsk-Mogilev, naming him three years later, in November 1994, the first ever cardinal from an eastern Slavic country.
As head of the Catholic Church, which makes up 17 per cent of Belarus’s population of 10.3 million, Cardinal Świątek steered a cautious course with the regime of President Lukashenko, himself a former KGB officer, who won power in 1994 and was re-elected three times amid claims of ballot-rigging and intimidation.
Lukashenko’s dictatorial manner and eccentric schemes to reunite with Russia provoked western sanctions and gave Belarus the dubious reputation of Europe’s most repressive state. But Cardinal Świątek insisted his duty was to the Church, not to politics.
“If the people are tired, critical, disapproving, they should also remember it’s they who decided they wanted this new order, according to President Lukashenko’s blueprint,” he once told me.
“Perhaps being always under the rule of Russia, Poland and Lithuania has made it hard to turn national aspirations into reality. But each nation is responsible for itself – it creates its own identity, as well as its own statehood.”
Where the Church’s interests were concerned, however, the cardinal could be tough. In 2001 he condemned plans for a highway through Kuropaty, outside Minsk, where up to 250,000 civilians, including many Catholics, were shot and buried by Stalin’s police in the 1930s, insisting it was right people were “speaking out and standing against the bulldozers”.
In 2002 he protested when state radio directors scrapped a weekly Mass broadcast to make way for the Russian hit parade. When Polish priests and nuns, on whom his Church heavily depended, were refused visas, he intervened with the authorities.
In the meantime, now well into his 80s and with failing eyesight, he travelled constantly, rebuilding churches and giving pastoral encouragement to anxious Catholics. He convened a national synod in 1996-8 to draw up a Church “action plan”, and became the first president of Belarus’s six-member bishops’ conference when it was constituted in 1999.
Cardinal Świątek’s most poignant act of leadership came at the turn of the millennium a year later, when Belarus’s Catholic bishops pledged to forgive the Church’s Soviet-era persecutors – including those who had “sent innocent people to Siberia, imprisoned or deported them from their homeland”.
The Church in Belarus gave thanks “for every goodness which has shaped and is still shaping the history of our republic”, noted the declaration, personally signed by Cardinal Świątek. But it was not “free of human weaknesses” itself.
“We ask forgiveness that there were Catholics who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II and were co-responsible for the arrest and death of innocent people. We are also sorry Catholics did not always help those persecuted by the totalitarian system,” the document continued. “We ourselves forgive those who committed injuries and injustices, who plundered and destroyed our churches, seminaries, crosses and wayside chapels. We also forgive those who, by the power of party rulings, erased God from people’s hearts and destroyed human consciences.”
There were constant problems, including a shortage of vocations at Belarus’s only seminary in Harodnia, and a lack of goodwill from the country’s predominant Orthodox Church. But Cardinal Świątek remained defiantly optimistic.
By the time he retired in June 2006, at 91 the world’s oldest diocesan bishop, the Catholic Church had expanded fourfold in 15 years, increasing its parishes to well over 400 and its native priests from 60 to 380.
A 2002 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations had recognised Catholicism’s “spiritual, cultural and historic role”, while Belarus was witnessing mass Catholic pilgrimages, and building permits had been granted for eight new Catholic churches in Minsk alone.
The improvements continued. In June 2008 President Lukashenko, an avowed atheist, opened negotiations for a concordat. In April 2009, he met the Pope, who accepted an invitation to visit Belarus, while in a message that October for the cardinal’s 95th birthday, Lukashenko paid tribute to Cardinal Świątek’s “manliness, dignity and optimism” in “inspiring the faithful to moral creativity and excellence”.
For all the glowing tributes, Cardinal Świątek remained modest and warm, giving the impression he had never entirely come to terms with the strange twists of fortune which had characterised his life. I last encountered him in April 2005 in Rome, where he had arrived for the conclave to elect a successor to John Paul II. His fellow Pole had conferred a “Witness of Faith” prize on him just a few months before; but Cardinal Świątek, frail at 90, had arrived without any of the staff and secretaries other cardinals had at their disposal. He politely asked me if I could help him find out when the first meeting was scheduled.
The cardinal insisted his conciliatory stance had been met with “gratitude and recognition”.
“It’s certainly too soon to say whether we’re on the way to a new era of eternal values – from a judicial standpoint, the recriminations are certain to continue for all the killing and destruction,” he told me.
“For most Catholics, it came as a surprise that a cardinal who still bears the marks of persecution on his own body could forgive so readily. Yet never, even when various sentences were passed against me, did I feel any desire for revenge. As people, we must forgive, remembering Christ’s words: ‘Judge not, that you may not be judged.’ ”