Diplomacy of Pastoral Letters

18.11.2015, 16:29
Diplomacy of Pastoral Letters - фото 1

In 1965, 20 years after the Second World War, the Polish clergy came to an agreement that the position of German Catholic bishops was key for the stability of Poland’s post-war borders. The rationale behind this thinking was the significant influence enjoyed by the German bishops in the Holy See which, faced with opposition from the German episcopate, was strengthening its formal approach to the issue and refusing to establish a normal church administration in western Poland without the signing of a pact between Poland and West Germany according to the rule: “there is no peace treaty – there are no final decisions”. 

At that time, Poland’s primate was Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. He had been granted special status to make Church decisions on behalf of the pope in Poland. He also enjoyed immense popularity among Poles. Thanks to his personal involvement in efforts to establish new dioceses in western Poland, Wyszyński could not be attacked by the communist authorities under the pretext of “supporting Bonn’s policies”. This meant that despite some fundamental differences between the cardinal and the authorities, on this matter there was an overlap; both sides wanted confirmation of Poland’s post-war borders. However, the “wait and see” position of the Vatican gave the communists a pretext to attack the Church and accuse it of succumbing to the West German lobby.

We ask for forgiveness

The process of Polish-German reconciliation, initiated in 1965, was extraordinary in the sense that Cardinal Wyszyński took on the role as both a politician who understood the strategic goal of reconciliation and as a spiritual leader who justified this process with religious arguments, all happening in communist Poland. Wyszyński’s engagement with the German bishops also created an additional opportunity to influencStefan Wyszyńskie the German Christian Democrats (who were in power at that time) and get them to form an opinion that would be favourable for Poland and its post-war borders. Therefore, there was a serious political rationale which pushed Wyszyński to sign the letter to the German bishops. There were also some religious presumptions for his signature, namely the practical implementation of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It is worth noting that on October 4th 1965, Pope Paul VI delivered a historic speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York where he called for a solution to the effects of the Second World War.

The 1965 “Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to their German Brothers” included an invitation addressed to the German bishops to participate in the celebration of the millennium of Poland’s baptism, which was planned for 1966 and marked the religious beginning of the process of forgiveness and reconciliation after the Second World War. This letter addressed to the German bishops was not the only invitation sent out by the Poles. It was actually one of 56 letters written by Polish bishops who, after the completion of the Second Vatican Council, issued similar invitations to other episcopates throughout the world. However, in the German letter, the bishops treated the situation very differently, conducting consultations regarding the content of the pastoral letter with the German bishops. The tactical mistake by the Polish bishops was that they did not get a promise from their German counterparts as to what their answer to the letter would look like, and did not attempt any formal consultations about the letter’s content with the communist authorities.

The letter to the German bishops was signed by 34 participants on November 18th 1965. The signing took place during the Second Vatican Council. The letter started with an invitation to Poland for the anniversary celebrations and included a summary of the history of Polish-German relations since the rule of Otto III. The authors decisively assessed 19th century German policy towards Poland, especially the period covering the Second World War. They pointed out the victims, millions of murdered Jews and Poles and brought up the issue of material damage to Poland in great detail. Characteristically, the bishops made a special gesture: they invoked the memory of the victims among Hitler’s opponents – both Christians and communists.

In reference to the Vatican Council, the bishops called the German episcopate to start a dialogue: “Honourable Brothers, we ask you: let us try to forget. Let there be no further polemic, no further cold war, but a beginning of dialogue –one that is being sought by the Vatican Council and Pope Paul IV.” The letter became historic because of its political and religious message. Its most well-known passage states: “In this most Christian, but also very human, gesture we reach out to you, sitting here on the benches as the Vatican Council nears its end, with our hand extended and while forgiving you, we ask you for forgiveness.”

Tactically, the letter brought no benefit to the Polish Church. Not only did it fall victim to an aggressive propaganda campaign launched by the communist authorities, but it also clashed with the public mood in Polish society at the time, which was still very hostile towards the Germans, who were perceived as the perpetrators of the Second World War. The communist authorities in Poland attacked the bishops. Their main accusation focused on the bishops’ acknowledgment that the Germans were also the victims of war crimes. Importantly, the Polish bishops were pointing out a fact that today is obvious, but was not necessarily clear in the 1960s - that Poland had not emerged from the war victorious. Realising what kind of propaganda attack they were about to face, which could have included another wave of anti-church repressions, the bishops in Poland began to claim that the letter was not political but religious in nature, and started to modify its interpretation.

Under the influence of the Second Vatican Council, the bishops were taken by surprise with the lack of understanding shown by Polish society. The bishops were accused of offering forgiveness to the Germans without any act of remorse on their part.. They were also accused of speaking on behalf of all Poles who suffered under German policies. Crucially, the Catholic clergy in Poland was one of the social groups against whom the Nazi terror was particularly acute. The situation that the bishops found themselves in could have been saved only by an adequate reaction on the part of the German bishops. As it turned out, that was impossible at that time. On December 5th 1965, the answer, signed by 41 Catholic bishops from both German states, was received in Poland. The German episcopate decided to issue a very diplomatic answer which was far from the intention expressed by the Polish priests. The letter also failed to express any support for Poland’s post-war border.

Should the German answer have been in line with the expectations in Warsaw, it would have been a success for Wyszyński, and his relations with the communists would have been much stronger. However, the pastoral letter did not bring the Polish Church hierarchy any benefit. Wyszyński was the letter’s staunchest proponent because he seemingly understood the strategic importance for Poland and the role of the Church in the future. History did eventually prove his instincts correct. In Poland, after the collapse of communism in 1989, this course of reconciliation started by the bishops’ letters was continued and developed for both political and social reasons. Therefore, the 1965 letter has become a model and point of reference in the reconciliation process, not only with Germany, but also with Poland’s other neighbours, especially Ukraine and Russia.

Forgive us our sins

The message of the 1965 letter has become one of the most inspiring Polish foreign policy documents since 1989 because it did not fit the ideology of communist Poland. The 40th anniversary of the letter’s signing, which was celebrated in 2005 (its 50th anniversary will be celebrated this year), brought about a new, special initiative – a letter concerning relations with Ukraine. It is worth pointing out that even though the analogies between these two events are justified, the scale of historical issues and emotions was very different, as were their historical and legal contexts. The essence of historical problems in Polish-Ukrainian relations are the events that took place after 1943, namely the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Polish population by Ukrainian nationalists and the subsequent retaliation undertaken by the Polish Home Army (AK) and other units, as well as the displacement of Ukrainians in communist Poland. From a formal point of view, the majority of these events took place within one state, where both Poles and Ukrainians were citizens, and were not of an international nature (unlike the events that characterised the history of Polish-German and Polish-Russian relations).

In both cases, namely in 1965 and 2005, the letters were political in nature. In 1965 the letter resulted in an attack by the communist authorities on the Catholic Church. However, the 2005 letter was compatible with the policies of the government, as well as the opposition, towards Ukraine and it corresponded with the public social attitudes of many Poles towards Ukrainians, which had improved since the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution. This time around, the positive message of the letter was determined by the state.

Significantly, the letter to Ukrainians was still being prepared during the papacy of John Paul II who, as a signatory of the 1965 letter, was very supportive of the initiative. However, this time around there was no exchange of letters, but rather the creation of one document that was addressed to the faithful of two Catholic observances: Roman and Greek. The context of the preparations for the 2005 letter should be seen as consistent with the policy of John Paul II who, even during the period of Soviet rule, had made gestures towards the prosecuted Greek Catholic Church.

John Paul II also maintained contact with Polish Greek Catholics and since 1987, had been convincing Poland’s Primate, Józef Glemp, to engage in a dialogue with the Greek Catholic Church, whose followers also included Ukrainians living abroad. A breakthrough moment in the history of these relations was the pope’s visit to Ukraine, including Lviv, in 2001. During this visit, both John Paul II and Cardinal Liubomyr Husar brought up the issue of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation and the closing of historical disputes, while the leader of the Greek Catholic Church publically asked for forgiveness for the sins conducted by Greek Catholics during the Second World War.

Signs of peace

On June 18th 2005, at the 332nd plenary convention of the Conference of Poland’s Episcopate, a common letter on forgiveness and reconciliation was signed by Polish and Ukrainian bishops. The document’s Polish patrons were Primate Glemp and the chair of the Episcopate, Józef Michalik. The Ukrainian patrons included the leader of the Greek Catholic Church, the greater archbishop of Lviv and Cardinal Liubomyr Husar. On June 26th 2005, the letter was publically announced at a ceremony in Lviv. Its message was straightforward, stating: “Let us move above our political views and historical disputes, above our church observances, and even above our nationalities – Polish and Ukrainian.” These words framed the bloody Polish-Ukrainian conflict in a strictly religious, maybe even “final” perspective. Moreover, the context of the letter’s signing was special as it was issued just two months after the passing of John Paul II on April 2nd 2005 and after the Eucharistic Congress in Poland. These two events determined the religious message of the letter. Glemp and Husar didn’t just issue a document. They also decided to make a public sign of peace during the ceremony in Warsaw. It was witnessed by thousands of attendees.

The political context of the letter was clear. The signing of the document took place months after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the strengthening of Polish-Ukrainian relations in the face of an increasingly more aggressive Russia. As many Poles personally supported the process of free elections in Ukraine, the attitude of Ukrainians towards Poles also improved. In one commentary, Cardinal Husar put it simply: “Together with the Polish Primate, we thought it would take us seven to ten years. Yet, last year, the atmosphere changed so much that the reconciliation may start taking place right now.” The 2005 document had its political consequences in the sense that it responded to the objectives of the policy towards Ukraine that was carried out by two Polish presidents: Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Kaczyński.

The results of this were noticeable. On June 24th 2005, after years of Polish perseverance, the cemetery of the “Defenders of Lviv” (also known as the Cemetery of Eaglets, where Poles who defended the city against Ukrainians in 1918-1920 are buried) was re-opened. Until then, it was a serious point of dispute in Polish-Ukrainian relations. The ceremony was attended by both the presidents of Poland and Ukraine, as well as Cardinal Husar, representing the Greek Catholic Church and Cardinal Mieczysław Jaworski of Poland, an informal confidante of John Paul II. On May 13th 2006, the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, together with the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, Cardinal Husar and Archbishop Michalik, participated in a ceremony to dedicate a monument to the memory of the Ukrainian victims of the Polish Home Army (AK). On April 27th 2007, on the 60th anniversary of Operation Vistula (Akcja “Wisła”) Cardinals Glemp and Husar conducted a service in the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. It was attended by the presidents of both countries. A ceremony of this kind had never taken place before.

The political context of the 2005 letter could give hope for its breakthrough meaning. Unlike in Polish-German relations, the political will and religious sanction were not completed with the creation of a network of institutions responsible for the process of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, under the aegis of the authorities. The reasons for this situation include, among other things, existing historical emotions, which are especially heightened during political debates in Poland. This is primarily because several million Poles still have some kind of connection with the “Kresy”, the territories east of Poland that before 1939 belonged to the Polish state, while several thousand Polish citizens have lost a family member as a result of the activities undertaken by Ukrainian nationalists during the Second World War.

Conflict between neighbours

Another church activity aimed at furthering Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation took place on June 28th 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre. A special declaration was issued in Warsaw by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland and the Ukrainian and Greek Catholic Churches. What was notable about this document was the strengthened position, as signatories of the declaration, of the Lviv archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki and the Greek metropolitan of Przemyśl, Józef Martyniak, as representatives of minority Catholic observances in Poland and Ukraine. The letter described the events that took place in Volhynia in 1943 as “a crime and ethnic cleansing”. It avoided the term “genocide”, which is rejected by the Ukrainian side. Nevertheless, it concentrated on forgiveness and included references to religious terminology with phrases such as “Our Father” and “and forgive us our sins”, which increased the document’s religious persuasiveness.

The letter included a short summary of the recent historical relations between the Polish and Ukrainian churches, starting with the Rome meeting of Cardinal Glemp and Myroslav Lubachivsky in 1987 and the 1988 celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the baptism of Rus’, which Greek Catholic bishops from around the world celebrated in Częstochowa (Poland), upon the invitation of Polish bishops, as they could not visit Soviet Ukraine. This was referred to by alluding to the words of Cardinal Husar and John Paul II during the pope’s visit to Ukraine in 2001, as well as the 2005 letter. The 2013 document also made references to the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Rus’ and the upcoming 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus’, as well as the 1050th baptism of Poland.

In the letter the bishops condemned: “extreme nationalism”, “chauvinism” and “atheistic and totalitarian communism” as well as Nazism, highlighting them as the causes of conflict between neighbours. The bishops also spoke of a need to increase and deepen the research about war crimes, to create a list of their victims and commemorate the memory of those who were murdered. The ceremonies were concluded with an official dinner hosted by Poland’s president, Bronisław Komorowski. This clearly shows that the bishops’ letter was met with recognition and respect on the part of the Polish authorities. However, at that time, Ukraine’s president was still Viktor Yanukovych, who showed little interest in the issue of Polish-Ukrainian historical dialogue. As a result, the importance of this event was not sufficiently recognised in Kyiv.

The political message of the letter referred to the need for a deepening of Polish-Ukrainian co-operation, especially in the context of European integration at a time when the signing of the Association Agreement by Ukraine with the EU was being decided upon. It was this call for greater European integration and co-operation that most accurately reflects the political meaning of the letter.

To see a brother and a friend

On August 17th 2012 Archbishop Michalik, the metropolitan of Przemyśl and the chair of the Polish Episcopate, and Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, signed a “Joint Message to Polish and Russian Nations” at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Unlike the 1965 and 2005 letters, this document was prepared by representatives of different Christian denominations, namely Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, representing the “majority” churches in their respective countries. Representatives of minority religious communities, including the Roman Catholic Church in Russia and the Orthodox Church in Poland, were not invited to sign the document. The international dimension of this document gave it some importance in the ecumenical dialogue. It is worth noting that in the 1980s, a dialogue between the Polish Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church was treated as an element of wider inter-church negotiations. This context became even more meaningful during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who focused on improving relations with the Orthodoxy in Russia.

Similarly to the 2005 letter issued by the Polish and Ukrainian bishops, references to the historical 1965 proclamations were made. Priest Henryk Paprocki, the spokesman of the Orthodox Church in Poland, bluntly said: “The proclamation that was addressed to both the Polish and Russian nations will be an equivalent of what happened in Polish-German relations in 1965.” The circumstances under which this letter was prepared were special too. After the 2007 elections, the Tusk government began a process of improving relations with Russia. However, the signing of the joint religious announcement took place at a time when disappointment with Kremlin policies was predominant among the Polish elite. The statement was issued almost two years after the Smoleńsk plane crash, during which President Lech Kaczyński, along with 95 others accompanying him, was killed en route to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyń in 1940. In Poland, rumours abounded that the crash investigation had been manipulated.

The joint message was signed in a secular setting, the Royal Castle in Warsaw, but it opened with a religiously motivated call for reconciliation. An additional chapter to the document was devoted to the issue of common history – the authors of the document placed the blame for poor Polish-Russian relations on the communist system and the policy of atheism. They clearly refrained from putting the blame on the Russian state. The central part of the letter did not, in fact, refer to Polish-Russian relations but corresponded with the ongoing European debates on issues related to the protection of family rights, the right to publicly practice the Christian faith, etc. This letter should be read as a step in bringing the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the EU, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church, closer together in their defence of Christian values on the European continent. Michalik and Kirill jointly wrote: “In the name of the future of our nations, we support the respect and protection of every human being from their conception to natural death. We believe that not only terrorism and military conflicts, but also abortion and euthanasia, are sins against life and dishonour modern civilisation.”

The last two paragraphs of the letter called, in a very vague way, for Polish-Russian reconciliation: “We are convinced that the risen Christ is the hope not only for our Churches and nations, but also for Europe and the whole world. Let Him, through His Grace, make it so that each Pole will see a brother and a friend in each Russian and each Russian a brother and a friend in each Pole.” It was clear that the letter was highly politicised. As there was a need for improvement in Polish-Russian relations, the Polish government needed to promote itself in the international arena as a state that is seeking good relations with Russia and the church objectives of tightening relations with the Eastern Orthodoxy in the European forum to protect Christian values.


In Christianity, the tradition of expressing something important in the form of letters has an archetypic meaning since the time of the apostles. The letters of Saint Paul to Christian communities included not only words of reassurance but also referred to the most difficult problems of faith and tradition. Of similar importance in the work of every bishop are their letters to the faithful. The 1965 pastoral letter from Polish bishops which, from a formal point of view, was only an “innocent” invitation addressed to their German counterparts to come to Poland, can also be added to this tradition. It was a message from one Christian community to another.

It was also issued in a very specific historical context. Poland was a communist country and its authorities were engaged in a conflict with the Church. The proclamation also had a political dimension. It referred to relations with Germans and the stability of Poland’s western border. In Poland, where the Church plays an important social role and Catholics constitute the majority of the population, every statement of this kind becomes an event of significant importance, even in the context of Poland’s foreign relations. Such was the case in 1965, as it was in 2005 and 2013.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Paweł Kowal is a historian, political scientist, essayist and adjunct at the Institute of Political Science at the Polish Academy of Sciences. He was previously a member of the European Parliament (2009-2014) and earlier a member of the Polish parliament. He is also a member of the editorial board of New Eastern Europe.


"The New Eastern Europe",18 November 2015