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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 10, 2023
Archbishops Grzegorz Rys of Lodz, Poland, left, and Luis José Rueda Aparicio of Bogotá, Colombia, right, arrive for the consistory at which they will be made cardinals in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 30, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Poland’s new cardinal, Gregorz Ryś, 59, spoke about the opposition to Pope Francis in his homeland in this exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent on Sept. 29, the day before he received the red hat.

“We behave completely unjustly, unjustly toward the pope because the opposition to him is always based on one or two phrases taken out of context,” Cardinal Ryś said. He also spoke about the political polarization in his homeland today, a country of over 41 million people, 71 percent of whom declare themselves to be Catholic according to government statistics issued this year.

Born in Krakow in 1964, Cardinal Ryś studied theology and church history at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow from 1982 to 1988 while at the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Krakow. He was ordained a priest on May 22, 1988. He earned a doctorate in theological sciences in 1994 based on his dissertation about Medieval folk piety in Poland, and in 2000 he gained a postdoctoral degree in history with a dissertation on Jan Hus, an important 15th-century Czech religious reformer.

Cardinal Ryś has served as the director of the archives of the Metropolitan Chapter in Krakow, the head of the department of church history at the Pontifical University of John Paul II and the rector of the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Krakow. Benedict XVI appointed him auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 2011.

Pope Francis appointed him archbishop of Lodz in central Poland in 2017, a diocese with 1,300,000 Catholics and 219 parishes, and he created him cardinal during the recent consistory on Sept. 30. He is the second Polish cardinal created by Francis during his 10-year pontificate, the other being Konrad Krajewski, 59, whom Francis made papal almoner in 2013 and cardinal in 2018. Poland now has five cardinals, four of whom are under the age of 80 with the right to vote in the next conclave.

What is the biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church in Poland today?

I see Poland exactly as Francis sees the world—that we live in a change of epoch, not the epoch of changes but the change of epoch—and this is what we have in Poland. The 20th century was the epoch of changes, very fast, very big. We couldn’t follow the church; the church always goes a little bit slower than the society. But now it is no more the epoch of changes; now there is the change of epoch.

We need to learn how to live in a completely new situation, how to read the signs of the time and how to read them in God’s way and then follow the discernment. Nothing is obvious now, except the dogmas. The dogmas and the teachings are obvious, but how to adapt all those rules and teachings to the new situation, the new society—this is a great task.

You are the second Polish cardinal to be created by Pope Francis in a Poland where there appears to be quite strong opposition to him and also much criticism of his remarks about Russia in relation to the war in Ukraine. Is it difficult to defend the pope in this situation?

I don’t want to defend the pope. I want to follow him and to obey his teaching. He’s Peter; not me.

When I am asked about all this, I usually answer that we behave completely unjustly toward the pope because the opposition to him is always based on one or two phrases taken out of context. I always ask [the pope’s critics]: Have you read “Evangelii Gaudium”? What do you think of it? “Evangelii Gaudium,” not the one or two sentences that he said to the journalists on the plane, is the program for Francis’ pontificate and for the church.

I noticed only one week ago when he was in Marseille, Francis gave a speech that in my view is one of the most important speeches he has given as pope, and I looked in the Polish newspapers and blog sites for at least a summary of it, but there was nothing. Nothing!

On the other hand, there was much criticism of the pope after his speech to young Russian Catholics in St. Petersburg. But nobody speaks about his real speech to them. He gave a long speech; he spoke half an hour, and he offered them all his teaching from the World Youth Day in Lisbon, knowing that they couldn’t go to Lisbon. It was a wonderful speech again, but they only look at one sentence that he added on at the end. This is unjust. It is completely unjust how we treat Francis in our discussions [in Poland].

Why do you think they treat him like that?

Personally, I do not understand this. It often takes a form of opposition between Francis and John Paul II, or Francis and Benedict. But I cannot understand that because as I see the popes, we have the chain [of succession] of the popes going back to the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and then John Paul II, Benedict and now Francis. This is a chain, and there’s no contradiction. What we have is that each one goes deeper, but this is still the same line. This is the task, this is the progress. Progress is going deeper.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, who was in my diocese recently, has a saying: John Paul II used to say what we are to do, Benedict used to say why we should do this or that, but Francis says just do it.

Francis has been criticized a lot in Poland over his position on Ukraine. He’s often perceived as being closer to Russia than Ukraine. You have given refuge to a lot of Ukrainians in your diocese. How do you see it?

I see the whole teaching of Francis in this matter. He speaks about peace. Nobody [else] speaks about peace. Everybody speaks about how to win the war. The winning of the war is not the peace.

What do you hope for your own country if you look forward five years?

I hope that we will find the ways to unity again because we are so strongly divided today. I have to say this [present situation] is beyond my imagination. Six years ago, when I came to Lodz, I started meetings concerning Poland, and they were open, and usually the panelists invited were coming from different sides of the political spectrum. There were only two conditions for them to be invited: first, that they are open for dialogue and, second, that they love the country. That’s all. We have had a wonderful time. Each time we had a full room, [and] 20 percent were young people. I see hope that we can organize such things. But six years ago, the division that we have now was not to be even imagined.

Pope Francis, in an interview last November with America magazine said, “Polarization is not Catholic.”

That’s true. It’s obvious.

Since you will be at the synod on synodality, I would like to ask what do you hope from this synod?

I think the synod will be the best example of unity, and how to do it, how to let the Holy Spirit do it. This is the real task: How [can we] be open to this work of unity done by the Spirit?

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