A wretched year came to a sorrowful end when Father Maciej Zięba, O.P., died in his native Wrocław, Poland, on Dec. 31. The birthplace of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wrocław was also the home of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who grew up there as Edith Stein when the city was known as Breslau. Unlike those great Christian witnesses, Maciej Zięba was not a martyr; but he, too, gave his life for Christ and the Church, and he bore more than his share of suffering in doing so.
His life was dramatically changed by John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. Hearing the pope’s eloquent summons to Poles to reject the communist culture of life by reclaiming the truth about themselves as a nation, the young university student of physics thought, “We might have to live and die under communism. But I can live without being a liar.” Opportunities to act on that determination multiplied when the Solidarity movement was born in the fall of 1980. Maciej Zięba quickly became involved and worked with Tadeusz Mazowiecki (who would become contemporary Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in 1989) on Tygodnik Solidarność, one of the movement’s principal publications.
In those turbulent years, Zięba also heard a vocational call to religious life and the priesthood. Entering the Polish province of the Order of Preachers in 1981, he was ordained in 1987. Eleven years later he was elected provincial, and under his leadership the Polish Dominicans became one of the most dynamic religious communities in the post-conciliar Church. While he was very much a public personality, intensely involved in cultural, political and ecclesiastical debates, Father Zięba understood himself first and foremost as a vowed religious and a priest— one who knew that the cloistered Dominican sisters whose contemplative vocation he nurtured were (as he once put it) the “spiritual reactor core” of the Polish Dominican province.
His lodestar was John Paul II, whose affection for him was displayed by the pope’s always using the friendliest diminutive form of Zięba’s Christian name in their correspondence. Father Zięba repaid his hero’s regard by working tirelessly to make John Paul’s thought and pastoral vision come alive in Polish Catholicism. That was no simple task. Poland’s overwhelming emotional investment in its greatest son tended to prevent the Church from grappling with the originality and depth of his teaching. And in a post-totalitarian world, the habits of clerical authoritarianism that helped Polish Catholicism survive Nazism and communism could be obstacles to pastoral creativity and evangelization.
That John Paul II believed that Father Maciej was explaining the Polish pope to Poles as the Polish pope wanted to be explained was demonstrated when Zięba played a leading role in developing the themes for the pontiff’s triumphant Polish pilgrimage in June 1997. The previous papal pilgrimage in 1991 had been less well-prepared and the results were somewhat disappointing. That was emphatically not the case in 1997, as John Paul laid out a compelling vision of the Church’s role in creating the vibrant, truth-centered civil society and culture essential to democracy—and expressed that vision in words crafted in no small part by Father Zięba.
We worked in close harness for almost 30 years and Father Maciej’s assistance was invaluable as I was preparing the two volumes of my John Paul II biography, “Witness to Hope” and “The End and the Beginning.” There were dark nights along the pathways of our friendship. Father Zięba’s physical suffering from various worn-out joints, and his suffering from the cancer that finally killed him, were perhaps less intense than the spiritual suffering he experienced on learning that once-trusted friends had been doubling as informants for the communist secret police in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in the depths of those dark nights, he remained a man of faith, whose hope was centered on Christ’s capacity to make all things new—including the brokenness of our lives.
As much as I shall miss my friend, my brother in Christ, and my comrade-in-arms in various great causes, I also mourn his loss to the Polish Church. Maciej Zięba’s was a Catholic voice of singular insight, clarity and good sense in an increasingly fragmented and polarized Polish society. He was also Polish Catholicism’s most creative interpreter of what John Paul II’s thought can mean for 21st-century Polish public and pastoral life. My hope, which he would have shared, is that the successor generation we trained will increasingly step forward to bring John Paul’s vision alive in both Church and society.
May his memory be a blessing—and an inspiration.