The silent swan song of Wojciech Jaruzelski

The silver Swan, who living had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Orlando Gibbons, “The Silver Swan” (1612)

Poland’s last communist leader has been laid to rest at Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery following a funeral Mass, reports The New York Times. Written with a Warsaw dateline, the May 30 story entitled “Walesa Among Ex-Leaders at Funeral of Political Enemy” recounts the political controversy surrounding the funeral of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

But the article omits the religious controversies that animated the Polish press in the week following his May 25 death. And that is a shame. For in focusing on one strand of the protests to the exclusion of all else, the Times has missed a significant element of the story.

Now the New York Times was not alone in omitting the faith element. Reuters and the BBC also reported on the controversy over giving a state funeral to the last Communist president of Poland; the  man who in 1981 imposed martial law to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. It is unlikely the Times reporter in Warsaw was unaware of the religion angle in light of the attention given to the topic by the local media. Was this the right editorial decision, to focus on politics alone?

The lede begins:

WARSAW – With demonstrators chanting on the streets outside and the three surviving Polish presidents in attendance, perhaps the most polarizing figure in modern Polish history was honored on Friday at a funeral Mass in the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army.

The article reports that while the prime minister stayed away, the current Polish president and two former presidents, including Lech Walesa sat in in the front row of the service.

Perhaps to bury Jaruzelski, not to praise him? The political angle appears at the top of the story, while we get a slight hint of the religious controversy.

Just a few blocks from the city’s tourist-choked historic district, several hundred gray-haired protesters held up signs denouncing General Jaruzelski as a “traitor,” a “murderer” and a “servant of Moscow.” Many carried banners from Solidarity, the trade union led by Mr. Walesa, who said he had agreed to attend the funeral because, among other reasons, a Roman Catholic Mass, celebrated by Bishop Jozef Guzdek, was included. (During the Communist years, General Jaruzelski would not have gone to a Mass.) …

The protesters followed the funeral to the Powazki Cemetery complex, the most prestigious in the country. Many were angered that the general was being buried there. Nearly a thousand people clustered in the narrow pathways between the headstones, some whistling and shouting against the general, others offering support. A small group from the National Movement, a far-right party, staged a mock funeral across town at the cemetery where 20,000 Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis in World War II were buried, saying the general did not deserve to be interred at Powazki.

The Times summarized the reasons for the protests with this paragraph:

Many still refused to forgive the general for establishing martial law in 1981, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of people and the imprisonment of thousands more, including Mr. Walesa. General Jaruzelski later maintained that he did so only to prevent the Soviet Union from invading and more brutally quashing Poland’s democratic forces. Some were more willing to accept that explanation than others. A Polish radio interviewer asked Mr. Walesa whom he was saying goodbye to at the funeral: a statesman, a traitor or a dictator. “Partially, every one of them,” he replied. “I will leave it to the Lord.”

In journalistic argot, this is “good stuff.” The Walesa line is fantastic as is the story line: “Communist dictator buried amidst cries of traitor.”

Yet if all you knew about this story was what you read in the Times you would be missing a story that speaks of good and evil, sin and forgiveness. A reader might wonder why General Jaruzelski was given a memorial service in the Polish Army’s Field Cathedral? The Times report implies the Jesuit-educated Jaruzelski was an atheist and would not have attended the mass if he were one of the former presidents invited.

Let’s speculate: Perhaps the Polish Army has ecumenical or secular funeral services to suit the religious sensibilities of a non-believer. General Jaruzelski was a veteran of the Polish 1st Army (the Polish divisions raised by Stalin that saw service in 1944-45). The general was interred in a cemetery for soldiers of the 1st Army. Could not the Polish Army bishop be offering a secular memorial service for the general?

Not really. The story asserts that Lech Walesa attended the funeral because it included a Catholic Mass. (How the New York Times team knew the reasons for Walesa’s attendance is not made clear.)

The missing piece to this story is the news, reported across the Polish media, that 12 days before his death, the general saw a Catholic priest, who heard his confession and gave him absolution. The May 30 story entitled “Msza za gen. Jaruzelskiego. Katolicki pogrzeb to nie nagroda” by Konrad Sawicki in the Gazeta Wyborcza summarizes the debate, noting that when the funeral mass was scheduled critics asked why a scoundrel, traitor, stooge of Moscow and defacto atheist would be given a church funeral?

The Catholic Information Agency (KAI) responded with the news of Jaruzelski’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church. The critics then demanded to know the name of the priest who heard his confession, doubting the general had made a death-bed conversion. Others argued that as an ex-communicated Catholic (self-excommunicated) with blood on his hands, only a bishop could reconcile Jaruzelski to the church.

Sawicki reports that Jósef Guzdek, Field Bishop of the Polish Army, acceded to the request of the general’s family and his confessor and approved giving him a Christian burial. He further states:

A religious burial is not about glorifying someone’s life. The Christian concept of death is more than just the end of life on earth. While baptism is seen as the moment when someone is designated for eternal life, death represents the completion of this process. … For that reason the rite is not a celebration for the deceased but a sort of prayer on the part of believers that the deceased be cleansed of his sins.

What a fascinating story it would have been to hear about the path that led Jaruzelski — the symbol of Communist Poland and a figure seen by many as an oppressor of the church — to return to the church. Was it faith? Was it eternal insurance? Was it a sense that being Polish, meant being Catholic? Had he been a secret believer all along?

Here we have a man who served Stalin but in the end chose God over the forces of history. Perhaps this aspect of Jaruzelski’s life and the Polish past was too much for the Times to fit into the story. It certainly is not as clean and clear cut as the political angle. But I for one would have welcomed hearing the general’s swan song.

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  • Julia B

    I’m thinking the problem is not understanding the Catholic notions of 1) the possibility of conversion at the very last moment and 2) praying for the soul of the deceased at a funeral (to lessen their time in purgatory) instead of praising the person’s earthly life.

    Although sometimes there are eulogies at Catholic funerals in the US due to influence from Protestant practices, these are really frowned upon. Traditionally, the time to talk about a Catholic person’s life is at the wake. The US is a Protestant majority country that doesn’t really understand the Catholic view of life. Our news reporters are mostly Protestant or un-churched. No wonder NYT reporters wouldn’t understand a Catholic funeral in Poland.

  • Julia B
  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    From a Catholic perspective this posting brought up many very good points about the news coverage (or lack of it) of Jaruzelski’s death–especially the issue of his death bed conversion (if that was the case).
    A Christian should always rejoice at the conversion of a sinner no matter if it is in the person’s last split second on earth. –rejoice even as God does.
    There are a number of stories in lives of the saints about that topic.
    One saint was consoling the mother of a boy who had committed suicide. She feared his self-murder would have sent him to Hell. But the saint had a vision and later told the mother that between the bridge he jumped from and the water he died in, he had found salvation (repented of his deed.)
    Another story is about someone who had a lot to repent of and one day was thrown from the horse he was riding and was killed, but as the Catholic story goes “Between the saddle and the pavement, he found salvation (repented).”
    A lot of Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) have problems with so merciful a God. Apparently some Polish Catholics also have such problems.

  • Padre David Poedel

    As a cradle Roman Catholic and now a Lutheran priest/pastor of 100% Polish lineage and who served two mission trips teaching English to Polish children using Bible stories, I saw the contradictions of the communist era everywhere we traveled. Upon my most recent return, I was met with an article about clergy collusion with the secret police of that era….and the Lutherans the first “coming clean”.

    I also clearly remember watching TV and now on Newt Gigrich’s DVD about St. John Paul II trips to Poland during his papacy. The one I remember most clearly is watching Jaruzelski quivering, almost trembling in the Pope’s presence, reading his prepared remarks. He looked like the kid who got caught painting a beard on a statue of Mary and now had to read his apology to the Bishop. As one who preaches repentance and hears confessions and administers Absolution, I always hold out hope for a true repentance, even if it is on a death bed.

    • Julia B

      This brings to mind yet again, my mystification at the argument that Catholics teach that we earn our way into heaven with good works. How can that be if true contrition at the end of a horrible life with no good works at all can clear the way to heaven? Nobody earns their way into heaven in the Catholic tradition. But it does please God to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and so we are encouraged to do them. This thinking isn’t really any different than the Lutheran notion that love of God will lead you to doing good things.

      • Padre David Poedel

        Amen, Julia. I LOVE disabusing my Lutheran parishioners of the myth that the Roman Catholic holds fast to their good works as a part of the equation God uses in admitting them to heaven. That is not in Roman Catholic teaching, though admittedly there is some piety amongst some Roman Catholic laity that they contribute to their salvation. Unfortunately, that old doctrine of purgatory confuses both Lutherans and Roman Catholics alike.


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