The last day of 2020 bore sad news – after a long struggle with cancer, Fr. Maciej Zięba, O.P., died in Wrocław, Poland. Ukraine, the Ukrainian Catholic University, and I, personally, lost a good friend. Poland, and the Church in Poland, lost one of the significant figures in their pilgrimage from fear to dignity.
Maciej Zięba was a priest, a Dominican monk, a physicist, a theologian, a philosopher, a public intellectual, and a member of Solidarność (Solidarity). But he was first of all a human being. The kind of human being that His Beatitude the late Lubomyr Husar often spoke of to us. I remember Maciej, who belonged to the younger cohort of the wide circle of collaborators of Pope St. John Paul II, as smiling, humane, unbelievably hard-working, and open.
He was born in Wrocław, Poland, in 1954. From his student days he participated in the Polish democratic opposition – in the 1970s and 1980s he was an advisor of Solidarność and a contributor to the Solidarność weekly, as well as an active participant and, from 1978, the vice-president of the Club of Catholic Intellectuals in Wrocław, Poland. He graduated from the University of Wrocław, Faculty of Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry with a master’s degree in physics, and worked for several years as a research fellow at the Wrocław Institute of Meteorology. In August 1981 he joined the Dominican Order, made his permanent vows in 1986, and was ordained a priest a year later. He studied theology at the Pontifical Academy in Cracow (now the John Paul II Pontifical University), with residencies in Eichstätt, Germany, and in Washington, DC.
As the focus of his scholarly interest and his church and social work he chose the social doctrine of the Church, particularly the social teaching of Pope St. John Paul II. He lectured in Poland, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia, the United States of America and Ukraine. It is noteworthy that he taught not only in Catholic but also in secular institutions of higher education. He wrote extensively, publishing scholarly monographs and collections of essays on select spiritual and social topics (eighteen books, including “One Misfortune after Another: A Catholic in a Europe Adrift” [Kłopot za kłopotem. Katolik w dryfującej Europie], 2015) and, remaining faithful to his journalistic calling, contributed to Polish publications on various current problems. From 1991 to 1995 he was director of the Dominican publishing house W Drodze.
From 1998 to 2006, Maciej Zięba headed the Polish province of the Dominican Order. Those familiar with monastic life and the radicalism of monks will understand that being the superior of a single monastery or convent is no simple challenge. In general, life in a community of consecrated people – like married and family life – is a high-wire act: while it is joyful, it also requires one to know how to balance on a tightrope over an abyss with no safety net. To serve as the leader of scores of monasteries, communities, and Dominican pastoral initiatives and to coordinate the varied activities of hundreds of religious all over Poland is altogether a superhuman task, which requires great faith, organizational talent, moral authority, and a sense of humor.
It would be difficult to name all the church and lay organizations and initiatives in which Fr. Maciej was involved and which he founded. I will mention only one, which I had the privilege to witness and which will bear abundant fruit in the coming decades throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. It sprang from the generous, talented personality of the deceased, from his great love for young people and his farsighted strategic spiritual and geopolitical thinking.
Fr. Maciej was one of those Polish Catholic intellectuals with a broad mind and a great soul. He was a leader among them, and to me he was one of the most likeable, both personally and intellectually. He not only understood the importance of healthy Ukrainian-Polish relations, but also actively cultivated them explicitly on Christian principles.
Maciej Zięba aspired to get to know the life of Ukraine and its Church, and made many efforts to foster Ukrainian Christian leaders. For a quarter of a century, the summer school of the Tertio Millennio Institute that he founded has accepted students from various post-communist countries, including Ukraine, and particularly from the Ukrainian Catholic University, where together with their contemporaries from Poland and the United States, they studied the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
The courses were taught in English, with lectures by charismatic intellectuals, leading lights from various countries. The school’s program included excursions to sites of genocide from the totalitarian epoch and to places where desperate, free intellectuals had prepared responses and ripostes to an inhumane, mendacious system. There were meetings with communities and individuals who had defended freedom and human dignity in extremely dangerous circumstances.
Fr. Maciej understood that it was necessary to pass on to the new generation the experience that it lacked. For contemporary youth, the dramas of the 20th century are already unknown and incomprehensible. Freedom and prosperity, which had to be achieved through struggle, with great sacrifices and efforts, beginning with the formation of critical ideas and visions on the basis of authentic principles and values, are taken for granted. More than anyone, Fr. Zięba saw the dangers of 21st century ideologies. In a creative, sincere, personal way, taking into account a subtle analysis of the present time, he sought to open young minds and souls to the eternal truths about human beings and society, and to form their relationship to contemporary socio-politico-economic problems.
These courses opened up young people’s thinking and exposed them to the broader world. The students of the institute included lay students, young priests, women theologians, and church activists. For example, among the graduates of this summer program directed by Fr. Maciej were such valuable workers in today’s spiritual field as Fr. Dr. Oleh Kindiy, a lecturer in the Department of Theology of the Ukrainian Catholic University; Dr. Orysia Bila, chairwoman of the Department of Philosophy of the Ukrainian Catholic University; Dr. Anatoly Babynsky, who long served as editor of the journal “Patriyarkhat;” and the active laywomen Natalia Karfut (Italy), Tetiana Ostapiuk (France), and Ivanka Zakharevych (Germany); as well as my assistants Mariana Karapinka and Deacon Volodymyr Radko. These are just a few. For scores of Ukrainian graduates of this program carry on quiet organic work in various lands in the spirit of the Catholic social teaching of Pope St. John Paul II and Fr. Maciej. The older students remember not only his inspired lectures, but also his energy in spirited volleyball matches with the Dominican brothers. If one counts the winter sessions, altogether there are close to 1,500 graduates of the Tertio Millennio Institute.
From the mid-1980s, I had the great privilege to become acquainted with Polish communities that became the catalysts of the fall of the communist system in Eastern Europe and thus contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I am not about to canonize them, but I can testify that in these communities there prevailed a high spirit and farsighted strategic goals which to a great extent were achieved.
This was a period when Christian intellectuals in Poland, led by Karol Wojtyła, played a leading role in world history. It was their open philosophical, spiritual, and social discussions and texts, their literary and artistic creativity, which contributed to cooperation with the workers’ movement and the formation of political programs for the development of democracy. Today, we all benefit from the fruits of their generous labors. They cultivated a profound cultural-spiritual understanding of Europe, its history and its mission – often more profound than in the West, where it seems that Europe has been turned into an economic or legal union without a distinct soul, a union which today is not always capable of persuading its countries and cultivating the loyalty and constructive cooperation of their polarized citizens. It is sad to see today’s superficial populism, commercial materialism, and ideological fanaticism, which crowd out the refined vision and nobility of such figures as Maciej Zięba.
In recent years, when we saw in Poland a bifurcation of views and ideologies, Fr. Maciej embodied a wise and open, but intellectually precise, spiritually principled and critical middle ground. This legacy remains, and we will return to it. Perhaps with time.
I must say with regret that it is not easy to replace such individuals as Maciej Zięba, for they were formed by an experience that cannot be repeated, at least not exactly. At great cost, a pleiad of spiritual warriors – conscientious, not noisy or entangled in public-relations strategies, and intellectually penetrating – was formed. Of course, it is good that the horrors of totalitarianism are behind us. But we will miss those who defeated it.
Their experience is again becoming necessary. Only with spiritual-intellectual virtues and qualities will it be possible to defend freedom and human dignity in the face of a threat like “surveillance capitalism.” Algorithms in social networks and an archive of metadata about all of us (especially photo banks of our faces, our fingerprints, internet search histories, etc.) are being used to better determine our conduct, first as consumers, then politically (as was revealed by the scandal concerning the use of personal data from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica in hundreds of electoral campaigns), and eventually our general social conduct. Ukraine, too, is a laboratory for such schemes, and Ukrainians are the guineapigs. We will need both the faith and the intellect, and the sense of humor, too, of those who, like Fr. Zięba, led the world out of the first attempts of truly total control over human beings.
Indeed, Maciej Zięba belonged to a generation honed by the struggle for liberation from communism, which in a constant conversation with John Paul II constructively built a new Polish democracy on the basis of Christian anthropology, with its understanding of God-given human dignity. They were able and willing to discuss, to explain, to write, to organize and to engage their neighbors in the pilgrimage of solidarity. With the passing of Fr. Maciej, we have lost not only an outstanding person, but a part of the spiritual history of Poland and Ukraine – indeed, of the world, for our world and everything that is good in it rests upon such God-loving individuals as Maciej Zięba.
Dear Maciej, thank you! Poland and Ukraine will miss you. Scores of wonderful young people – theologians, intellectuals, communicators – bear your legacy in the Ukrainian community. Together with them, I commend you to God. We begin this year in sadness, but also in the hope of the Resurrection. We will go forward with the hope and the vision by which you lived.
I extend my sincere condolences to the Order of Dominicans, to family members, to friends, and to the entire Church in Poland and the Polish people.
May he rest with the saints!
Archbishop Borys Gudziak heads the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and is metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the United States.