Spiritual guide to independence
Archbishop Aleksander Kakowski’s entire life was dedicated to Poland and inextricably tied to its fate. In pastoral letters, he urged Poles to enkindle in themselves a love of the homeland and reject rampant nationalism and growing anti-Semitism.
In 1913 he returned from St Petersburg to Poland where he received episcopal consecration. During his inauguration, he stirred strong emotions in Poles who greeted him with ovations of “Long live the Archbishop!” Raised by his father in a spirit of patriotism and struggle for independence, he predicted he would above all serve the nation: “Like Christ, who became everything for everyone, a priest cannot serve only one political party but should be the servant of the entire nation, [...] mitigate disputes and quarrels and unite everyone for common service to God and Nation.” Those words eventually became the hallmark of Archbishop Aleksander Kakowski’s endeavours which occurred in a difficult, albeit hopeful period.
Kakowski was born in 1862 to a family of minor Masovian gentry in the vicinity of Przasnysz. Initially, his father opposed his son’s decision to study for the priesthood. As a veteran of the 1863-65 January Insurrection, Franciszek Kakowski had expected his son to continue the struggle for an independent Poland. But Aleksander’s mother Paulina supported her son’s decision.
At the seminary, Aleksander’s exceptional talent for studying as well as his organisational skills were recognised. At first, he worked in the Church administration and after ordination became a lecturer at the Warsaw Seminary. He continued his academic career at the St Petersburg Roman Catholic Theological Academy. There, in 1910, he received the title of Doctor of Theology and even became the rector of the Russian Empire’s only Catholic school of higher learning. One of his close associates was Father Professor Jerzy Matulewicz-Matulaitis who was subsequently beatified and is regarded as a patron of Lithuania.
With the outbreak of the Great War, he fully realised the great responsibility weighing upon him as Archbishopf Warsaw. During the Partitions, the Church was the only institution unifying a society languishing under the boot of the three partitioning powers. Archbishop Kakowski understood that he was not only a shepherd of the Church but also a spiritual leader of Poles along the road to independence.
He was endowed with a great political instinct. Initially, he adopted a pro-Russian stance. When the Russians occupied Warsaw, he celebrated a mass of thanksgiving and sent a congratulatory telegram to Tsar Nicholas II. But his sympathies towards Poland’s eastern partitioner were misleading and dictated by political realism. He believed the tsar’s support would help avert Polish bloodshed.
But when German and Austrian armies entered Warsaw, the same political intuition prompted the archbishop to adopt a more standoffish approach to the new occupation forces. He was therefore mistrustful of German assurances expressed in the well-known Act of 5 November 1916. The archbishop did not believe the pledge to establish a Polish state would ever be fulfilled and emphasised it was merely a promise rather than an actual declaration of independence. Knowing that the partitioning powers were mainly interested in gaining additional reserve troops for their armies, the archbishop declined to celebrate a mass of thanksgiving.
He observed the situation with caution and adopted a wait and see approach. It was not until a year-and-a-half later, following extensive discussion and coaxing, that Archbishop Kakowski, together with Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski and Józef Ostrowski agreed to join the Regency Council which was to lay the groundwork for a reconstructed Poland.
The Regents concentrated on the foundations of a state-administrative system. They also established a network of diplomatic legations and began building a modern educational system. Seeing the impending defeat of the Central Powers, on 8 October 1918 the Regency Council declared Poland’s independence. More than a month later, they turned power in the country over to Józef Piłsudski, the leader of the Polish Legions.
In Warsaw’s trenches
In 1919, Archbishop Kakowski was elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope Benedict XV. But neither titles nor Poland’s regained independence were able to dampen his ardour. When Warsaw was threatened by a Bolshevik invasion in August 1920, he actually stood at the side of Polish troops. Before the Battle of Warsaw, he not only decided to remain in Warsaw then preparing to defend itself, but also turned up on the front line of trenches in the vicinity of Radzymin to bestow God’s blessing on the Polish Army.
In free Poland, he retained his title of Primate of the Kingdom of Poland. Although he acknowledged the primacy of the bishop of Gniezno in the Church hierarchy, in keeping with time-honoured tradition, for years he enjoyed esteem commensurate with that of the Gniezno prelate. He incessantly called on politicians to forsake party interests and concentrate on strengthening the still fledgling state. He upheld that attitude also after the May 1926 coup d’état.
In his pastoral letters, he urged Poles to enkindle in themselves a love of the homeland and reject rampant nationalism and growing anti-Semitism. Moreover, thanks to his negotiating skills, he significantly accelerated the signing of a concordat with the Apostolic See. As an expression of gratitude for his service, he was decorated with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s oldest and highest state distinction.
As Metropolitan Archbishop of Warsaw, he supported different charitable initiatives by Caritas, Catholic Action and various youth associations. He set up several dozen new parishes. Through his efforts, a Work House for the Indigent was established in Warsaw’s Bródno district. But he never witnessed the collapse of the Second Polish Republic which would again be ablaze eight months after his death.
Archbishop Aleksander Kakowski died on 30 December 1938. His devotion to Poland was probably best summed up by Ignacy Jan Paderewski who said: “His actions had been guided by Christ’s principles and a love of his homeland. Under the rule of the partitioning powers, he had shown himself to be a man of reason and uncommon prudence in defending the rights of both the Church and nation. Poland owes a great deal to his enlightened counsel and high influence.”
In accordance with his last will, he was buried amongst the most indigent at Warsaw’s Bródno Cemetery.
Author: Katarzyna Płachta