A brush with a cardinal — and history
by Martin Schram
Columnist
January 30, 2013 11:54 PM | 1172 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Have you heard the one about the journalist who turned down a chance to interview the pope?

Well, a news item from Poland (an obituary, really) reminds that this is as good a time as any to admit — er, report — that it happened. And to report the story behind the story. The one that made the decision seem like sharp journalism at the time.

Dateline: Warsaw; Jan. 23, 2013: Cardinal Jozef Glemp, 83, who led Poland’s Roman Catholic Church for 25 years, died Wednesday after a long illness.

Ah, Glemp. He was the 48-year-old theological whippersnapper I’d opted to interview in the cold days of the Cold War, instead of interviewing the man who would become the pope. It was January 1978. I was Newsday’s Washington bureau chief and I’d come to Poland to learn the details behind the big story of that time: In an unprecedented development in world communism, Poland’s ruling, anti-religion Communist Party and Poland’s Roman Catholic Church had forged, without fanfare, an alliance of ideological and theological convenience.

Background in brief: Food shortages and a government-ordered rise in food prices had triggered violent and bloody riots. Poland’s Communist rulers, desperately seeking an opiate of the masses, reached out to Warsaw’s Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the aged, ailing and staunchly anti-communist leader of the Catholic Church that held the allegiance of 90 percent of the Polish people.

The government’s Minister of Religious Problems (really, that was his official title) gave me the government’s new official line: The Catholic religion really wasn’t such a problem after all. The government was willing to give it legitimate standing to operate openly. The church, in exchange, had begun preaching about peaceful resolution of Poland’s food and price problems, plus the importance of increased productivity.

Wyszynski had agreed to be interviewed, but became too ill to talk. Church officials offered an interview with Glemp, who was really handling the church’s negotiations with the government. But they added that if I wanted to interview a “cardinal,” I could fly to Krakow. The cardinal there would see me, but he really wasn’t in the forefront of this historic deal-making. Also, they said, Glemp would surely become Warsaw’s next cardinal.

Choosing substance over titles, I sent grateful thanks-but-no-thanks to Krakow’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. After all, he wasn’t a household name back home.

In our interview, Glemp didn’t disappoint. Not only did he provide valuable information and insights, but he also made some big papal news. I’d asked about an incident that provoked much controversy inside the church but little known outside it. The Catholic newspaper Common Weekly, long victimized by Communist censorship, had just committed a bizarre act of self-censorship.

After a historic meeting with Poland’s Communist ruler, First Secretary Edward Gierek, Pope Paul VI had declared: “We have been informed of the initiatives you are personally undertaking in the care of the family. ...” That was an ecclesiastic “oops.” The church’s position was that Poland’s regime wasn’t doing enough to help families.

Of course, the government news agency used the pope’s full quote, big time. But the church newspaper bizarrely omitted it from its report. Why? Glemp initially explained: “Well, there was just a problem of space in the newspaper.” I laughingly said he sounded like one of those Communist government officials who always blamed newsprint shortages for their official omissions. Then I noted the irony of the pope being censored not by the Communists but his own church. Glemp smiled ruefully and began a most unusual confessional.

“I myself do not understand why they did not publish the whole thing,” Glemp said. And he actually added that Pope Paul VI was mistaken in his comment. “Infallibility,” Glemp joked, “does not extend to political matters.”

At the interview’s end, this journalist left thinking he had a bit of a scoop — and a heap of insights — that couldn’t be topped.

Seven months later, Pope Paul VI was dead, and the Krakow cardinal to whom I’d sent my savvy thanks-but-no-thanks became the revered Pope John Paul II. In the news business, as in life, timing is all.

Later, as Warsaw’s cardinal, Glemp would come under well-deserved criticism for repeated anti-Semitic statements or slights. For instance, in 2001, he refused to accompany the Polish president to Jedwabne village to apologize for the 1941 massacre of 1,600 Jews, saying it would be “ostentatious penance.”

Glemp often seemed reluctant to take ecumenical leadership in righting wrongs committed against Jews.

His infallibility, it turned out, did not extend to matters of bigotry.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
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