The recent funeral Mass said for Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was a Polish military commander and communist politician during the Cold War, has been received as an occasion for rejoicing.
“What a very odd but beautiful thing, that the head of the government which was at war with the Church should in the end be reconciled with the Church. That's cause to ring the bells of glory, isn't it?” said Fr. Raymond Gawronski, a priest of Society of Jesus' Maryland province and a Polish-American, in an interview this month with CNA.
Jaruzelski, who was for many years an avowed atheist, died May 25 following a stroke. He was given a funeral Mass in Warsaw May 30, said by Bishop Jozef Guzdek of the Polish Military Ordinariate.
A priest at the ordinariate's cathedral announced that two weeks prior to his death, Jaruzelski had requested last rites.
Jaruzelski was born in 1923 to a prominent Catholic family of Poland, and shortly after country's invasion by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, he and his family were deported to Siberia, and he was later made to work in coal mines in Kazakhstan.
Before World War II ended, he had joined the Soviet-backed Polish army to fight the Nazis. He continued to fight the anti-communist Polish Home Army after the world war, defending the Soviet-backed Polish government.
Jaruzelski formally joined Poland's communist party in 1948, and 20 years later became Poland's defense secretary; that year, he occupied Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, an effort at democratization.
In 1981, he seized power in Poland and soon declared martial law in an effort to suppress Solidarity, an anti-communist trade union inspired by Catholic social doctrine. Tens of thousands were arrested, and some 100 were killed in the crackdown; Jaruzelski's imposition of martial law lasted until 1983.
When semi-free elections were finally held in the nation in 1989, Jaruzelski won the presidency, but resigned within months, allowing for the resounding election of Lech Walesa, Solidarity's co-founder.
Jaruzelski had failed to publicly apologize for his imposition of martial law and other abuses during the Cold War, and his seeking out last rites came less than two weeks before his death.
But “that he had reconciled with the Church, what a beautiful thing, isn't it?” Fr. Gawronski asked. “What a beautiful and joyful thing … it's a beautiful story, really; it's a very beautiful story.”
His funeral Mass was attended by Walesa, who reportedly crossed the aisle to offer the sign of peace to the family of his one-time foe.
“That Lech Walesa attended, that's huge, because these guys were enemies,” Fr. Gawronski commented. “Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity, Walesa was in charge of Solidarity; people were killed … and to come to the funeral, I think that's very admirable” of Walesa.
Fr. Gawronski linked the story of Jaruzelski to St. Faustina Kowalska, to whom the Divine Mercy devotion was revealed in the early 20th century.
He noted that St. Faustina is the “great heroine” of another Polish saint, Pope John Paul II, because of her “message is mercy and reconciliation.”
“And here's Walesa, a disciple of John Paul, extending this mercy and reconciliation at the death of Jaruzelski, who really is very much a 'bad guy' for Polish Catholics.”
Following the Mass, Jaruzelski's ashes were laid to rest with honors at Poland's military cemetery, though his burial was had a smaller attendance and drew some Polish protestors.
“I don't think people mind having the holy Mass for his salvation, but on the other side, it was difficult for many people to understand why he was buried with such great honors,” Fr. Piotr Mozdyniewicz, a priest of the Archdiocese of Krakow, told CNA.
“There are still people in Poland who suffered greatly under martial law,” he said, explaining that many local people thought, “Confession is one thing, but where is the penance that is needed? There was no public remorse for what he did to the country, as head of the Polish military for years.”
Fr. Mozdyniewicz said that “when he was buried, there was no priest in the cemetery to pray over the grave side. So when you look at how that was handled, there was a compromise, to accommodate the Mass for him who declared himself atheist, yet was reconciled with the Lord through Confession.”
While calling Jaruzelski's reconciliation with the Church “surprising” given “there were no signs he would do that,” Fr. Mozdyniewicz concluded that “this is great. There is more joy from one repentant sinner, than the other ones.”