MPAA Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
Nearly every Catholic knows that Pope St. John Paul II played a key role in bringing down Communism in Eastern Europe, but few know about the thousands of others who quietly and humbly drove the practical matters of that great achievement. One of these, whose memory is experiencing a revival in his own country and elsewhere, was Blessed Stefan Wyszyński, Primate of Poland from 1948 to 1980.
Prophet, the new biopic from Polish director Michal Kondrat, tells this remarkable man’s thirty-year struggle of small, slow steps to keep the Communist authorities in Poland at bay. This made him many enemies, but his perseverance not only kept the faith alive in his country but helped it thrive despite enormous obstacles.
The film begins with Wyszyński’s release in 1956 after three years in prison. Seeking a new approach, the Communist party allows him to return to his role as head of the Catholic Church in Poland with the understanding that he would compromise with the authorities. For his part, Wyszyński (Slawomir Grzymkowski) feels guilt that he was given relative comfort while other bishops, such as Antoni Baraniak, were brutally tortured. He agrees to work with the state, but his every move is calculated to benefit the Church and keep the Communists from meddling in her affairs.
Apart from this main plot, there are several side narratives that give an on-the-ground perspective of the common existence of the Polish people of the time. Using poor lighting and disheveled costumes, Kondrat paints a grim life of constant labor with little hope or imagination. Workers are wedged into tiny, ugly apartments while Communist party members smoke cigars and swim in private pools. One couple typifies the two approaches of the common man. Magda, a young, brilliant chemistry teacher, is fired for not joining the Party while her husband, desperate for cash, secretly becomes an informant for the state, even following and photographing Wyszyński. Creating distrust and unease between citizens is a primary tool of totalitarian regimes.
When Christians must deal with an oppressive authority, they are often presented with two possibilities: violet rebellion in the tradition of the Maccabees or capitulation to the fads and fashions of the age. Yet there is a third option described in the Bible: the Way of the Exile, first typified by the prophet Daniel. This is often phrased in modern parlance as “in the world but not of the world.” Wyszyński wears an accommodating attitude, recognizing the state and encouraging Catholics to participate in elections (rigged as they were) as part of their civic duty. Yet these offers come with plenty of strings, including freedom to produce Catholic publications, keeping crucifixes in classrooms, and allowing the upcoming millennium celebration of Catholicism in Poland.
Wyszyński understands that if worship continues to happen publicly and frequently, he won’t need to speak actively against the party. Christ will do that for him. This approach, however, wins him few friends. Outside Poland, he is criticized for even meeting with the Party and villainized as “the Pink Prelate.” The Communists feel the opposite, berating him for constantly making demands and not falling in line. To those on both sides who call for hatred and violence, he responds with prayer and dignity.
It’s easy to see the Church in a similar situation today. Yet while Wyszyński’s was Orwellian, ours is much more Huxleyan. There’s no need for the government to impose a secular agenda when technocrats, educators, and journalists do it for them. It is also more difficult in that the Polish people were relatively united in their occupiers, whereas our culture seems split right down the middle.
Yet Wyszyński’s method has value for us as well. By demonstrating kindness and generosity where possible, Christians obey Christ’s command to “love our enemies,” even if these evil philosophies are spoken by the person sitting next to us in the pew.
It is always tempting to lash out at those who abuse their power and harm the body of Christ. Yet Wyszyński proves that the Way of the Exile is an efficacious means of bringing first spiritual renewal, then social change. The Communists’ codename for Wyszyński was “the Prophet,” meant as an insult. Yet, reading his work and seeing his success forty years out, they were — strangely and ironically — correct.
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