Swiatek: a man who stood up to the Soviets

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, a revered figure to Belarusian Catholics due to his heroic resistance of communism, died last week at age 96.

Swiatek bore witness to the entire brutal 70-plus-year rule of communism in the former Soviet Union, being deported with his family to Siberia at age 3, being arrested and sentenced to death by the Soviet secret police in 1941, escaping two months later but being recaptured three years later and sentenced to a decade in the gulag.

After his release in 1954, Swiatek spent the next 30 years ministering in semi-secrecy to a Catholic community in the Belarusian community of Pinsk.

He not only outlasted the Soviet Union, but was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994, the first from Belarus in some 200 years.

Despite his age, Swiatek led the reorganization of the Catholic Church in Belarus, the first ad limina visit and the first diocesan pilgrimage to Rome by a Belarusian bishop in almost 100 years, according to the Catholic news agency ZENIT.

He also led in the struggle for religious liberty in post-communist Belarus and was elected the first president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus.

In September 2004, John Paul II conferred on Cardinal Swiatek the prize “Witness of the Faith” of the Paul VI Institute in recognition of his heroism in living the faith.

Despite his advanced age, Cardinal Swiatek remained at the head of the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev until he was 91, when Benedict XVI accepted his resignation.

He remained the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pinsk until late last month. 

That Swiatek ever made it beyond the rank of simple parish priest is nothing short of miraculous.

Born to Polish parents in what is now Estonia, his family was deported to Siberia during the Russian Revolution. Swiatek’s father then died fighting in the Polish-Soviet War.

After completing his philosophical and theological studies at the seminary in Pinsk, Swiatek was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1939, and then was sent to the parish of Prużany, in what is today western Belarus.

The Soviet Union occupied Pinsk after the Nazi-Soviet Pact divided Poland in 1939. Swiatek was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in April 1941, and held on death row for two months.

However, he managed to escape from prison amid the confusion surrounding the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941, and returned to Prużany.

In December 1944, the NKVD arrested Swiatek for a second time. The following year he was sentenced to 10 years hard labor in the gulag and was sent to Siberia and the north of the Soviet Union, working in the northern forests and the mines.

After his release in June 1954, he returned to Pinsk, in Southwest Belarus.

With the fall of the Soviet regime in 1989, Swiatek was appointed vicar general of Pinsk and, two years later, archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev and apostolic administrator of Pinsk. In 1994, Pope John Paul II created him cardinal.

His death on July 21 brought an end to a remarkable life of perseverance spent serving both God and mankind.

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