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Meet the Polish cardinal who called his Dachau internment a “holiday”

Grzegorz Galazka | SIPA | EAST NEWS
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Cardinal Adam Kozłowiecki was "cheerful even in the face of the direst hardships."

There’s little chance you’ll ever meet anyone quite like Cardinal Adam Kozłowiecki. Rather short, modest and smiling, he never took himself too seriously. He recommended to priests a good-natured and joyful attitude as one of the keys of successful evangelization. He would say that his being born on April Fools’ Day, April 1, 1911, had an impact on his life.

As a young Jesuit priest, he was an inmate of the Nazi camps in Auschwitz and Dachau. He called this time a “five-year holiday courtesy of Adolf Hitler.” This was the environment where his missionary vocation was forged.

He would often admit that the suffering, persecution and hunger he experienced hardened him for the trials and tribulations of living in Africa. As a fellow concentration camp inmate reminisced on their shared plight, “He was cheerful even in the face of the direst hardships as his fortitude and perseverance were out of this world; they were rooted in his faith and prayer.”

Adam Kozłowiecki: A missionary in Africa

As a missionary, he was well aware that his actions were not really his own: “I often write that I have done too little with respect to what is still to be done here, but I must admit that it is God who has done so much through me.”

He worked 61 years in Zambia. He arrived there in 1946, when the country was still a British colony known as Northern Rhodesia. Well-educated in a variety of fields, he was actively involved in the struggle of the indigenous population for independence, human rights and social justice. He was a proponent of racial equality.

Since the very start in Africa, he would reach out to people and talk to them. Years later, they still remember those very close ties. Fr. Kozłowiecki focused his activities on education and the development of health care. He made every effort to secure food so that the people would not suffer from hunger. He taught soil cultivation, and when the tsetse wiped out all the animals in the vicinity of the missionary post, he himself would pull a simple plough to help people plant new crops. In this practical way he demonstrated to his flock how to cope with hardships and not to lose hope.

Primarily, however, he would travel on foot hundreds of kilometres, enthusiastically proclaiming Christ. At the beginning of his ministry, he worked in Kasisi, the part of Zambia that a lot of Poles easily recognise today thanks to Szymon Hołownia’s African passion. At that time, this Jesuit mission cared for more than 300 villages. There he would build a church, a home for the religious sisters and schools.

In 1955 he was appointed the first bishop of Lusaka, and then the metropolitan archbishop. He brought to Zambia a lot of missionaries and contributed to a significant development of religious life there. Moreover, he established the first seminary.

His ministry paved the way for the missionary commitment of the Church and left an indelible mark on the wording of the missionary documents of the Second Vatical Council, whose sessions Bishop Kozłowiecki actively participated in.

Cardinal in the African outback

During the time of decolonization, he stepped down as archbishop of Lusaka so that the position might be taken by the first black bishop. He would tender his resignation five times in a row and finally the Vatican accepted it. In 1969 he returned to the bush and resumed his ministry as an ordinary missionary.

He said: “I am no canary to be sitting pretty in a beautiful cage. I will return to my people.” He stayed in Africa in six difficult posts in succession for nearly 40 years, until his death.

Even John Paul II, who in 1998 appointed Kozłowiecki cardinal, was unable to make him resign from his ministry in Africa. After the consistory at the Vatican, Cardinal Kozłowiecki observed: “I feel here like an elephant in a china shop. The bush is my mission.” And so he returned to Africa at the age of 87.

When he was no longer able to drive a car himself, he asked other missionaries to help him to get to distant villages, where until the very end he visited people, talked with them and administered the sacraments. He was a tireless confessor.

During his last mission in Mpunde, where he died, one could most often spot him sitting in an old confessional box. The locals would call him a “grandpa.” A few hours before his death he told the priest who was taking care of him: “I am ready now. There is light.” He was buried in Zambian soil. His grave is as simple as all of his life was, with a used tire serving as a flower pot.

In one of his last interviews, Cardinal Kozłowiecki pointed out what being a missionary requires:

First and foremost, you need to reach out to others to bring them close to God. You need to teach them truth and faith, stressing the faith. You need to explain to people what being a believer means; faith is not some kind of knowledge but an openness to God, God’s matters and God’s plans. It involves admission and acceptance of love and the recognition of God’s authority in everyone’s life.

This extraordinary man is an example of an exceptional trust placed in God and of an enormous missionary zeal. It is thanks to Cardinal Kozłowiecki and the indefatigable work of people like him, within a mere few decades Africa became a Christian continent, which is now sharing its faith and missionaries with the entire world.

This article first appeared in Aleteia’s Polish edition.

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