Defensor Ecclesiae: Bp. Antoni Baraniak SDB
Archbishop Antoni Baraniak, SDB (1904-1977)

Defensor Ecclesiae: Bp. Antoni Baraniak SDB

The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)

On July 28, 2023, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland adopted a resolution declaring the year 2024 as the Year of Archbishop Antoni Baraniak.

Persecutions of civilians on religious grounds were rare in the early years of communist rule, as the state initially focused solely on suppressing armed political resistance. From 1947 to 1953, the Catholic Church in Poland became the main target of persecution in communist Poland.

Bp. Antoni Baraniak was born on January 1, 1904, in the village of Sebastianowo in Wielkopolska. He was the sixth of eleven children. In his youth, he joined the Salesian congregation. Before the war, he became the secretary of the Primate of Poland, Cardinal August Hlond, and after the war, of Primate Stefan Wyszyński.

On January 20, 1951, officers of the Ministry of Public Security arrested Bishop Kaczmarek. He was incarcerated on Rakowiecka Street. For two years and eight months preceding his trial, he was tortured and subjected to pharmacological measures intended to break his will. The interrogators also tried to convince him that he had been condemned by the Episcopate and that the clergy from his diocese had turned away from him. Bishop Kaczmarek admitted to all the charges against him.

In September 1953, the verdict was announced in the sham trial of Bishop Czesław Kaczmarek of Kielce and four other clergymen. The propaganda-laden indictment accused them of espionage, activities harmful to the USSR, and collaboration with the German occupiers. During the ensuing propaganda campaign, the authorities attempted to compel the Primate of Poland, Stefan Wyszyński, to condemn the Bishop of Kielce. When this effort failed, they chose another victim, whose “testimony this time was intended to lead to Primate Wyszyński being accused of treason, espionage for the Vatican, and collaboration with anti-communist resistance,” as stated by Dr. Rafał Rzeczek.

Another high-ranking figure targeted to discredit and ridicule the Church in the eyes of society, was Bishop Antoni Baraniak, the Primate’s secretary and his trusted assistant. The communists hoped that in Poland they could implement a scenario similar to what had occurred in Croatia and Hungary, thereby definitively dealing with the Catholic Church in Poland.

On the night of September 25-26, 1953, when the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, was arrested, Bishop Antoni Baraniak was thrown into the worst prison in Poland, where political prisoners were tortured in the most horrific ways, on Rakowiecka Street 37 in Warsaw. 

Bishop Baraniak was detained on suspicion of crimes under Article 86, paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Penal Code of the Polish Army, which carried a penalty ranging from five years in prison to death. The communists also accused Bishop Baraniak of espionage, transmitting Church materials to the Vatican, and collaborating with anti-communist resistance.

Thanks to the many years of work by Jolanta Hajdasz, a radio and television journalist, we can now learn about the suffering endured by this extraordinary man for the Church in Poland.

Bishop Baraniak spent 27 months in prison, during which he was brutally interrogated 145 times. Sleep deprivation was the most common torture. Some interrogations lasted up to 24 hours. It is believed that the wide and deep scars on the bishop’s back, later noticed by medical staff, resulted from being struck with a metal rod. But there is no evidence that his fingernails were pulled out, as was done to other prisoners. 

During the first three months of his imprisonment, he was starved to the point where he lost 14 kg of weight.

Here is a description of the dark dry cell, where Bishop Baraniak spent eight days: At the end of the corridor, a cell measuring one meter by one meter, too small to lie down in. Without a window, only a tiny ventilation hole that was closed in summer and opened in winter. The surface of the walls and floor was very rough, covered with coarse, sharp gravel. Inmates sat there naked and barefoot. Theoretically, they were taken out for basic needs whenever they requested, but in practice, it varied. Inmates were punished for soiling themselves. The guard either did not hear the knocking or did not have time. Often, they remained in their own excrement, completely unaware of the time of day. Occasionally, an investigating officer would appear in the slightly opened door, asking, “Well, have you thought about it? Will you tell the truth?” 

Another place was the dark wet cell, where prisoners chained to the walls stood knee-deep in their own and others’ excrement and blood. In summer, when it was hot, feces dripped from the ceiling onto their heads. The dark cell was located about 1.5 meters below the corridor floor, where convicts were executed by a shot to the back of the head. Naturally, the inmate locked in the cell could clearly hear the execution process, and what remained of the executed person was washed with water through an opening into the cell. Bishop Baraniak also spent some time here – description provided by Jolanta Hajdasz.

Those sentenced by military courts were shot, while those sentenced by civilian courts were hanged. 

In 1940, Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki deliberately walked into a German roundup in Warsaw to be sent to the newly established German camp, later known as Auschwitz. He was able to smuggle out a couple of brief reports before escaping in 1943. By the end of the war, Poles would be the third largest victim group there, after Hungarian and Polish Jews, they constituted nearly 40% of all prisoners. To him, Communism was a grave threat as well. In October 1945, Pilecki returned from Italy to Poland to report on the Soviet takeover. However, in 1947, he was arrested by the secret police and incarcerated in the infamous X Pavilion on Rakowiecka Street. Pilecki once told his wife that, in comparison to this place, “Auschwitz was only child’s play.” He was given a show trial and executed with a shot to the head as an imperialist spy in 1948. 

After many months, Bishop Baraniak was transferred to the prison hospital, where he was diagnosed with chronic appendicitis and bile duct inflammation, among other conditions. Despite his hospitalization, he continued to be interrogated. Bishop Baraniak never admitted to the charges against him. 

He left the prison, or rather the prison hospital, being on the brink of life and death at the very end of December 1955. He was transported in a light coat, despite the bitter frost outside and the car windows being open. Upon reaching his place of internment, the Salesian house in Marszałki near Kalisz designated by the communist authorities, his escort threw him almost unconscious from the cold onto the kitchen floor of the rectory, laughingly saying, “We have brought you Father Frost.” In this new location, Bishop Baraniak was prohibited from celebrating Mass, meeting with anyone from outside, or receiving medical treatment. The loss of several teeth impeded his ability to eat normal meals. 

A year after regaining freedom, Antoni Baraniak was appointed Metropolitan Archbishop of Poznań. Despite government opposition, he organized the Millennium Celebration of the Baptism of Poland in Poznań in 1966. 

In 1977 the Times reported: The Archbishop of Poznań, Antoni Baraniak, died in his diocese Saturday after a long illness, he was 73.  

On November 11, 2018, he was posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest state honor, for his services to the Republic by President Andrzej Duda.

Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II, addressed Archbishop Baraniak with the words, “The Church in Poland will never forget what Your Excellency did for this Church in its most difficult time.”

During the funeral Mass, Blessed Stefan Wyszyński said that during his imprisonment, “he took on the responsibility of the Primate of Poland for the Church in Poland.”

Security Office documents contain the following entry: “His steadfast stance and conviction that he could only serve a government that did not violate human rights and respected divine law” clearly defines his attitude towards the communist authorities.

“Were it not for his uncompromising attitude, the return to Warsaw of the Primate Wyszyński would not have been feasible after the imprisonment, whereas without Cardinal Wyszyński there would not be Cardinal Wojtyla and then the Pope John Paul II” – stated Archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jędraszewski.

According to Father Marian Banaszak, “when things were extremely difficult for him, he decided to undertake private spiritual retreats in prison. There were times when he would clench his fists and say to himself, ‘Baraniak, you cannot disgrace yourself.'” He was aware that seminarians and Salesian novices were continuously praying for him.

Dr. Milada Tylcowa and Dr. Małgorzata Kulesza-Kiczka confirmed that “the Archbishop’s back was covered with scars so deep and wide that there is no doubt they were marks from beatings.”

“…he was an extremely modest man who practically never spoke about himself, especially about his heroic time in prison” – Prof. Stanisław Mikołajczyk.

In October 2017, the President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, announced the initiation of the beatification process for Archbishop Antoni Baraniak at the diocesan level.

A postscript:

Today in the world there is a growing chorus not only among laypeople but also among Church hierarchs advocating for the abolition of priestly celibacy.

I ask the reader, would Archbishop Baraniak have been able to remain faithful to God, the Church, and the Country to the very end if he had a wife and children being cognizant of their husband’s and father’s torments? 

Some might argue that St. Peter, the Apostle, had a wife and daughter. Yes, but according to tradition, they first experienced martyrdom, not the other way round. Only afterwards was he crucified upside down, as he requested.

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Written by
Paul Suski