Polish archbishop ‘shocked’ to receive red hat; prelate known for ‘human approach,’ ‘keen sense of humor’

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Polish archbishop
Archbishop Grzegorz Rys of Lódz, Poland, blesses worshippers in front of the Cathedral of St. Stanislaw Kostka on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023. Archbishop Rys is one of 21 churchmen who will be elevated to a cardinal by Pope Francis at the Vatican Sept. 30. (OSV News photo/courtesy Archdiocese of Lódz, Poland)

KRAKOW, Poland (OSV News) — Shortly after the announcement of new cardinals by Pope Francis July 9 during the Angelus prayer in the Vatican, the Polish internet was flooded by pictures of the lynx with a red cardinal’s hat. It’s because the last name of the newly named cardinal, Polish Archbishop Grzegorz Rys of Lódz, means precisely that — “lynx.”

“The new cardinal would be the last one offended by sending him such a meme,” Pauline Father Michal Legan told OSV News. Cardinal-designate Rys is known in his native Poland not only for the dozens of books he has written but also for a “human approach” in the Church and a “keen sense of humor,” Father Legan said.

Asked about the moment he learned he was named a cardinal, the Polish prelate said that “it was quite a shocking experience,” like “lightning.”

In a YouTube video posted July 10 by the Archdiocese of Lódz, the cardinal-designate said that he “was having an internal meeting about the 600th anniversary of the city” and “started to receive weird phone calls and messages.”

“When someone finally explicitly wrote to me that the Holy Father created me cardinal — my heart started hurting — even if my brother, who is a doctor, says that the heart cannot hurt,” Cardinal-designate Rys told Father Pawel Klys in a Polish interview.

When Father Legan, who is the Catholic newsroom director of the Polish public television station, heard the name “Rys” announced just following the pope’s Sunday Angelus, he said he “immediately called the archbishop and asked him to go live on the phone” on the station’s broadcast.

Cardinal-designate Rys, though, declined the offer to go on TV, not understanding fully what was happening. “I thought he didn’t want to comment on the nomination, and I hung up,” Father Legan said. “Only a couple of hours later when the archbishop called me back, I realized he did not know at the time when I called him that he was created cardinal and I didn’t tell him!”

“I’m really the worst Archangel Gabriel in history,” Father Legan told OSV News, referring to the angel known as God’s messenger.

Caught by surprise

Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a friend of the newly named cardinal, later told the Polish prelate that under the current pontificate, this is the way cardinals get to know they’re created — they are caught by surprise.

“I knew from Cardinal Konrad (Krajewski) that … the Holy Father holds a piece of paper in his pocket and he just opens it up during the Angelus and reads the names and no one knows earlier about the nomination,” Cardinal-designate Rys said.

“Cardinal (Krajewski) was in a better position than myself, because someone told him to watch the Angelus that day, so he did,” he added.

The future cardinal is a typical pick of Pope Francis — one off the beaten track. Lódz (pronounced Woodge) is a city in central Poland, one that is rather not on a primary list of “cardinal sees,” like Kraków or Poznan.

Cardinal-designate Rys, a Church historian born in Kraków, is a fierce advocate of the role of laity in the Church, ecumenical and interreligious relations, and a practical implementer of the idea of a missionary church, especially with regard to the youth.

“Faith is a relationship between persons; it must be a relationship with God and it must be a relationship with people. All missionary enthusiasm comes from the encounter with the living Lord. If this is not there, there is no mission,” he told Gosc Niedzielny (the Polish Our Sunday Visitor publication) earlier in 2023.

A heart for the poor

Cardinal-designate Rys shares Pope Francis’ missionary enthusiasm toward the poor.

“Rys is a bishop who is a very faithful disciple of the Holy Father,” Tomasz Kopytowski, lay director of Caritas Lódz told OSV News. “He represents a line of Pope Francis. He thinks of the poor just as the pope does, he treats them personally, invites (them) for Easter breakfasts, always includes them in diocesan celebrations as front row guests.”

When the Archdiocese of Lódz celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020, Cardinal-designate Rys called Kopytowski and told him that “the homeless people need to join us in our anniversary pilgrimage to Rome, and later in Paul VI aula (hall).

“He got them front-row seats to make sure the 18 homeless people that came with us could see the pope up close,” Kopytowski recalled.

Cardinal-designate Rys has written over 50 books and guided tours in the Holy Land in the past. For those who work with him closely on new evangelization initiatives, he is a bridge between the past and the future in the Church. Cardinal-designate Rys was head of the Polish bishops’ conference’s new evangelization office from 2011-2021.

“He is, on the one hand, deeply rooted and anchored in the history of the Church, but on the other hand understands the present and future needs of the Church — that is the experience of the tender Church, the Church that comes up close to individual people, with open heart,” Father Legan said.

“He treats everyone very personally. He knows how to listen,” Kopytowski told OSV News.

Kopytowski is the first-ever lay director of Caritas in Poland, and he was picked by Cardinal-designate Rys for the post in October 2022.

“We need to look carefully at where are those places where the priest is absolutely irreplaceable and must serve there, and where are those places where a layperson, filled with the appropriate gifts of the Holy Spirit, can undertake ministry,” the Lódz archbishop said in an interview with Gosc Niedzielny in October 2022.

Clergy abuse

Cardinal-designate Rys also is a fierce advocate of transparency in the Church in Poland.

When a journalistic investigation by Rzeczpospolita journal revealed that the number of victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Poland between 1944 and 1990 may be close to 1,100, with the number of abusers close to 300, Archbishop Rys immediately checked on possible abusers he was not aware of from his archdiocese.

“We identified both abusers from our archdiocese,” the archbishop told Rzeczpospolita on June 7. “Both are deceased, but it turned out we can still reach their victims, and this was the most important thing (to do),” he said.

He stressed that abuse may have “dramatic consequences” for one’s life and emphasized that it is important to try to reach the survivors “with apology and question: how we can help them,” he told Tomasz Krzyzak, the author of the Rzeczpospolita investigation.

The cardinal-designate also is a deep devotee of St. John Paul II. After the issue was raised by a controversial documentary that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, before he became pope, may have covered up abuse, the Lódz archbishop said at a press conference March 14 that as a historian, he studied the archives for the Polish pope’s sainthood cause in Kraków and did not find any trace that the future pope may have covered up abuse.

Nevertheless, Cardinal-designate Rys emphasized that a commission to study past cases of abuse in the Church in Poland is not aimed to “topple the monument.” With establishing the commission, “the Church is not going to lose, but win,” he told Krzyzak.

Paulina Guzik

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.