KRAKÓW, Poland – Once asked about the music he would like to be played at his funeral, Dominican Father Maciej Zięba said: “If the order can afford it – can afford a little orchestra – I would like them to play Purcel’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,’ and if less musicians are considered, let it be Deep Purple’s ‘Perfect Strangers.’”
Those quotes say a lot about Zięba, a Polish anti-communist rebel who died from cancer on December 31, 2020 at the age of 66. He was laid to rest Jan. 9 in his native Wrocław, in southwestern Poland, with Purcel’s piece being used, as he wished.
He had a passion for good music – he loved Bach even more than Purcel – science, philosophy and public debate. But it’s the legacy Pope St. John Paul II that Zięba carried for a lifetime dedicated to youth from Poland and the United States.
“Father Maciej was many things to many people, but how I met him first, and how I remember him best, was as a priest and a preacher,” Stephen White, director of Catholic Project at Catholic University of America told Crux. “His good humor helped, too. He will be sorely missed.”
White is a lecturer of the Tertio Millennio Institute, which was founded in 1992 by the Dominican, along with Michael Novak, Rocco Buttiglione, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel. The aim of the institute was to deepen the dialogue on Catholic social doctrine between North American students and students from the new post-Communist democracies of central and eastern Europe. Thousands of students have participated in the institutes summer and winter seminars in Kraków.
“Father Maciej was always on the go, always involved, always working on the next thing,” White recalled.
“But he also had the wisdom — and self-awareness — to preach convincingly about the futility of our own efforts and our ultimate dependence on grace,” he added. “This mix of confidence and humility was part of what made him such a compelling mentor to young people.”
Zięba was barely 20 when he became an opposition activist, and right after Solidarity was created, he was organizing it in Wrocław. After communism fell, he created and led a European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk.
He joined the Dominican order in 1981, three years after getting his physics degree. He later served as the provincial for the order in Poland from 1998-2006.
“Shall I not be a Dominican? I would be a physics scientist, whom I was before God cut it,” Zięba once said during one of the meetings with young people, adding that being a scientist “is something utmost beautiful – something between poetry and philosophy.”
In fact, he was a fine philosopher, which along with his sharp scientific mind made him a perfect fit for John Paul II. The pontiff entrusted Zięba with the task teaching the ‘spirit of Karol Wojtyła’ to young people with the Tertio Millennio Institute.
Weigel – who wrote Witness to Hope, the definitive biography of John Paul – joined him in the project.
“I’m a suspect witness, as we were close friends and worked together for over thirty years,” Weigel told Crux – “but I’ll risk the charge of advocacy by saying that Father Maciej was one of the finest priests I’ve ever known – a true apostle.”
He said the Polish Dominican had a profound impact while at the institute.
“He led innumerable young people into a closer relationship with Christ through a deeper appreciation of John Paul II, his spiritual father,” Weigel continued.
“[Zięba] faced challenges with courage and resolve, and he had a clear view of the need for Catholicism in Poland to become a Church of the New Evangelization. His death is a tremendous loss to that cause, and to the quest for a Polish public life that would reflect the social teaching of the great Polish pope,” he said.
Zięba’s strategy was like that of John Paul II – he gathered young people together, forming his own Środowisko [ecosystem] of Tertio Millenio graduates, putting Christ in the center of the encounter.
“The coming of Christ is a proof of God’s love, and the horrific death – we can’t even imagine how horrific and disgraceful it was – is showing how deeply evil stepped into this world,” Zięba once told the young people at a summer gathering. “How strongly we have to resist evil – this is the lesson I learn from the drama of redemption.”
Krzysztof Zanussi, a legendary Polish film director and film academic, often participated in the events of the Tertio MIllenio institute.
“He was a man of action,” Zanussi told Crux.
“Zięba was a man who was looking into the future knowing that Christianity has to be understood and that it has to have a lifting force in the society that is yet to come,” he added.
During Zięba’s funeral, Father Paweł Kozacki, Poland’s Dominican provincial, said the priest’s compass was the Gospel, which is why some saw him as a conservative, and others as a liberal.
“He had a foundation built on Christ. But he was never a fundamentalist. He had a capacity to look wider,” Kozacki said.
Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the longtime secretary of John Paul II, thanked Zięba for carrying the legacy of the Polish pontiff and for his “friendship with John Paul II that shaped his life.”
Although he was considered one of the foremost disciples of the Polish pontiff, Zięba never sugar-coated the legacy of John Paul II.
He spent the latter days of his life explaining the implications of the McCarrick report – the Vatican document on the rise of disgraced former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick – to the Polish people.
Speaking to Crux on Nov. 11, Zięba spoke of the clerical in the Church, saying “those structures of ecclesiastical authority are stuffy and need to be ventilated.”
Michał Szułdrzyński is the editor of Rzeczpospolita and credits Zięba with bringing him closer to God.
“He constantly convinced us that it is possible to combine modernity with Christianity. It was thanks to him that I understood that you can be a Catholic and someone who understands the present day,” he wrote in his newspaper’s obituary for the Polish priest.
“For many of us, he was like a father who is first admired and then fought with, to finally return to him, not to prove who is wiser, but to reflect on how much we’ve done together,” Szułdrzyński wrote. “The void after his departure is huge.”
Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina