February 3, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Archbishop Andrzej Deskur preceded his countryman to Rome

John F. FinkBack in the days when I traveled to the Vatican frequently, one of my favorite people was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Andrzej Maria Deskur. He was from Poland, and was working in the Vatican well before his countryman, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was elected Pope John Paul II.

Archbishop Deskur was president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Archbishop John

P. Foley’s predecessor. His office was literally in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica. To get there, I had to walk through a gate to the left of the basilica, manned by Swiss Guards. Of course, I had to have an appointment to get past the Swiss Guards. Three different popes once used the desk and chairs in Archbishop Deskur’s office.

I got to know him because he attended meetings of the International Catholic Union of the Press, and I was very impressed with him. I marveled at his linguistic abilities. He didn’t need the simultaneous translation equipment that was so vital for most of us. Once in 1974, while I was presiding at a meeting and sitting next to him, I asked him how many languages he spoke, and he replied 10.

Archbishop Deskur lived in an apartment above his office. Back in the 1970s, I visited him there, and he was always very hospitable. Polish nuns fixed snacks for us, which we ate at a very fancy table. He had a chapel just inside the door of the apartment, and we always stopped there for a prayer before moving into the living room.

Archbishop Deskur was a good friend of Cardinal Wojtyla. In 1978, during the conclave in which Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Deskur suffered a stroke that affected his speech and left him partially paralyzed. Soon after he was elected pope, John Paul sneaked out of the Vatican one evening to visit Archbishop Deskur in the hospital.

After his stroke, he was moved to a hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, for some special type of treatment for stroke victims. It happened that the International Union of the Catholic Press had a council meeting in Geneva that year and, after the meeting, my friend Jim Doyle and I took a train up to Zurich to see Archbishop Deskur.

He was so glad to see us that he became very emotional. Perhaps the effects of the stroke had much to do with it, but he cried because, he said, he was no longer able to work as he wanted to do, and now his friend was pope.

Although incapacitated, Archbishop Deskur retained the title of president of the council until Archbishop Foley was appointed to that position in 1986. Occasionally, when I visited Archbishop Foley, I would take the occasion to go up to the next floor to see Archbishop Deskur. He told me that the pope took his Polish nuns from him. He also told me that the pope continued to visit him about once a week, until the pope became too incapacitated.

Pope John Paul also made Deskur a cardinal. Cardinal Deskur outlived his good friend. He died on Sept. 3, 2011.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It Must Be More Than a Human Institution.)

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