It was hard not to be excited about the chance to watch “Prophet,” the new biopic on Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the legendary churchman who guided the Church in Poland during the worst of Soviet communism.
For Polish Catholics, Cardinal Wyszyński’s ministry was a beacon of hope in times of darkness, a man who preserved and consolidated Poland’s Catholic identity under a brutal Soviet-run regime intent upon “atheizing” the country. He is also remembered as the man who mentored the young bishop who went on to become St. Pope John Paul II.
But to my great disappointment, “Prophet” is a reductive and one-dimensional portrait of the great cardinal.
Throughout its 126 minutes, the film makes no attempt to reach a wider audience. “Prophet” is a movie written for Catholics, perhaps especially Polish audiences with an interest in reliving an important chapter in their nation’s history.
The Blessed Cardinal Wyszyński was indeed a saint, a man whose heroic faith was tested almost to the point of martyrdom. But the film leaves the spiritual dimension of this great figure in the background. The Communist authorities imprisoned Cardinal Wyszyński for three years. What better occasion to hold up an example of heroic faith in the face of adversity?
But that part of his story is surprisingly nowhere to be found. In a brief initial sequence, we see another prelate being tortured by the Communists. But when it comes to Cardinal Wyszyński, the film’s focus instead is on his time as archbishop of Warsaw (a post historically accompanied by the title “Primate of Poland”) and his battle with the Communist authorities.
The movie’s plot revolves around the 1,000-year anniversary of the Baptism of Poland, a celebration the cardinal saw as a chance to strengthen his people’s faith and to send a message to the Communist regime and to the world. The Communists try to deter him, but fail.
There is no real tension in the narrative, as we see the cardinal easily win one battle after the other and finally achieve his purpose. The Cardinal Wyszyński portrayed in the film is a rather unidimensional character: He is a man who always knows what to do, who never has a doubt or a hesitation. But behind the mask of this skilled politician, it is hard to see the man of faith.
The film is advertised as a portrait of the man who paved the way for Cardinal Wojtyla. But the relationship with Cardinal Wojtyla is not really developed. We see Cardinal Wyszyński interact with the future Pope John Paul II in three extremely short scenes. The film does not tell us how they knew each other, or what Cardinal Wyszyński saw in Cardinal Wojtyla.
Neither are we introduced to the intellectual and spiritual environment in which Cardinal Wojtyla grew up, or how Cardinal Wyszyński contributed to that environment. How was he regarded by younger prelates such as Cardinal Wojtyla? Did they look up to him as a model? We are not told: The film does not even show the role played by Cardinal Wyszyński in the conclave that elected Cardinal Wojtyla.
The film’s bright spot is its account of Cardinal Wyszyński’s constant preaching of reconciliation, which led him to issue his controversial “Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops,” in which he invited his countrymen to forgive their former wartime enemies. Time and again, we hear him insist that Christians should resist the temptation of hatred and choose the path of love, that this is the way of the Gospels and the only way forward.
But even these great messages are often delivered in a cold, dogmatic way. To every spiritual question, the cardinal answers with a ready-made formula that sounds lifted from a catechism text. There is never a sense of where this love comes from, never a hint of the redeeming power that can convert the hardest of hearts.
The Christianity of Cardinal Wyszyński, as filtered through the dialogues of this film, seems more like stoicism. And Cardinal Wyszyński’s Church, as shown in the movie, resembles an army taking orders: Christians must simply commit themselves to doing whatever Jesus orders — including loving our enemies — without a hint of grace involved.
The film has a clear message to deliver: As a Catholic country, Poland’s identity should return to its Catholic roots. This is a fair political view, and I do not object to the movie’s author's desire to broadcast it.
But it is an anachronistic view in 2022, one that takes Catholicism in Poland for granted. Meanwhile, Catholicism is in undeniable decline in Europe, including Poland. A recent poll by Poland’s state research agency looked at data on religious belief and practice from 1992 to 2021. It showed that in the early 1990s (right after the end of communism), almost 70% of young people in Poland regularly practiced their Catholic religion; today, less than 25% do. Such statistics beg the question: What is the use in founding a country’s national identity on Catholicism if you no longer have Catholics?
Pope John Paul spoke memorably about this when he made the “new evangelization” a priority of his papacy.
“I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ‘ad gentes’ (‘to the nations’), ” he wrote in his 1990 encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” (“The Mission of the Redeemer”). “Today the Church must … push forward to new frontiers, both in the initial mission ‘ad gentes’ and in the new evangelization of those peoples who have already heard Christ proclaimed.”
In coining the term “new evangelization,” he did not just mean the evangelization of countries without a significant Christian presence; he also meant the re-evangelization of countries where the Christian faith is in decline — Poland among them.
The movie suggests that we need brave Catholic leaders who stand up to the authorities. That’s indisputable. God knows we need brave priests and bishops in these times of increasing authoritarianism. But, more importantly, we need saints. We need their sanctity to shine in order to re-evangelize a continent like Europe. Politicians won’t save Christianity, saints will.
“Prophet” showed us the skilled politician. I wished it had shown us the saint.
“Prophet” showed in theaters throughout the U.S. on Nov. 15 and 17. It was released by Fathom Events and Kondrat Media. For more information, visit Prophet2022.com.