He’s a Church historian. He’s 59 years of age. He’s the archbishop of what is possibly the most mispronounced city in Poland. And now he is the country’s first new cardinal in five years.
In institutional terms, Cardinal-elect Grzegorz Ryś isn’t the most obvious choice for a red hat. Poznań’s Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki and Kraków’s Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski — respectively the president and vice-president of Poland’s bishops’ conference — would have seemed more likely candidates for the consistory creating new cardinals on Sept. 30.
But a quick glance in the window of a Catholic bookstore in Poland will give you some idea of why Pope Francis opted for the younger, less experienced Archbishop of Łódź (pronounced “Woodge”).
In the storefront, you are likely to see volumes such as the handsome 2019 trilogy of books “Power of the Word,” “Power of Faith,” and “Power of Hope,” which Ryś describes as “a journey through the Bible.”
The short biography on the cover describes Ryś as an “author of many bestsellers” who is “known for his constant proclamation of the Gospel in every place and time.”
Among his more than 50 books are titles such as “There is Room for Everyone in the Church,” “Does the Church Make Sense?” and 2023’s “Christians versus Jews: From Jesus to the Inquisition, 15 centuries of difficult relations.”
The cardinal-elect’s books give a good indication of his interests: Engagement with the secular world, ecumenism, and inter-religious dialogue. Above all, they highlight his drive to evangelize, especially among young people, which was recognized when he was asked to serve in 2011 as the first chairman of the Polish bishops’ new evangelization team. He held the position for two five-year terms.
Grzegorz Ryś — whose surname is pronounced “Rish” and means “lynx” in Polish — was born on Feb. 9, 1964, in Kraków, Poland’s fabled “city of saints” where the future Pope John Paul II served as archbishop.
Ryś was ordained a priest of the Kraków archdiocese in 1988 at the city’s royal Wawel Cathedral. In 1994, he earned a doctorate with a dissertation on Polish medieval folk piety, and in the year 2000 he gained a habilitation, Poland’s highest academic degree, with a work on the Czech theologian Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.
He was director of the Kraków cathedral chapter’s archives from 2004 to 2007. He then served as rector of the archdiocese’s major seminary until 2011. That year, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Kraków, taking the motto “Virtus in infirmitate” (“Power in weakness”).
He wrote the reflections used at the Way of the Cross at World Youth Day in Kraków in 2016. A year later, he was chosen to lead the Łódź archdiocese, serving around 1.3 million Catholics in the city known as “Poland’s Manchester” because it was once a textile industry powerhouse.
In 2018, Ryś launched a synod in his archdiocese, after which he established a center for the formation of permanent deacons, a school for catechists, and a Redemptoris Mater seminary connected to the Neocatechumenal Way.
In 2019, he received an award from a body promoting the Polish language, which praised his homilies for being “natural,” clear, and “devoid of theological jargon.”
In 2020, Ryś was appointed apostolic administrator of Poland’s Kalisz diocese, following the resignation of Bishop Edward Janiak, reportedly for negligence in the handling of abuse cases. That same year, he was named a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
Ryś is the first new Polish cardinal since the papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski in 2018, who was himself the first since Warsaw’s Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz in 2010. Along with Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko, Poland will now have four cardinals eligible to vote in a future conclave.
It’s not easy to position Polish Church leaders on the left-right ecclesial spectrum favored in Western Europe and North America. But a selection of quotations from interviews Ryś has given the Polish Catholic weekly Gość Niedzielny suggests he is well attuned to Pope Francis’ concerns.
“I think we are at a point where the Holy Spirit is calling us to de-clericalize the Church everywhere we can,” he said in a 2022 interview. “The Church should not be clerical at all.”
“We must look carefully at where are those places where the priest is absolutely irreplaceable and must serve there, and where are those places where a lay person, filled with the appropriate gifts of the Holy Spirit, can undertake ministry.”
“This is what we are learning in the synodal Church. This synodality is not about sitting down once a month with a small team and discussing the Church. It’s about shared responsibility, about communion in action.”
On July 7, Ryś was named as one of the papal appointees to this October’s synod on synodality.
In an informative July 10 profile published by the Catholic weekly Niedziela, Tomasz Królak wrote that Ryś invited “everyone into the conversation,” regardless of the level of their piety.
“He makes important diagnoses, asks pertinent questions, boldly describes challenges, and does not shy away from difficult answers,” Królak said. “This is probably why his voice is listened to attentively not only by Catholics, but by all those who are serious about their spiritual lives.”
Królak noted that the cardinal-elect intuitively grasped young people’s struggles.
“He is certainly one of the bishops who best understands young people, but not only those who feel connected to the Church and participate in religious practices,” he wrote. “He seems to truly understand their hopes and fears, their dreams, but also their sources of disappointment.”
“He talks to them in various forums, such as inviting them to small meetings at the Curia or speaking at large gatherings. And he tries to convince them that the Gospel was also written to them and is a description of their inner questions and struggles as well.”
“Addressing thousands of participants in this year’s youth meeting at Lednica, he argued that God, who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, loves each person always, freely, unconditionally, selflessly, faithfully and not ‘for something’ only — in spite of everything.”
Ryś has been an enthusiastic leader of walking pilgrimages to the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, home to Poland’s highly venerated image of the Black Madonna.
People who know him testify to his sense of humor. During one foot pilgrimage, he kept pilgrims entertained with a story about a shepherd in Poland’s Tatra Mountains who was sitting with his sheep in a meadow when a mysterious stranger arrived.
Walking at speed as trucks rolled past, Ryś explained that the visitor, who wore a suit and carried a briefcase, asked the shepherd to give him a sheep if he accurately assessed the size of his flock. When the shepherd agreed, the stranger guessed the number correctly and selected his sheep.
The shepherd then asked if he could have his sheep back if he guessed the visitor’s identity. The stranger agreed, and the shepherd suggested confidently that he was a farming specialist sent by the mighty European Union.
The visitor was surprised and asked the shepherd how he knew.
“Because you have taken my sheepdog,” he replied.
The pilgrims gave Ryś a round of applause as he delivered the punchline, and they continued on their way.