Archbishop Bronislaw Dabrowski was not one to hog the limelight and appeared on first meeting to be a man of few words, reluctant to venture an opinion without first weighing all the consequences. But behind the scenes he played a key role in the Polish Catholic Church for nearly 25 years as secretary of the bishops' conference with responsibility for negotiating directly with the Communist authorities, a delicate balance between asserting the rights of a church that represented the overwhelming majority of the Polish population and making practical concessions to ensure the modus vivendi continued.
A clergyman of the old school, Dabrowski placed a high value on loyalty, and faithfully served two primates, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (until his death in 1981) and his successor, Cardinal Jozef Glemp.
Born in Grodziec near Kalisz amid the German occupation, Dabrowski entered the Orionist Order in 1935, taking his initial philosophy course at the seminary in Zdunska Wola. He then studied for two years in Italy, before returning to Poland in 1939. After the German and Soviet partition of Poland, he resumed his studies at the Zdunska Wola seminary but was soon forced to continue in secret in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. He took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, but was seized by the Germans and sent to an internment camp. Freed with the defeat of the Nazi forces in Poland, he was ordained priest in June 1945. His first task was to direct a newly established orphanage before being put in charge of an apprentices' institute in Warsaw.
In 1949 Wyszynski appointed Dabrowski director of the secretariat department concerned with religious orders. The following year, in the wake of the accord between the new Communist regime and the Church, he was appointed to head the Office of the Secretariat empowered to conduct negotiations with the government's Office for Religious Affairs under the supervision of the secretary of the episcopate.
In March 1962 he was consecrated assistant bishop of Warsaw, although in practice his work remained little changed. In 1969, following the death of the incumbent, he was elected secretary of the episcopate, the office to which he was re-elected four times and which he would hold for nearly a quarter of a century. He was appointed a titular archbishop in June 1982.
Although Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of Krakow was the leading church representative on the joint government-church commission set up in 1980, Dabrowski was a key participant. Despite tensions caused by government restrictions on the Church and the Church's support for the opposition, commission meetings were frank and at times even jocular as the two sides built up a rapport. But below the surface the serious issues were never far away. The two sides discussed frankly whether certain courses of action might trigger Soviet intervention.
Dabrowski became a firm supporter of the independent Solidarity trade union, whose emergence in 1980 was eventually to shatter the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. In at least one case, Dabrowski played an effective mediating role between Solidarity and the government in bringing strikes to an end during the tense early months of 1981 and negotiated for the release of political prisoners.
When General Jaruzelski declared martial law early on 13 December 1981, he sent a special emissary to the cardinal's palace in the middle of the night to give prior warning. Glemp reportedly heard the news with sadness. Dabrowski, the second to be informed, was adamantly opposed, though continued liaising with government representatives. One week later he was on his way to Rome to give Pope John Paul II the first direct account of events in his homeland, which even the Vatican had been unable to obtain as the government had cut communication with the outside world.
Martial law brought to the surface the tensions between Glemp and Dabrowski, with the cardinal urging caution, fearing the reinstallation of a Stalinist regime that would repress the Church while Dabrowski believed that the Solidarity movement could not be crushed. But neither allowed their differences to affect their working relationship, a testimony to Dabrowski's diplomatic skills.
In 1989, Dabrowski was one of the Church's participants in the round- table negotiations between the Communist government and the opposition which led to the first free elections and the election victory of the first non-Communist government.
In ill-health for some time, Dabrowski was finally replaced as secretary of the bishops' conference in February 1993. His successor, Tadeusz Pieronek, immediately established a different style, taking a high profile as the Church's spokesperson and developing close and friendly relations with the media, something completely alien to Dabrowski's style.