Conservative religious leader Cardinal Jozef Glemp at a book launch in 2005.
Conservative religious leader Cardinal Jozef Glemp at a book launch in 2005.
C. Sokolowski/Associated Press

WARSAW — Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the longtime head of Poland’s influential Roman Catholic church who helped lead the nation peacefully through martial law and the fight against communism, has died. He was 83.

Church authorities said Cardinal Glemp died Wednesday evening in Warsaw. He had been ill for many years, and the Polish news agency PAP said he had lung cancer.

Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, archbishop of Warsaw, said Cardinal Glemp was a leader “in a difficult time” through which he led the church with prudence and wisdom.

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A lawyer by education, Cardinal Glemp was appointed primate of Poland’s Roman Catholic church in the tempestuous yet hope-filled year of 1981. That was the heyday of the Solidarity freedom movement, when the nation openly opposed the communist authorities with massive strikes and when the threat of a communist clampdown and even Soviet intervention was mounting.

Initially, he seemed to lose face in the public eye in comparison with his predecessor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, a stalwart opponent of Poland’s Communist regime. But for Cardinal Glemp, the main goal was to avoid confrontation with the regime and prevent bloodshed.

He was criticized for his conciliatory tactics, but they helped the Poles save lives and go mostly peacefully through 18 months of harsh military rule imposed in December 1981 and through Poland’s isolation and want of the 1980s. Under his guidance, the church offered spiritual and material support to Solidarity activists and dissidents, many of whom lost their jobs. He supported Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for advocacy of freedom.

Cardinal Glemp’s calm also disarmed the bitterness and anger that rose in Poland after the secret security abducted and killed a pro-Solidarity priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, in 1984.

As primate, Cardinal Glemp played an active role in helping to end communism in Poland, when church authorities initiated and guaranteed the fairness of political negotiations between Solidarity and the weakening communists in 1988 and 1989. The Communist regime ended peacefully through free elections in 1989.

A clever political strategist, Cardinal Glemp was a conservative religious leader. In the 1980s he opposed Jewish demands to have a female convent —and its cross— moved from near Auschwitz, the former Nazi German death camp, considered by Jews to be the largest cemetery of Holocaust victims. His reluctance, before he finally obeyed orders from Polish-born Pope John Paul II, earned him the label of anti-Semite in much of the world.

Under Poland’s young democracy and its painful transformation to a market economy, Cardinal Glemp stressed the need to protect ordinary people who were losing jobs by the tens of thousands. He also campaigned to protect the Catholic faith, which for centuries was a defining feature for the Polish people.

Cardinal Glemp remained the head of the Polish bishops’ conference until 2004, and retained the title of primate, the top leader, until 2009.

His years of leadership largely coincided with the papacy of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who was elected pope in 1979 and died in 2005, and whose words and first visit to Poland as pope in 1979 had inspired the Solidarity movement.

Three days of funeral ceremonies will begin Saturday and the burial will take place Monday at St. John’s Arch Cathedral, Nycz said.