The search for a successor to Poland's Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, who passed on here May 28, poses a question of great political significance for the Roman Catholic Church, the nation at large, and the leadership of this communist state.
Throughout the 1980 strikes, Cardinal Wyszynski was a moderating influence. He identified firmly with the demands of the strikers and the rights of the people, but always counseled patience and restraint, sometimes more than the militants liked.
His moral authority and prudent leadership were of supreme importance not only for the church, but also for the communist regime, as the new political situation brought it dangerously close to conflict with its east-bloc allies.
His passing creates a monentary political vacuum for Poland during what has become perhaps its most fateful period since World War II.
Through three decades, the late primate sustained his church against pressures exerted by the regime. For many of those years, Pope John Paul II -- first as bishop and later Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow -- was at his side.
They were twin pillars of the church, defending its rights against every effort, especially severe in the early postwar years, to undermine its extraordinary hold not only on the practicing faithful but also on at least 80 to 90 percent of the nation at large.
There are few Poles -- even among members of the Communist Party -- who do not acknowledge the great moral role of the Catholic Church in Polish life in general and as custodian of its heritage of Christian culture.
To the leaders of the new regime, the cardinal might have been an ideological adversary and an obstacle to the complete secularization of youth and its upbringing and education. But none would deny that he was always a great patriot among the few outstanding figures in Polish life since the simply say since World War II.
Four times since 1956 the communist leadership was rocked to its foundations by popular unrest. Each time -- beginning with Wladislaw Gomulka and including the successors of Edward Gierek last September -- the regime had no alternative but to look to Cardinal Wyszynski for support.
After the strikes broke out last summer, he reminded both the regime and the workers of the grave and unforeseeable political consequences for Poland each time the country stood on the brink of some new crisis. He also cautioned about the risk of outside intervention if Poles themselves should fail to exercise and reach a compromise in their common national interest.
Despite his outspoken opposition to everything Marxist, it was not just in the 1980 crisis, but over the previous two decades that the communists came to appreciate him more and more and to admit they needed his support.
On his 75th birthday, in 1976, they sent him flowers and a congratulatory telegram. They were relieved the Pope had waived the normal retirement requirement.
His departure from the Polish scene will leave a political vacuum they may well find more disturbing than the church is.
Who will follow him is an important political question.
Among the eight archbishops and bishops at the top of the hierarchy are several who have played significant roles in the evolution of the present modus vivendi with the regime.
But none has the stature of the late primate or the combination of political skill and personal and spiritual authority that he wielded so effectively throughout his years in office.
One of the last acts performed in the cardinal's presence -- a week before his passing -- was the delegation of his powers as chairman of the main council of the episcopate to the Archbishop of Krakow, Franciszek Cardinal Macharski.
This does not necessarily mean that Cardinal Macharski is the likely choice for primate. It is being said that a triumvirate will replace Cardinal Wyszynski, with the primacy reverting to the incumbent of the historic Gniezno archbishopric, the confirmation of Cardinal Macharski at the head of the episcopate, and a third appointee as archbishop of Warsaw.