Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, 79, who died of cancer today at his residence here, symbolized the triumphs and tribulations of 20th century Poland.

The cardinal led the Roman Catholic Church in Poland for 32 years. As communist leaders came and went, Cardinal Wyszynski remained of his country's ago-old quest from freedom and independence.

One of the greatest ironies of his remarkable career is that Poland's communist rulers will mourn his passing almost as much as his immense Catholic following. For particularly during, the crisis that gripped Poland toward the end of his life, this implacable opponent of communism was universally regarded as the greatest national bulwark for social and political stability.

After years of battling the communist regime, Cardinal Wyszynski used his enormous influence over the past few months to urge moderation on his fellow countrymen and to act as a trusted intermediary between the authorities and the independent Solidarity trade union. It was his last, and perhaps most crucial, service to the national he loved so much.

It is difficult to separate Cardinal Wyszynski's achievements as a great churchman from his achievements as a national leader. For many centuries, the primate of Poland has played a political as well as spiritual role. If anything, despite the separation of church from state, the political importance of the office has increased during the decades of communist rule since the end of World War II.

A generation of Poles, the vast majority of whom are Roman Catholic, has looked to Cardinal Wyszynski as the embodiment of Poland's sovereignty. He won enormous popular respect as a result of his unbending refusal to be intimidated by the repressive power of a totalitarian state.

For many years, particularly during the neo-Stalinist period of the early 1950s, the Roman ycatholic Church was the only institution in Poland to preserve its independence and historical traditions. Cardinal Wyszynski paid for his defiance with a spell forced isolation, but this only added to his reputation and popularity.

It later became necessary for any communist leader to reach an understanding with the primate in order to win a modicum of social support. At times of grave national crisis, public attention automatically focused on the primate's palace in Warsaw where Cardinal Wyszynski lived.

Although adamantly opposed to Marxist ideas, the cardinal was a political realist. His two main concerns were the integrity of the Polish nation and the spiritual regeneration of its people. This in turn led him to take the long view of history, preferring to think of the distant future rather than temporary political gain.

Steeped in the history of his office, Cardinal Wyszynski was convinced that Poland's 1,000-year-old Christian tradition would outlast its present period of communist rule.

It was this difference in historical perspective that enabled him to negotiate with one communist leader after another -- from Wladyslaw Gomulka to Stanislaw Kania -- despite their contrasting aims. It also earned him the grudging respect of his political opponents.

A frequent comment by communist officials was that they felt they knew where they stood with Cardinal Wyszynski. They certainly could not expect flattery or subservience, but it was possible to do business with him and even conclude temporary alliances in the Polish National interest.

"The cardinal's first loyalty is to Poland and only second to the Catholic Church" was a typical remark.

Cardinal Wyxzynski himself stated his priorities rather differently, but did not disguise his strong national feeling. During a sermon in 1974, he said: "Next to God, our first love is Poland. After God, one must above all remain faithful to our homeland, to the Polish national culture. We love all the people in the world, but only in this order of priority."

He added: "Above all, we demand the right to live in accordance with the spirit, culture, history and language of our Polish land, the same that have been used by our ancestors for centuries."

Poland's right to self-determination and historical continuity was central to Cardinal Wyszynski's philosophy. It lay behind many of his battles with the authorities over issues ranging from censorship to political repression.

It also provided much of the inspiration for Solidarity. Many Solidarity leaders, and particularly Lech Walesa, openly revered the primate. Walesa once described him as the most impressive man he had ever met -- and specifically included the Polish-born Pope John Paul II in the comparison.

In an interview with Italian journalist Orianna Fallaci, Walesa said he would never go against the primate's wishes. "He is a great man, his wisdom is immense and his help has been enormous. . . . All the time and in every way. People don't know it was Cardiinal Wyszynski who arranged our meetings with Gierek and Kania and even during the [labor unrest earlier this year]. I had to ask him to give me a hand. Without his intervention, I wouldn't have been able to call an end to those strikes."

Cardinal Wyszynski's first intervention in the crisis came last August, during the long strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, when then-party leader Edward Gierek apparently persuaded him that there was a risk of imminent Soviet action. He delivered a televised sermon urging that strikes be used only as a last resort, but expressing support for the workers' grievances.

On that occasion, the strikers ignored his advice.Later it was alleged that his sermon had been censored in order to emphasize the return to work appeal at the expense of him primary message: that nothing be done to jeopardize Poland's national integrity.

His next major contribution came in November during the dispute over Solidarity's registration. Flying back from Rome after a meeting with the pope, he was told tha the government was prepared to decalre a state of emergency unless the union formally recognized the leading role of the Communist Party. Once again, he appealed for moderation and the next day received Solidarity leaders at his residence.

In March, just before he was confined to bed, Cardinal Wyszynski helped defuse tension between the government and Solidarity when union activists were beaten up by police in the northern town of Bydgoszcz. The incidents almost provoked an indefinite general strike and it was in large measure through Cardinal Wyszynski that this was avoided.

Cardinal Wyszynski reminded the authorities they were supposed to serve society and respect human rights and freeedoms. He reminded Solidarity members that much time and patience were necessary in their struggle "for must social rights and economic demands."

Throughout the crisis, the cardinal was one of the strongest advocates of the right of Poland's independent farmers to form their own union. He argued their case both in public and in private despite strong official opposition. Eventually his arguments found a sympathetic ear in the new prime minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, and Rural Solidarity was approved after a seven-month legal and political struggle.

Cardinal Wyszynski's towering presence and strong personality gave him a rare charisma. In his flowing robes and red cardinal's hat, he looked every inch a prince of the church.

His life almost spanned the eight decades of this century and thus provides a convenient measuring stick to chart Poland's own historical fortunes. When he was born, on Aug. 3, 1901, the country was still divided among Russia, Germany and Austria.

The Wyszynski family came from the village of Zuzuela between Warsaw and Bialystok in what is now northeast Poland but at that time was part of the Russian empire. Stefan's father was an impoverished nobleman who worked as the village school-teacher and parish organist.

Stefan Wyszynski was ordained a priest at the age of 23 and sent to an industrial parish in the city of Wloclawek on the Vistula River north of Warsaw. It was a job that gave him his first insight into workers' grievances -- another lasting concern in his career. In 1933, Wloclawek was the scene of mass demonstrations by unemployed workers.

The cardinal recalled this period of his life when he received Walesa and other Solidarity leaders last November. He told them how he had helped organize Christian trade unions in the 1930s, pointing out tactfully the need for unions to concern themselves with social problems and work safety rather than getting too involved in politics.

Father Wyszynski's preoccupation with labor and agricultural problems quickly led to him being dubbed "the worker priest." But he also continued his theological studies, traveling extensively in France, Italy, Belgium and Holland between 1929 and 1930.

During World War ii, Father Wyszynski was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis in both Warsaw and Lublin, serving as a chaplain to the London-based Polish Home Army. In Poland, unlike some other East European countries, the Catholic Church countries, the Catholic Church was distinguished by its active opposition to Nazi rule.

Stefan Wyszynski was consecrated bishop of Lublin in May 1946, the start of his distinguished ecclesiastical career. In January 1949, at the age of 47, he became archbiship of Warsaw and primate of Poland.

His appointment came at a time of grave danger for the church. Poland's Stalinist leader, Bohuslaw Bierut, had launched a campaign designed to smash what was described as "the reactionary clerical opposition." A series of drastic steps undertaken by the government included the confiscation of church property and arrests and show trials of clergy and monks.

Four years later, Archbishop Wyszynski refused to denounce one of his bishops on trial for alleged political offenses. He himself was accused of violating a church-state pact, arrested by the secret police, and sent into exile. For the next three years, he was transferred from one monastery to another, but used the time to prepare what later became an action program for Poland's spiritual revival.

In 1953, while in exile, he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Pius xii.

In October 1956, Poland underwent an anti-Stalinist upheaval. The nationalist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, a victim of the Talinist purges, made a comeback and -- in a move to gain popular support -- ordered the primate's release. He returned in triumph to the primate's palace in Warsaw and immediately appealed to the people for "national unity and calm."

Thanks partly to his cooperation, the 1956 upheavals remained a steered revolution. In contrast to Hungary the same year, the Russians did not invade Poland.

Cardinal Wyszynski again helped calm popular passions in December 1970, when workers rioted in Baltic ports of Gdansk and Szczecin and toppled Gomulka. Under Gierek's more pragmatic leadership, church-state relations improved.

In additional to his running feud with the communist authorities, the Polish primate had his differences with the Vatican. Although a faithful servant of the pope, he had reservations initially about the Vatican's ostpolitik, or effort to seek accommodation with communist governments. He apparently believed that the local church, rather than Rome, should have the say in relations with the state.

In religious terms, Cardinal Wyszynski was a conservative strongly opposed to abortion and devoted to the Virgin Mary. It was this same tradition that produced Karol Wojtyla, the man frequently regarded as Cardinal Wyszynski's likely successor, but who was elected pope instead.