CARDINAL STEFAN WYSZYNSKI, who died in Warsaw on Thursday, became leader of the Polish Catholic Church as the Soviet Army was forcing communist rule on his country after World War II. Like most of his countrymen, the primate regarded the new civil order as fundamentally alien to Polish tastes and traditions and as something imposed by a historic enemy. At the same time, he accepted a responsibility to work within the framework of the new geopolitical reality in order to tend to the spiritual needs of the faithful, which means just about everyone in Poland, and to sustain the special role of the church as the custodian of the Polish national spirit. This made him for 32 years the central figure in his church's and people's struggle with the regime. He was the clear winner.

Cardinal Wyszynski started this struggle with the conviction that communism was not only alien but transient, a burden that God had imposed on Poland but one that would pass. This confidence flowed from his spirituality and from his sense of Polish history alike. It meant he would fight for his church and country, but it also meant he could afford to parlay with the communist authorities and accommodate their secualr requirements, secure in the knowledge that time was working against the system. In a final bow of tribute, the government on Thursday declared a national mourning, saying that he had created "a pattern of cooperation between the Catholic Church and the socialist state," and it intends to continue it.

The cardinal's contribution to the peaceful revolution now taking place in Poland was overwhelming. More than any other single figure, he had nourished the national moral base -- the sense that even in socialist Poland power must be weilded justly -- on which worker's movement had made its claims. At specific turning points, he had the judgement and authority to keep those claims within politically feasible bounds, and thus to protect the revolution against its own ardor.

His loss is a grievous one for his country. But he leaves, too, in the institution of his church, a sturdy instrument to continue his work. That one of his proteges is the pope -- this pope -- is another part of his enormous legacy.