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Poles take pride in tenacious brand of Catholicism

Poland is, after everything, still a very Catholic place.

It’s not just that, according to official statistics, some 95 percent of the population of 38 million is Roman Catholic. It’s that a strongly devotional Catholicism still oozes from the national pores -- despite the czars, despite the communists, even despite the invasion of the heathen West with its easygoing, post-Christian relativism.

To be sure, Catholicism does not hold sway here in the totalitarian, integralist manner it once did. Poles today see little contradiction between packing their churches on Sunday and electing a nonbeliever Socialist president, despite the not-so-subtle opposition of the country’s primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Warsaw. (A Glemp spokesperson accused President Aleksander Kwasniewski during the last election campaign of promoting “abortion, narcotics and pornography.” Kwasniewski nevertheless cruised to reelection.)

Moreover, homogenous Polish Catholicism sometimes shades off into fundamentalism. A conservative movement is centered on the powerful Radio Maria, a religious radio network that broadcasts throughout the country. Some of its clerics make common cause with a political party called Self-Defense, led by radical populist Andrzej Lepper. There have also been accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding Radio Maria.

Yet walking the streets of Kraków, the nation’s third-largest city and its cultural capital, the night before the Aug. 18 papal Mass, a deep popular faith was on clear display. Every church in the city center was packed with pilgrims preparing for the next day, most on their knees.

Poles know they have a uniquely tenacious brand of Catholicism, and some can’t help feeling a certain pride in comparison with other national churches. This became clear, for example, talking with Jesuit Fr. Jozef Lukaszczyk, a Pole who for the last 15 years has lived in the United States. He is the chaplain at the Black Madonna Shrine in Eureka, Mo., and had come home to see the pope.

Lukaszczyk was sitting in the vast crowd at the papal Mass in Blonia Commons waving a small American flag.

“I am a United States citizen now, and I want people to know I am not ashamed of it,” he explained to NCR.


“Oh, sometimes Polish priests will think that priests in the United States don’t pray, they aren’t holy, that you should be ashamed,” he said. “But I’m not. There are many beautiful things about the United States. This is my life.”

Then, quietly, he allowed that he too has seen some U.S. priests who “stay too far away from tradition,” and Lukaszczyk said he blames this in part for the sex scandals currently rocking the U.S. church.

(For the record, Poland itself has not been spared from the sex abuse crisis. Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan, a former aide to John Paul II in the Vatican, recently was forced to resign under accusations of sexual advances toward seminarians).

Even second-generation Polish immigrants, lacking the language or lived experience of Poland, get in on the act. George Sliwa, 41, of Birmingham, England, who was visiting for the first time the country his parents came from, testily rejected speculation that their Polish pope might resign.

“It would be to cave in to the worst, most reactionary elements in the Catholic church who have been trying to destroy the work he has been doing for the last 23 years,” Sliwa said.

“He will never quit. After all, he’s Polish.”

As if to prove the point, before heading back to Rome Aug. 19, the pope stopped at the Kalwaria Zebrzydowska sanctuary about 23 miles outside Kraków, a Marian shrine that he visited as a boy. There he asked Mary to “obtain also for me strength in body and spirit, that I may carry out to the end the mission given to me by the Risen Lord.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002