Gniezno, Poland — In the 18 months since Archbishop Wojciech Polak became Poland's Catholic primate, the predominant church has had to face down the now-familiar round of controversies and conflicts. But it's also asserted its conservative brand of Catholicism in ecclesiastical debates abroad, and seen the election of a new Polish government committed to defending the faith at home.
Not surprisingly, Polak is upbeat.
"Secularization is occurring as strongly here in Poland as everywhere else, and I wouldn't dare suggest the church in the West is somehow inferior," the 51-year-old Primate said in an NCR interview.
"But the Polish church has some major assets we should be proud of. It engages young people more than anywhere else in Europe and it's still able to rally most of society around religious values. Although we're all part of Christian civilization together, our respective strengths and weaknesses need to be acknowledged."
Born in Inowroclaw, Polak was ordained in 1989 and taught moral theology to university students in nearby Poznan before being appointed an auxiliary bishop in Gniezno in May 2003 by his countryman, Pope John Paul II.
As the Polish church's chief pastor for 15 million Poles living abroad in the U.S. and elsewhere, Polak traveled widely, before entering the spotlight as the Polish Bishops' Conference secretary-general in 2011.
When he returned to Gniezno, Poland's first Catholic see, in June 2014, the office of primate had been reduced to a largely honorary title like those of France and Spain, making the bishops' conference president Poland's main church authority instead.
As successor to fabled figures such as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, however, Polak quickly established a profile as one of Poland's more approachable Catholic hierarchs, ready to tackle issues other bishops brushed aside.
While others have avoided the subject, Polak demanded greater protection for the poor and excluded in Poland, which, for all its post-communist economic success, still has the European Union's worst child deprivation rates.
When the church faced accusations of covering up sexual abuse by priests, Polak called for "firm disciplinary action" and acts of penance by the "whole church community."
And when Polish opinion hardened against the admission of refugees from the Middle East in 2015, he urged people to show mercy.
"Fear is always the worst counselor," the primate told Catholics in a hard-hitting homily.
"We can be hopeful, confident and certain this wave of people won't swamp us if it's handled in an ordered and controlled way, and in a spirit more akin to the acceptance of others laid out in the Gospel."
However, he has also vigorously defended the Polish church against its critics, and been ready to justify its conservative outlook.
"As in every country, our church has to know how best to proclaim its good news to contemporary people," Polak explained to NCR.
"Here in Poland, we have a particular duty to recall the whole legacy of St. John Paul II, and apply it to social and moral projects suited to the current times. Being patient and tolerant is an expression of mercy. But we should also rationally evaluate the realities we face and liberate ourselves from toxic situations."
That undimmed loyalty to John Paul was showcased at the Synod of Bishops on the family last October, when the Polish church's chief representative, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, condemned "feelings of false compassion" toward "mistaken modes of thought," and rejected any talk of a rethink on marriage, divorce and homosexuality.
Polak rejects suggestions his church deliberately set out to rally a "conservative bloc" at the synod, or was eager for a fight -- well before the synod opened -- with the more liberal bishops from neighboring Germany.
The aim, he insists, was "to recall Christian values often forgotten by the rest of the church."
Whatever the critics might say, it was a "deeply evangelical standpoint."
"It wasn't a contest, and we weren't trying to portray ourselves as more devout or faithful," the archbishop told NCR.
"There are many problems which need dealing with, and solutions must be found with a deep awareness of who we are as believers -- people seeking to express an evangelical witness in their lives."
Pope Francis has had a mixed reception in Poland, Polak concedes.
"I think God has given us a pope for a specific time, who's able to speak in contemporary language about today's key issues -- and no one here will resist his appeals for openness and acceptance towards others," the primate said.
"But we're also counting on him not to stray from the positions of John Paul II, and to understand the pastoral realities of our local church. We've also had to adjust his teachings and proposals to suit our own pastoral programs."
The pope's summons to aid the poor is one such area that has had to be tempered, Polak said, since most Polish bishops believe help should be "given in a practical, systematic way," rather than through "summary handouts and mere distribution."
"Of course, we need to open our hearts and pockets to the poor, who often knock at the doors of bishops," the primate explained. "But we can't just hand over what belongs to us in an uncontrolled, spontaneous way. Although we're called to live simply, we can't throw away everything and allow the church in Poland to have its patrimony removed and destroyed. We have a responsibility to pass it on to the next generation."
Catholics still make up at least 90 percent of Poland's population of 36 million and accounts for a quarter of all priestly vocations in Europe. But for all its self-assurance, Poland's Catholic church faces problems.
Seminary admissions have dropped sharply, halving the number of priests in training, while baptisms, first Communions and marriages are also falling.
Average Sunday Mass attendance in Poland's 10,000 Catholic parishes remains at a remarkable 39 percent, according to new data from the church's Warsaw-based statistics office. But it stood at 57 percent in the 1990s; and while the country's bishops dismiss any talk of popular support for liberal changes, there are signs that more Poles are turning against the church's teachings on such issues as clerical celibacy, contraception, and extramarital relationships.
Like most Polish church leaders, Polak blames liberal ideologies for the changed attitudes, and was heartened that his country's latest rulers have pledged to support the country's Catholic traditions.
Last October's landslide victory by the center-right Law and Justice Party has given it an outright majority of 235 in the 460-seat Sejm lower house, making the new government, under Premier Beata Szydlo, the first to govern alone since the 1989 collapse of communist rule.
One of its first acts was to scrap state funding of in vitro fertilization, which the outgoing pro-market Civic Platform had legalized last July, despite repeated church condemnations.
The Szydlo government has a fight on its hands.
Pressure is mounting against its pro-welfare reforms in the European Union, where officials have already accused it of undermining democracy by making changes in the state media and constitutional court -- a charge the government angrily denies.
This may explain why Polak and other church leaders have been careful not to take sides directly, advising Poles in a brief pre-election message only to "vote according to conscience, taking into account the general good."
Yet there's optimism, even so, about the year ahead.
In the first week of January alone, Polak visited two church-run shelters for the homeless at his Gniezno see, preached against both passivity in religious life and using religion to justify violence, and urged Poles to go on pursuing dialogue and understanding in the post-election "new reality."
Preparations are underway in Gniezno for this spring's 1,050th anniversary of Poland's Christian conversion under King Mieszko I in 966. Celebrations will feature an international congress setting out the Polish church's "Christian vision for Europe."
Preparations are also well-advanced for a papal visit for July's World Youth Day, which is expected to bring 2.5 million young people from around the world to Krakow.
The Polish church will use the 2016 events, Polak said, to highlight Christianity's continued importance in shaping social life and creating culture.
"In the multicultural societies of the West, the church has lost its once-dominant role -- but Christianity still shows vitality through small committed communities, so we're not downplaying its role," Polak told NCR.
"We all belong, through baptism, to a great Christian family of nations and peoples, and evaluating our respective contributions is a complex task. But by witnessing firmly to our own faith, we believe we can also help and support others."
[Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer covering European church news from Warsaw, Poland, and Oxford, England.]