Poland's church faces challenge from papal visit

  • Pope Francis arrives in procession to celebrate Mass to mark the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland near the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, July 28. (CNS/Paul Haring)
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Warsaw, Poland

When the pope paid his first visit to Poland in late July, it was widely expected he'd rebuke the country's predominant Catholic church for opposing his reforms.

With all sides publicly lauding the event as a resounding success, it's clear his dealings with Poland's bishops were outwardly restrained. Yet the visit has nevertheless raised questions about how the pontiff's vision of the church is being treated in Europe's most Catholic country -- a country still firmly aligned with the conservative teachings of his Polish predecessor, St. John Paul II.

"Poland's bishops have been unsure how to react to new papal statements on subjects like divorce and homosexuality, which are traditionally presented in clear, black-and-white terms by the church here," explained Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a senior Catholic presenter with Polish Radio. "After his five days in Poland, he still won't have persuaded them to embrace his reformist outlook. But he will have convinced many ordinary people, who were impressed by what they saw and heard. This could make it harder for the bishops to maintain such a severe, uncompromising attitude."

Pope Francis' stay in Krakow was devoted to World Youth Day, which drew over two million youngsters from 187 countries to the southern city, accompanied by 50 cardinals, 850 bishops, 20,000 priests and 30,000 nuns. 

The Polish government deployed 38,000 police and troops to ensure order; and for the pontiff's final Mass, hundreds of thousands made the journey to a specially prepared Campus Misericordiae, or Field of Mercy, near the fabled Wieliczka Saltmine. 

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Related: Francis to world's youth: Be vanguard of a 'new humanity' (July 31, 2016)


While the festival theme was Divine Mercy, the pope also brought messages of peace and forgiveness during stopovers at Poland's Jasna Gora shrine and the former concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as at a convent, children's hospital and the burial place of Divine Mercy visionary St. Faustina Kowalska.

As for Poland, the mass circulation Gazeta Wyborcza predicted Francis would caution the country's church against an "alliance of throne and altar," and denounce its "non-Franciscan association with palaces and colorful robes." This was contested by the church's Catholic Information Agency, KAI, which insisted the pope would instill "a new dynamism and pastoral conversion," and encourage the church to be "more open to those lost, wounded and seeking."

Whatever the visit's outcome, Poland's church will remain crucially important in world Catholicism. Though seminary admissions have recently declined, halving the number of priests in training, the country still provides at least a quarter of all vocations in Europe, and has supplied clergy for Russia and Central Asia, as well as for dioceses around the world. 

Ninety-four percent of Poland's 38.5 million inhabitants still described themselves as Catholics in a survey this May, while average Sunday Mass attendance in the whole population stands at 39 percent. Poll evidence suggests most Poles have doubts about church teachings on issues like clerical celibacy, contraception and extra-marital relationships. 

The country's bishops insist there's no popular support for liberal changes. Today, as before, Poland's clergy see their task as safeguarding the church's dominant role and holding the line against Western-style secularization. 

This task was made easier by the 2015 election of a center-right president and government, but some caution is necessary. Poland's bishops have been careful not to identify directly with chairman Jaroslaw Kaczyński's controversial center-right Law and Justice party (PIS), which holds an absolute majority of 234 places in Poland's 460-seat Sejm lower house.

Returned to power last October, the party has claimed a mandate for sweeping reforms -- designed, backers say, to break the previous Civic Platform government's stranglehold over the economy, administration, justice and the media. Kaczyński's opponents accused him of monopolizing power and took their case to the European Union, which agreed to investigate a possible "systemic threat" to fundamental EU values. 

But his supporters say European institutions are being deliberately misled by the Civic Platform, whose former leader, ex-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now heads the European Council. Tusk's own government helped the well-off prosper at the expense of the excluded and marginalized, they allege, and created a web of powerful interests which now seeks to sabotage the Law and Justice party government.

Although Kaczyński's government has sought the church's blessing, scrapping state funding of in vitro fertilization and backing legislation to ban all abortions, Catholic commentators say the Polish bishops have kept their distance, urging national unity instead, and calling on rival factions to tone down their rhetoric.

In the bishops' conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching, however, there's been no hint of change. Polish media have regularly cited reservations about Pope Francis' reformist statements, and say the teachings of St. John Paul II, 11 years after his death, are invoked more readily and willingly. 

That overriding loyalty to the canonized pontiff was showcased at Rome's Synod of Bishops last October, when the Polish church's chief representative, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, condemned "feelings of false compassion" towards "mistaken modes of thought," and rejected any rethink on marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

When the pope's 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, invited Catholics to be "bold and creative" in "rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization," it was given a frosty reception in Poland. And when a follow-up exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, was published this March, conceding "the need for continued open discussion," the reaction was similarly lukewarm. 

Polish church spokesmen point out that the pope hasn't changed Catholic teaching itself. Amoris Laetitia stipulates that each national church can "seek solutions" suited to its "traditions and local needs" -- and that counts for conservatives as much as for liberals. But they doubt whether the Argentinian pontiff fully understands the church's difficulties in Europe, and fear his calls to tolerance and inclusiveness could relativize key aspects of Catholic doctrine.

Poland's church has also differed starkly from the pope when it comes to his calls for hospitality towards migrants and refugees. In June, after months of international criticism, the Poland Bishops Conference modified its position and concurred that local parishes should help set up "humanitarian corridors" for those seeking shelter from the Middle East and Africa. The pope referred to the "complex phenomenon of migration" in his first address in Poland, urging "a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger." 

In this and other areas, however, disagreements clearly remain. Just before Francis' arrival, one Polish weekly, Przeglad, ran a cover story titled "This isn't our pope." 

Glabisz-Pniewska thinks the pontiff's World Youth Day presence delivered a forceful challenge, making it harder for local bishops to resist his new direction. The pope was said to be shocked at some of the archaic practices he encountered in Poland, such as the price lists for sacraments which are still displayed in some Catholic parishes. She believes his unscripted exhortation to World Youth Day volunteers at the end of the visit -- "memory, courage and future" -- is the kind of message the Polish church needs, enabling it to uphold its historic role while modernizing and looking ahead.

"The pope represents a completely different mentality when it comes to the church's place in daily life -- and as someone from outside, he may not grasp the extent of the differences," the Radio commentator told NCR. "But he'll certainly have taken many ordinary Polish Catholics along with him. People like this were moved by his words and gestures, and felt he understood their needs. There'll be pressure from below to abandon the bad practices which persist here."

It was Pope Francis' 90-minute meeting with the 117-member Bishops Conference in Krakow's Wawel Castle just after his July 27 arrival which provoked the most speculation. Perhaps fearing a confrontation, the meeting was held privately behind closed doors. A partial transcript, released by the Vatican six days later, suggested Pope Francis had indeed laid down some challenges.

The pope pleased conservatives by condemning "gender theory," long an object of Polish church concerns, and warning against "an increasingly secularized and de-Christianized culture leaves people orphaned." And when asked by Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Lodz for advice on how the Polish church could "stay faithful to its thousand-year Christian tradition," he duly cautioned against a "subjective spirituality without Christ." 

But Pope Francis also urged clergy to be less aloof and impatient, a charge often levelled against them in Poland, and to "go out looking for people." He also warned against "parishes with closed doors," and called on priests to visit their parishioners -- something barely known in Poland.

Pope Francis returned to the refugee issue as well, when told by the bishops how "fear of a possible invasion" had "paralyzed society." Every country had to consider its own "situation and culture," the pope replied. However, there was still an "absolute need" to maintain "an open heart ready to receive." 

How will Poland's bishops respond?

Among the many voices raised in praise of the pope's World Youth Day guidance, the president of Europe's Justice and Peace Commissions, Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, told NCR he believed Francis had spoken "the language of the Gospel, but not in complex theological terms," revealing that God's love was "for everyone equally." 

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston told NCR he was impressed by the huge numbers attending the festival, and sure the pope's "resonating messages" would strengthen their "experience of the church's catholicity." 

In Poland, however, the practical implications are still being considered.

The country's prime minister, Beata Szydlo, has already ruled out changes to her government's policy on refugees, insisting the pontiff's appeal for "an open heart" does not have to mean offering them shelter.

Gadecki, the bishops conference president, has announced plans for a national Rome pilgrimage this October to express "our gratitude, loyalty and filial piety." The pope's task was to "care for the unity, wholeness and inviolability of Christ's teaching," Gadecki cautioned, and set out general principles for the local church to interpret and apply as it thinks best. 

"We agreed with the pope our attitude and behavior must be based on Gospel values -- and the Holy Father has helped us think how best to do this," he told NCR. "But the Holy Father acts on the principle that general issues are difficult to settle in every individual case. This is why he speaks about decentralization, so a Bishops Conference in a particular country can formulate its own perspective."    

In a glowing tribute to his Polish hosts at a general audience three days after leaving Krakow, Pope Francis praised the country's "holy, faithful people" for helping preserve Europe's "founding values" -- but also for seeking a wise balance "between tradition and innovation, the past and the future." 

But some Catholics think that sums up the problems facing the Polish church. 

With a firm grip over their country's Catholic media, and a strong influence in secular debates, the Polish bishops have so far largely controlled how the pope's initiatives are reported and received. This will be less easy now that Pope Francis has been seen and heard by local people. 

While no bishop will risk criticizing the pontiff directly, some prominent Catholics may well begin to argue in support of his reforms. The country's regimented and submissive church may well be facing turbulent times.

"Having always stressed the pope's infallibility under St. John Paul II and deterred any debate on papal pronouncements, the church can't now openly question the actions of his successor -- though some bishops clearly disagree with him, they've no way of expressing this," explained Glabisz-Pniewska, the Catholic radio presenter. "Most have no intention of changing their policies and practices, and will merely go on doing what they've always done. But this may become harder now that ordinary people have encountered the pope for themselves."  

[Jonathan Luxmoore's two-volume book on communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing in the UK.]

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