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Catholic World News News Feature

News - Poland January 02, 2002

By John Moraski

Each one of the seven trips by Pope John Paul II to his native Poland has been the occasion for a national celebration. The latest papal visit, a whirlwind 11-day tour in early June, was no exception. As on every previous trip, the Holy Father met with enormous, appreciative audiences everywhere he went. In his public appearances he addressed crowds estimated at a total of 6 million people, in twelve different cities. In addition, the television audience was estimated at well over 10 million--or nearly one-third of the entire Polish population.

However, during his earlier trips John Paul II came to Poland as the undisputed leader of an undivided movement. Especially in the early 1980s, when the Solidarity movement first challenged the power of the Communist regime, the Polish political situation could be neatly summarized as a struggle between two opposing camps, with the Pope as the leader of the emboldened Catholic activists. Certainly the Communist leadership saw John Paul as their most formidable adversary; who can forget the image of Col. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the text of his prepared speech literally shaking in his hands, as he stood on a platform beside an unsmiling Pontiff?

In 1997 the Pope faced a situation far more complicated than that bipolar model. The Communist regime is now only an unhappy memory, but the present government is largely controlled by "alumni" of the Communist Party. The Polish people are enjoying their newfound freedom, but the abolition of the command economy has also meant the introduction of all the usual pitfalls of Western materialism: cut-throat competition, untrammeled consumerism, and the exploitation of sexuality. And the faithful Catholics who were united by their opposition to Communism now find themselves divided by sharp disagreements regarding political tactics.

As if these general trends did not offer enough challenges for the visiting Pontiff, the last weeks in May offered two specific political developments which heightened the existing tensions. First, in a referendum that had been the focus of a long national debate, the Polish voters approved a new constitution. Then, in a surprise development just days before the Pope's arrival, a constitutional court overturned a new liberal abortion law, prompting the government to suggest that yet another national referendum might be necessary in order to settle the question.

In their attitudes toward the new constitution, Polish Catholics had been divided along lines that are rapidly becoming familiar. Some Catholic critics saw it as an unacceptable renunciation of Catholic social principles, pointing out that the document did not mention the nation's Christian heritage, or include any language to protect the right to life. Others stressed that the constitution was intended to define a secular form of government, and found in it an acceptable expression of the compromises necessary to form a democratic society. While clearly disappointed with the final draft of the constitution, the Polish bishops were guarded in their comments. The Solidarity movement was more sharply critical, encouraging voters to reject the constitution. Still more militant Catholics called upon the people to boycott the referendum, arguing that Catholics had been denied a fair opportunity to influence the final document. In short, the range of Catholic reaction to the constitution stretched across a continuum, reaching from willing cooperation with the secular regime on one hand, and outright defiance on the other.

Then three days before the Pope arrived in Wroclaw to begin his visit, a court decision unexpectedly reopened the national debate on the emotional subject of abortion. In the short term the court's pronouncement was definitely a victory for Catholic interests, since it overturned a law easing access to abortion. But since the government promised an effort to reverse the court's decision--either by persuading two-thirds of the members of parliament to override the decision or by scheduling a new national referendum--the long-term impact was much less clear.

Finally, one more issue hung in the air as the Pope's plane left Rome: the proposed concordat that would govern the formal relations between the government of Poland and the Holy See. Originally negotiated by the Vatican with the friendly administration of Lech Walesa, the concordat had been the topic of delicate discussions since Aleksander Kwasniewski replaced Walesa as Poland's president. On the very day of the Pope's arrival, Kwasniewski told the Italian daily newspaper L'Avvenire that he expected formal ratification of the pact within a few weeks. But as subsequent events were to prove, the negotiations were still a source of tension between representatives of the Polish regime and the Holy See.


Implicitly acknowledging the tensions that hung in the air, the Polish president greeted the Pope upon his arrival May 31 with a spoken desire: "We need reconciliation." In an editorial published by La Gazetta that day, the leading Polish intellectual Adam Michnik had also observed the obvious: "The Pope is coming into a very divided country." In his own introductory remarks, John Paul acknowledged that "problems and tensions...are not lacking."

These problems and tensions, it should be emphasized, fell into two categories: those which involved friction between a predominantly Catholic culture and a new secular government, and those which involved disputes within the Catholic community. In an interview he gave to reporters who had accompanied the Pope on his trip from Rome, Stefan Wilkanovicz--the editor of the influential Catholic review Znak--summarized those intramural Catholic disputes.

"We need the witness of the Church in our society and in our culture," Wilkanovicz said. But he continued:

Neither the Pope nor the Polish society wants to see a direct political engagement. There is an essential distinction between direct political struggle for power and for access to the functions of the state, and political action undertaken for the common good.

Wilkanovicz contrasted his own position with that of Radio Maryja, which has emerged in recent months as a powerful crusading opponent of secularism, urging the Polish people to reject the liberal abortion law, the proposed sex-education program for Polish schools, and most recently the draft constitution. "The bishops have tried to influence that radio station, without success," Walkanocicz lamented. he did not go on to point out that the bishops' efforts to moderate Radio Maryja have been unsuccessful precisely because the militant approach taken by the broadcaster is preferred by so many loyal Catholics.

In light of all those divisions and tensions, the first order of business for the Pope was to remind his listeners that he came to Poland not as a partisan political player but as the vicar of Christ. In his first major public remarks, at the close of the 46th International Eucharistic Congress in Wroclaw, he drove home that point by emphasizing the challenge which the Eucharist poses to all societies. "Can man construct his own system of freedom by himself, without Christ, and even at the extreme contrary to Christ?" the Pope asked an audience of 100,000. That "dramatic question," he said, "is forced upon us by the recent developments of liberal ideology." Christians cannot adopt the standards by which a secular society judges human liberty, he insisted; true freedom "is measured by service and the gift of self."


During his stay in Poland, the Pope did not address himself directly to the strategic disagreements between Znak and Radio Maryja, or between Solidarity and the bishops' conference. Instead he insisted that all Catholics must join in the effort to preserve the Catholic heritage of Poland.

The past decade has unquestionably seen some dwindling in the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland. Secularism has taken its toll, and young people are more likely to feel the seductive pull of the consumer culture. But while the proportion of professed Catholics who Sunday Mass each week has slipped, it is still far higher in Poland than anywhere else in Europe. The number of young men entering the seminaries has not diminished, and the number of new priestly ordinations (700 last year) is the highest in the world. Despite all divisions, the Catholic Church remains a dominant social force.

With that fact in mind, the Pope emphasized the historic role of the Polish nation as a force for cultural unity--Catholic cultural unity--on the European continent. Speaking to an audience at Gniezmo which included seven European heads of state, the Holy Father stressed that Europe today cannot achieve true unity without recalling that cultural foundation. Although the Iron Curtain has fallen, the Pope said, Europe is still divided by "invisible walls" of ideology and of indifference; these can be overcome only by Christian charity.

Despite his clear disagreements with many Catholic teachings, Poland's President Kwaniewski quickly accepted the Pope's arguments. "If we really want to unite Europe, we must recognize John Paul II, who dedicated this meeting to European unity," he told reporters. German President Roman Herzog went further, saying: "What united Europe is the culture--the Christian origins, the principles, the dignity of the person.... I think that a European community which emphasizes all these things would provide the formula we need." And Hungarian President Arpad Goncz echoed those sentiments, saying: "only the Christian spirit has the power today to break down those 'invisible walls.'"

If that friendly reaction constituted a political victory for the Pope--and it is difficult to reach any other conclusion--then a second victory loomed later in the course of his visit. On June 8 Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, the secretary of the Polish bishops' conference, informed reporters that the Polish government has abandoned plans for a referendum on the issue of abortion. The political climate generated by the papal visit had apparently convinced government officials that they would be ill advised to continue with their plans.

Speaking more broadly about the political effects of the visit, Bishop Pieronek observed that Polish politicians had responded to the Pope's pleas by addressing themselves to major ethical themes such as poverty and social justice. However, he admitted, "I doubt that this visit will convert the Polish parliament."

One minor political setback occurred during the last stages of the papal visit, when a Polish news agency reported that the long-awaited concordat between the Polish government and the Holy See would" violate the principle of separation between church and state." Angry Vatican officials replied that the effect of the concordat would be precisely the opposite of what the news report suggested. The very purpose of the pact, a Vatican statement said, is to guard the autonomy of church and state, for "the welfare of the citizens." Moreover, Vatican officials charged, the unauthorized "leak" of a document which is still being discussed was an irresponsible interference in private negotiations. That heated reaction fueled suspicions that negotiations have reached a sensitive point, and both parties are seeking to avoid any last-minute complications which might prevent the speedy conclusion of talks which have now dragged on for five years.


As he continued his progress across the country, Pope John Paul continued to pound home his message on the need to preserve a Christian heritage.

o He praised doctors who refuse to perform abortion, and insisted that opposition to the killing of unborn children should be a matter of recognizing elementary human rights, regardless of religious beliefs. "A civilization which rejects those who are defenseless deserves to be called barbarous, even if it has great successes in the realms of economics, technology, arts, and science," he said.

o At Czestochowa, where he knelt before the famous icon of the Virgin Mary at Jasna Gora, the Pope appealed to the Virgin: "I confide to your care my country and the social, economic, and political transformations it is undergoing." Then speaking to the people of Poland at large, he added: "We are living in a time of chaos, of disorientation and spiritual confusion.... The new evangelization is now an urgent necessity, even for the Polish nation."

o At Zakopane, at the foot of the Tatras Mountains, John Paul pointed to a cross which was set high up in the mountains, clearly visible to the congregation below. That cross, he observed, was set on a mountain peak "by your fathers," as a visible sign of their faith. "Do not be ashamed of that cross," the Pope exhorted his listeners.

o Finally in Krakow--the city where he studied, was ordained, and served as a young priest and later as archbishop, and where his parents now are buried-- John Paul told the faculty members at the Jagiellonian University that they must "play the role of the critical conscience," helping their neighbors to discern the dangers of any ideologies which would diminish human dignity. He insisted:

The great controversy regarding man in Poland did not end with the fall of Marxist ideology. It is continuing still. It is really the same controversy, under a new aspect. The forms of decadence of the conception of the person and the value of human life have become more supple, and thus more dangerous.


On the final day of his trip, after the triumphant canonization of St. Hedwig, John Paul returned to question which has proven so difficult for Polish Catholics to resolve: the proper form of commitment by Catholics within the political world. "Man is the path of the Church," he reasoned. "The bishops and the Church in Poland must find a way to translate that commitment into the language of concrete acts, serving the counciliar vision of the Church--the People of God--and reading the signs of the times."

In his final reflections on the country's social situation, the Pope even offered his own interpretation of those "signs of the times," reflecting on how the Church's role in Poland has changed:

Under the previous system, the Church created a space in which man and the nation could defend their own rights. Today, man must find a space within the Church to defend himself and yet in a sense to fight against himself--against the improper use of his freedom; against the prospect of missing a great historic opportunity for the country.

With that challenge--and with a sly hint that he hoped this would not be his final visit to his homeland--the Pope concluded his longest foreign visit of the past decade, and headed back to Rome for some well-deserved rest.

[AUTHOR ID] John Moraski, an American journalist, is currently visiting relatives in Poland. Portions of this report were provided by the Rome-based news agency, I Media.

[Sidebar #1]


The canonization of St. Hedwig, who died in 1399 at the age of 25, coincided with the celebration marking the 600th anniversary of the founding of a theological faculty at what later became known as the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. It was Queen Hedwig who had persuaded Pope Boniface IX to establish this faculty, and upon her death she bequeathed all her valuable possessions to the faculty. That bequest allowed her husband, Prince Jagiello-Ladislas, to set the university on a sound financial footing, and over the centuries the Jagiellonian University has been one of the most renowned institutions of Central Europe, boasting among its alumni a certain Karol Wojtyla.

But St. Hedwig's impact on Polish history reaches far beyond the university. The daughter of King Louis the Angevin, ruler of Poland and Hungary, she inherited her claim to the Polish throne from him (her sister Maria received the throne of Hungary). She was crowned Queen of Poland at Krakow in 1384, at the age of 10. At the time she was already betrothed to Wilhelm, the son of the Grand Duke of Austria. But when she reached the marriageable age of 12 she repudiated the vows which her parents had made, and accepted the proposal of Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. His Duchy was at the time a bi-ethnic state, consisting of eastern Slavs (the ancestors of today's Belarusians), who were Byzantine Christians, and Balts (ancestors of today's Lithuanians), who were Europe's last remaining pagans. Jagiello's proposal to Hedwig included the pledge that, if she accepted him, he and his pagan subjects would become Christians: Roman-rite Catholics, like the Poles.

The marriage and the baptisms duly took place, and although Queen Hedwig remained in Poland, she took an active interest in the conversion process--sending white robes to the newly baptized, arranging for the construction of churches, and selecting the first bishop of Lithuania. Although the marriage was bitterly denounced by Austria and by the Teutonic Knights--a military order which had been extending its dominion in Europe on the pretext of a "crusade" against the pagan Lithuanians--a Papal Bull of congratulations made it clear that the Holy See had no doubts about the validity of the union.

Queen Hedwig died in 1399, three weeks after giving birth to her only child--a daughter--and four days after that daughter's death. Her marriage had brought Poland and Lithuania into a powerful dynastic union, which would eventually (in 1569) result in the creation of a single state, the Polish Commonwealth, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea. More important, as Pope John Paul II said in his homily during the canonization ceremony, while active in political life she had remained faithful to Christian principles, using her diplomatic skills to "invigorate religious and cultural cooperation between nations." In particular, the Pope observed:

She knew that the strength both of the state and of the Church depend on the proper education of the nation, that the road to the welfare of the states, to its sovereignty and recognition of the world, leads through universities.... well aware that faith requires understanding, and that faith needs culture and creates culture, that it inhabits the domain of culture.

- Vera Rich

[Sidebar #2]


Another special feature of the Pope's visit to Poland was the coronation of the picture of Our Lady of Kozielsk--a ceremony which took place in Krakow along with the canonization of St. Hedwig. Poland, and the lands of the old "Polish Commonwealth" (which included much of today's Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine) has a long tradition of adding crowns of precious metals to especially beloved pictures of the Virgin Mary, such as the famous Madonna of Czestochowa and the icon of Vilnius on the ancient gate of the city. In the eyes of the Poles' Byzantine neighbors, crowned Madonnas were considered a special feature of Catholicism--so much so that after the Union of 1596, Eastern-rite Catholics also began adding crowns to their icons.

Our Lady of Kozielsk, however, is not a traditional object of Polish devotion. The picture dates from the early days of World War II, when a former monastery at Kozielsk in the Soviet Union was turned into a prison for Polish officers. At that time the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Hitler (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), and under a secret protocol attached to that agreement, had invaded Poland from the east shorted after the Nazis attacked from the west. Many thousands of Polish officers fell into Soviet hands and were taken to Kozielsk. The first to arrive there were later taken out to the Katyn Forest and shot. Later arrivals managed to survive until 1941, when Hitler, turning on his former ally, attacked the Soviet Union. Citing the necessity of war, Stalin then gave permission for the formation of a Polish army, which eventually took part in a number of major actions, including the battle of Monte Cassino.

While they were in the Kozielsk camp, the Polish captives managed to organize a religious life, and in particular to make their devotions to the Virgin. As a focus for their prayers, they decided to create a special new image of Our Lady of Victory--a synthesis of tow famous icons which were now in Soviet hands: the icon of Vilnius and the Belarusian "Lady of Zyroviey." (The latter had special significance because a copy of that icon had somehow survived Soviet efforts to obliterate the frescoes on the monastery walls; it was now seen by the prisoners as a special sign of God's providence.) In spite of the difficulty of obtaining suitable materials, the new image--designed by one Polish officer and painted by another--was eventually produced, carved in bas-relief from a piece of wood which had once formed part of the iconostasis of the monastery.

When they were finally allowed to leave Kozielsk, the Poles took the picture with them. After long travels through the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, and the Holy Land--as the reconstituted Polish army worked its way through the war--the image now known as Our Lady of Kozielsk found its way to Bromptom Oratory in London, close to the offices of the Polish government in exile. From London it was moved to Krakow in June of this year for the coronation ceremony. Now, with gold crowns replacing the wooden ones which originally sat on the heads of Virgin and Child, the image will be taken on a tour of the principal Marian shrines in England.

- Vera Rich