Catholic influence remains strong in Poland

Despite new freedoms after fall of communism, population still devout

A World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 05, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KRAKOW, Poland - After more than a decade of freedom from communism and the death of the first Polish pope, this nation's powerful Roman Catholic Church might be expected to suffer the fate of mainstream faiths in Europe and see a gradual erosion of its influence.

The time has passed when Poland's largely rural population turned to the mother church for solace and refuge during invasions and occupations. Just 16 years ago, Poland was an impoverished satellite of the Soviet Union. Today the nation has a robust capitalist economy, membership in the European Union and the military umbrella of the NATO alliance.

But even as Poland has grown more affluent, secure and democratic, religious leaders and lay analysts here say the Polish church remains as strong or stronger today than at any time since the collapse of the communist governments in Eastern Europe a decade and a half ago.

Ninety-seven percent of Poles consider themselves Catholics, according to surveys. Masses are packed on Sundays. And Polish youths are embracing traditional moral and religious views, clergy and independent scholars say.

With an eye on the future, church leaders have taken note of the high number of teenagers and people in their 20s attending memorial services for Pope John Paul II around this nation.

"Look at the young people," said the Rev. Andrzej Fryzlewicz, chamberlain to the bishop of Krakow. "They still want to live with the church. Though John Paul has passed away, they want to live in the way he wanted them to live. In my opinion, there is no crisis of faith."

As Fryzlewicz spoke, hundreds of people, many of them university students, stood vigil outside - praying, lighting candles and gazing up at the second-floor window where Pope John Paul, born Karol Wojtyla, used to appear each time he visited the city. The faithful have pledged to remain outside the residence until he is buried in St. Peter's Basilica on Friday.

Jan Wolenski, a professor of philosophy at the pope's alma mater, Jagiellonian University, said the church's central role in Polish life eventually will diminish - but not in the near future. "Nothing will substantially change in Poland for the next 10, 15 or 25 years," he said.

Many here expected Polish society to drift from the church immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet-backed communist government here in 1989. And for a few years in the early 1990s, Poles say, the church did suffer.

Polish consumers discovered the giddy pleasures of shopping in a free-market economy. Church attendance dipped, slightly, as stores stayed open seven days a week - even during Sunday Mass. A disappointed Pope John Paul used a 1993 trip here to warn that Western materialism was threatening to tarnish Poland's shining Catholic soul.

Today, though, the Polish church is again flourishing - to the frustration of liberal critics - while being more conservative and unbending than even the late pope on issues such as birth control, abortion and the marriage of priests.

Critics say that the Polish church has been so resistant to change that it made the pope look like a radical reformer by comparison.

"Officially, among the Polish church hierarchy, Wojtyla is a saint, a hero," Wolenski said. "But not all of his views were shared by them."

The pope, Wolenski pointed out, sought friendly relations with the world's Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish communities. But many Polish religious leaders - especially priests in small parish churches - never accepted this effort.

"They are not openly anti-Semitic," Wolenski said. "But they are against close relations and dialogue with other faiths, particularly with Jews."

There are already hints of the struggle to come over the pope's legacy, as liberals and conservatives in Poland and elsewhere vie to claim him as their own.

"I believe that after the Holy Father's passing, the Western world will understand his mission better and comprehend his teachings more deeply," said Fryzlewicz, the Krakow bishop's chamberlain, during an interview in the Bishop's Palace in an elegant reception room with oil portraits of cardinals hanging on the walls.

Certainly, traditionalists in the church have reason to believe they will prevail. Especially in the last years of his life, Pope John Paul refused to give in to demands for greater rights for women and gays.

In his last book, Memory and Identity, the pope called democracy the most natural form of government but warned that even democracies should not violate what he considered nature's laws by legalizing abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriages.

Professor Maria Flis, a philosopher and sociologist at Jagiellonian University, advocates changes in church doctrine on birth control and other issues. But she said that a big part of the pope's appeal to youths in Poland and worldwide was the sense that he stood for universal, eternal values.

"Young people today are looking to make sense of their lives," she said. "And in this world, sense is very difficult to find."

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