Despite Pope Francis’ initial plans, his visit to Poland for World Youth Day has been complemented by a pastoral visit to the country, including a meeting with the Polish government and president and a Mass in Czestochowa celebrating 1,050 years of Polish Christianity. The Pope’s words during these events reveal his profound respect for the Polish nation and mature grasp of Polish history. However, Francis doesn’t allow the Poles to rest on their laurels and reminds them that Christ is still an active force in history, cautioning against relegating God to the history textbooks.
For a long time, Pope Francis had planned on limiting his visit to Poland to World Youth Day and insisted that this was not a pastoral visit to Poland. However, the Polish bishops insisted that Francis take part in this year’s celebration of 1,050 years of Christianity in Poland. In 1966, Pope Blessed Paul VI—the first pope to make pastoral visits outside Italy, earning him the name “The Pilgrim Pope”—wanted to visit Poland. However, the communist authorities didn’t let him come to the country. By taking part in the 1,050-year jubilee of Christianity in Poland, Francis has symbolically done what Paul couldn’t do.
On Wednesday night, the pope met with Poland’s president and prime minister, and today he celebrated Mass at the Jasna Gora shrine in Czestochowa with more than 500,000 Polish pilgrims. Given that Poland is one of the world’s most intact Catholic cultures and that the country’s president and government are easily Europe’s (and possibly the world’s) most Catholic heads of state and government, one would expect these to be cordial meetings. And they were. But some still had to spin a media narrative suggesting that it would be otherwise.
In an article published on the Catholic news site Crux, veteran Vatican analyst John L. Allen, Jr. suggested that “it’s entirely possible that Francis and [Andrzej] Duda [Poland’s president] will have a couple of tense moments.” Why? Poland’s government has opposed the EU’s directives to accept migrants from Muslim countries and to decrease CO2 emissions (Poland’s economy is highly dependent on coal). Allen also suggested possible “tension” between the Polish bishops and Francis. At the recent synod the Polish episcopate (and basically all other bishops from the post-communist world) strongly opposed Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, while Francis, after all, is the pope of mercy and his Amoris Laetitia, in Allen’s view, includes an “opening” on the matter.
These sensationalist predictions did not materialize. On Wednesday, Francis was very warm towards Duda and the Polish government, and praised Poland during his address: “This is my first time visiting East-Central Europe, and I’m happy that I have begun with Poland, whose son was the unforgettable St. John Paul II, the initiator and promoter of World Youth Day.” The pope proceeded to praise the Polish nation for remaining faithful to its Christian heritage throughout the centuries, and in particular praised the 1965 letter that the Polish bishops sent to the German ones “forgiving and asking for forgiveness.”
Francis did mention the migrant issue, but his manner was by no means scolding. He first of all mentioned the problem of emigration from Poland (since the country joined the European Union in 2004, more than two million of its citizens left for Western Europe) and called on the Polish government to make it easier for émigrés to return. While calling on the Polish nation to accept migrants, the Pontiff’s tone was encouraging rather than condescending.
Allen’s piece did not mention that in addition to supporting migrants and fighting global warming, Francis is also a staunch opponent of abortion, calling it a product of a “throwaway culture.” Here’s what the Argentinean pope had to say on the matter during his address at Wawel Castle on Wednesday: “Life must always be accepted and protected—both accepted and protected—from conception to natural death, and we are all called to respect life and be concerned about it.”
Because 450,000 Poles have signed a civic bill that would completely ban abortion, the Polish parliament will soon have to vote on this (currently, Poland’s abortion law only permits the procedure when the life or health of the mother is under threat, when the pregnancy results from rape or incest, and when the fetus is malformed). I don’t know if Francis is aware of this looming abortion debate in Poland, but given that he has been in close contact with the Polish bishops ahead of World Youth Day, it wouldn’t be surprising. In any case, it’s clear where Francis stands on this issue.
When Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Jasna Gora shrine on Thursday morning, I must confess that I was unsure what he would say. Pope St. John Paul II was, of course, a Pole, so he naturally had a lot to say about the shrine and its importance to Poland. Benedict XVI, meanwhile, had visited Poland on many occasions before becoming pope and received honorary doctorates from numerous Polish universities; furthermore, he was a close collaborator of John Paul of more than 20 years. What would Francis—who is not from Europe, who had never been to Poland before, and who knew John Paul II, but not especially well—say to the Polish nation on the 1,050th anniversary of its baptism?
Although Francis is a foreigner in a distant land, his homily was inspiring and revealed an understanding of Poland. He praised the 1,050-year legacy of Christianity in Poland, noting that it “was formed by the Gospels, the Cross, and fidelity to the Church.” Especially in the past two centuries, the Polish nation has experienced many horrific events—partitions that wiped it off the map of Europe, the brutal Nazi-Soviet occupation of the country during World War II, the stifling oppression of the communist regime—yet its faith not only survived, but in fact grew.
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa plays a central role in Polish Catholicism, similar to that which Our Lady of Guadalupe plays in the lives of Mexican Catholics. Francis has recognized this, and has said that faith is transmitted through the family, above all thanks to the mother and grandmother. In the same way, Francis notes, the Holy Mother brings us to God. Throughout Polish history, Mary has led the Poles by the hand and given them consolation and the courage to remain strong in the faith.
Toward the end of his homily, Francis did an excellent job of calling forth the Poles to not only think about the past 1,050 years of Christianity in their country, but above all about their future: “The Lord does not want us to fear Him like a powerful and distant ruler; He doesn’t want to sit on a throne in heaven or in history textbooks, but he wants to descend to our everyday lives and walk with us. When thinking about the gift of this millennium that was so rich in faith, it is wonderful to above all thank God, who walked with your nation, taking it by the hand like a father holds his son’s hand and accompanies him in many situations.”
Pope Francis has seen the work of Divine Providence in shaping Polish history, just as Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, did in the 19th century. Yet his image of a “history textbook God” is a finely worded warning to the Polish people not to allow their faith to become a relic of the past. Often, when visiting beautiful historic churches in Western Europe that serve more as curiosities for tourists who appear to be studying an alien civilization, or as halls for Bach concerts, I also feel that much of the West has descended into “history textbook Christianity.” Francis’ appeal to the Polish people can be an appeal to Catholics around the world to remember that God continues to shape history and that we should walk with Him.
By now, the exclusively Polish aspect of Pope Francis’ visit is over. From here on out, the Holy Father will exclusively devote himself to World Youth Day. It can be safely said that Francis has struck a chord with the Polish nation, whose history and very existence often depended on its fidelity to Christ, and that he has a profound understanding of Polish culture.