Earlier this year, I was in a large building overflowing with people, mostly in their twenties, who had come from all over the city to see a man they adore. Getting a seat was out of the question; most in attendance were standing, squeezed together like sardines. I was not, however, at a rock concert or sporting event. I was at the Franciscan church in Krakow, Poland, at a Lenten retreat preached by Bishop Grzegorz Ryś, then the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese.
A youthful 53, Bishop Ryś has been tapped by Pope Francis to lead 1.4 million souls in the Archdiocese of Lodz (pronounced “Woodge”), Poland’s third largest city. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so much attention in the Polish media, either Catholic or secular, given to an episcopal nomination. The media response has been overwhelmingly positive, including in the left-liberal media that almost always writes about the Church in a negative light. Bishop Grzegorz Ryś is a pioneer of the new evangelization, and he will now have the opportunity to turn things around in a diocese that needs to be re-evangelized.
The significance of Lodz
The Diocese of Lodz (it became an archdiocese later) was erected by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. While the first written records about Lodz, which is located in the very center of Poland, come from the 14th century, the city was an insignificant provincial town until the nineteenth century. At that time, once-mighty Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Lodz found itself in Russian Poland and became a major center for the textile industry. The growing local economy led to a large influx of Poles, Jews, and Germans, and Lodz quickly became a major Polish city. The Dickensian conditions in the city’s factories in the nineteenth century have been captured accurately (if harrowingly) in Andrzej Wajda’s classic Oscar-nominated film The Promised Land.
Lodz suffered greatly during the Second World War. The city was renamed Litzmannstadt after a German general who had scored a military victory nearby during the Great War, and became part of the Warthegau, the region of Poland annexed and colonized by Nazi Germany. Nearly one million Poles and Jews were expelled from the Warthegau, and their homes were taken over by German settlers. The Germans requisitioned most of Lodz’s industrial machines and sent them to the inner Reich. Almost half a million of Lodz’s population was killed, including 300,000 Jews. Not far from Lodz, German Nazis built and operated the Kulmhof extermination camp, where gas was first used to kill Jews and Gypsies.
While Lodz is often thought of as an unattractive, industrial city, it is of great cultural significance. Lodz is home to the world’s second oldest modern art museum and Poland’s famous National Film School, whose graduates include Roman Polański, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and other greats. The eccentric American filmmaker David Lynch, who shot part of his Inland Empire there, was so enamored of Lodz he wanted to build a movie studio there (ultimately the plan fell through because of disagreements with municipal authorities). The famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein was from Lodz, as was Nobel Prize-winning novelist Władysław Reymont.
While there have been many new investments in Lodz in recent years and the city is campaigning to host the 2024 World’s Fair, after the fall of communism unemployment there grew rapidly, which led many locals to leave the city. Thus Lodz’s population plummeted from about 850,000 in the 1980s to less that 700,000 today.
In addition to difficult economic conditions, Lodz faces a religious crisis as well. According to the most recent “Counting of the Faithful” in Poland, a mere 26.6% of Catholics in Lodz attended Mass on a given Sunday and 11.4% received communion, compared to national averages of 39.8% and 17%, respectively. Mass attendance is lower in only three Polish dioceses. It should be noted that these figures pertain to the entire archdiocese, including the more religious rural areas and small towns within its borders; in Lodz itself, church attendance is certainly lower. Additionally, there is one seminarian for every 22,000 Catholics in the Lodz Archdiocese, compared to a ratio of one to 5,000 in Bialystok, one of Poland’s most vocations-rich sees, for example.
The previous archbishop of Lodz, Marek Jędraszewski, who since January has been the archbishop of Krakow (for more about him, see my CWR profile), tried to engage with Lodz’s relatively secular culture by holding monthly “Dialogues in the Cathedral,” during which he would answer the questions of laypeople about the faith. This initiative was popular, and Archbishop Jędraszewski has since brought it to Krakow.
An evangelistic bishop
With Bishop Ryś, Lodz is likely to see even more spectacular evangelizing initiatives. Given Lodz’s status as one of Poland’s least pious sees, there is arguably no better man for the job.
Grzegorz Ryś was born in 1964 in Krakow. Ordained in 1988, he has since received a doctorate and habilitation (a second dissertation needed to get tenure at a university in Poland and many other European countries) in Church history. From 2007 to 2011 he was the rector of the Major Archdiocesan Seminary in Krakow (whose graduates have included the future Pope St. John Paul II). Six years ago, Pope Benedict XVI made him an auxiliary bishop of Krakow.
Arguably, the most important function that Bishop Ryś has held has been that of chairman of the Polish Episcopal Conference’s Council on the New Evangelization. Along with Bishop Edward Dajczak of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg (who each summer sends volunteers to preach the Gospel to Polish tourists vacationing by the Baltic Sea), he is among the Polish bishops who are most engaged in the new evangelization.
Every summer, Przystanek Woodstock (“Woodstock Station”) becomes the ire of many Polish conservatives. This is a large open-air rock concert during which alcohol and other vices are omnipresent. In 1999, some in the Polish Church, however, understood Jesus’ words that it is not the healthy who needs a doctor, and rather than condemning the festival’s participants have organized Przystanek Jezus (“Jesus Station”), during which they have preached the Gospel to them. Bishop Ryś has been an active participant in Przystanek Jezus, preaching the Word to the young concertgoers, many of whom undoubtedly are estranged from the Church.
In 2012, Bishop Ryś rented the Cracovia soccer stadium for a spectacular evangelization event during which 50 communities, from Catholic Action to the Neocatechumenal Way to Polish communities, preached the Word. Leading up to the event, flyers were handed out in shopping malls.
Last year, Bishop Ryś authored the Stations of the Cross celebrated by Pope Francis during World Youth Day in Krakow. Reportedly, the pontiff was very impressed with these reflections, and many believed that they would be Bishop Ryś’s “ticket” to becoming the new bishop of Krakow after Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz’s retirement. Bishop Ryś saw the great spiritual potential unleashed during WYD 2016 and has worked hard to maintain that momentum. In 2016-2017, he organized seven post-WYD retreats in the Divine Mercy Sanctuary, each attended by 1,000-2,000 people. He has also held a series of retreats for high school students under the title “Młodzi i Miłosierdzie” (“The Young and Mercy”); each attracted about 18,000 youths from across the archdiocese.
Since 1990, religious education has been taught in public schools in Poland. On the one hand, more young people are catechized thanks to this, but, on the other, many Polish priests complain that since then many youths’ bonds with their parishes have weakened. Bishop Ryś has proposed that preparation for the sacraments of initiation of First Holy Communion and confirmation not be held in public schools, but in parishes. He has argued that preparation for the sacraments of initiation involves not the submission of book knowledge, but one’s personal relationship with Christ.
Bishop Ryś is a prolific author, and many of his books deal with the lives of the saints. One of his more popular books deals with St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion. As a Church historian, Bishop Ryś knows the importance of Lodz with respect to Divine Mercy: it was in that city that the mystic began to have visions of Jesus and decided to become a nun. (St. Faustina isn’t the only saint with connections to Lodz: St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan who gave his life for a fellow inmate at Auschwitz, grew up in the city and in nearby Pabianice.) Bishop Ryś writes a weekly column in the Catholic Tygodnik Powszechny, widely regarded as Poland’s most influential cultural weekly. His retreats and homilies are popular online, and wherever he travels he attracts huge crowds.
Undoubtedly, such a leader of the new evangelization as Bishop Ryś has the potential to reinvigorating Lodz’s sagging Catholic culture. But what is his vision of the Church? Ryś is a favorite of progressive Catholics in Poland. However, this is not because he is not orthodox. In reality, there are no doctrinally progressive bishops in Poland (fortunately); this became evident during the recent synod on the family and in the fact that in their guidelines for interpreting Amoris Laetitia the Polish bishops have firmly rejected the notion that, under some circumstances, divorced Catholics in new relationship could receive communion.
Rather, Bishop Ryś’s popularity among progressives results from his engagement in interreligious dialogue and from the fact that he rarely discusses social and political issues. Rather, his retreats, homilies, and books focus on Sacred Scripture, Church history, and the interior spiritual life. If Bishop Ryś has not said much about abortion or homosexuality, he doesn’t speak a lot about migrants or climate change, either. However, as the head of a large archdiocese Bishop Ryś will undoubtedly at times be forced to discuss social and doctrinal issues. There is no indication, however, that he has heterodox views. For example, earlier this year at a meeting with university students in Krakow, Bishop Ryś was asked if the Church would ever get rid of celibacy. He replied that celibacy is a matter of tradition and discipline rather than dogma (which is correct), but that he personally is in favor of maintaining the Church’s practice on the matter.
To conclude, I would like to make a bold prediction. In 2019, two Polish cardinals will turn 80 and will no longer be able to vote in conclaves. My suspicion is that it is highly likely that Pope Francis will elevate Bishop Ryś to the Sacred College. In the United States, Italy, and many other countries, Francis has bypassed traditional cardinalate sees and instead given the red hat to smaller dioceses that never had cardinals before. Given that Bishop Ryś is definitely a bishop who “smells of the sheep” and goes to the peripheries to preach the Word to those on the margins of the Church, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Francis makes him a cardinal.
In recent years, the Church has spoken much about the new evangelization. Few bishops have done as much to advance the new evangelization as Grzegorz Ryś. Because he’s still more than twenty years away from the mandatory retirement age for bishops, the chances are he will be in Lodz for quite some time. It will be interesting to see the effects of his ministry in Lodz, but there is reason to be optimistic.