When Pope Francis travels to Poland to celebrate World Youth Day and visit the shrine at Jasna Góra, he will encounter one of the world’s most intact and vibrant Catholic cultures, up there with Mexico, the Philippines, Croatia, and Malta. Like all these countries, however, the Church in Poland is dealing with the growing challenge of secularism. The country also faces some socioeconomic challenges, often addressed by the Pontiff, and his visit could have significant consequences for Polish society.
After the first semi-democratic elections in post-war Eastern Europe were held in Poland in 1989, the return to democracy and capitalism was bittersweet for many Polish Catholics. Sure, they were glad to have their liberties back and return to the West, a process that culminated in Poland’s joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. They were glad that they would never again have to wait in lines for miserable food rations. However, having seen the twilight of the faith in such former Catholic bastions as Ireland, Spain, and Quebec, many feared the same would happen to Poland. Would their country become one of empty churches?
Fortunately, that has not happened. From the posh Wilanów region of Warsaw to villages in the Tatra Mountains, Polish churches overflow on Sundays. Encouragingly, not only old ladies fill the pews unlike in most of the West; there are plenty of young adults and families with children, too. Poland continues to export priests; secularized Western countries, missionary territories in Africa and Asia, and especially post-communist countries where the Church for decades was in the catacombs heavily rely on Polish missionaries. Crosses and crucifixes are ubiquitous in public places, including the Parliament, and more than 90 percent of Polish schoolchildren attend catechesis.
Nonetheless, secularism is creeping in, although it is occurring at a much slower rate than in Spain or Ireland, or even in the Philippines, where Mass attendance plunged from 66 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 2013. Each year on a given Sunday in October, all the faithful present in every one of Poland’s 1,050 parishes are counted. In 1980, 51 percent of Catholics attended; in 1995, the figure was 46.8 percent; at the most recent census, in 2014, it was 39.1 percent. In other words, the decline is there, but it’s not as dramatic as elsewhere. There are visible regional differences: the lowest level of Mass attendance is in industrial Lodz, at 24.8 percent, and the highest is in Tarnow, at a whopping 70.1 percent, which probably makes it the most devout diocese in Europe (and possibly the world). In general, secularism in Poland is a greater problem in the big cities and in the western and northern parts of the country than in rural areas and the south and east.
To the American reader, it might seem surprising that while 39.1 percent of Poles attend Mass, only 16.3 percent receive Communion. By contrast, at parishes in North America and Western Europe, just about everyone stands in the Communion line. This is because the idea that one should be free of mortal sins that have not been absolved before receiving Communion is still prevalent in Poland. According to a 2014 poll, 70 percent of Poles went to confession during Lent. There are often long lines to confession in Poland; I myself once waited an hour and a half—in September, during Ordinary Time (during Lent, I’ve had to wait the better part of an afternoon).
In general, the liturgy in Poland is traditional. Communion is only given on the tongue (one diocese introduced Communion on the hand, but it had to reverse this decision following protests). Altar girls are rare—in all of Poland, there are 350,000 male altar servers and only 500 females. With the exception of youth Masses, you won’t likely hear guitars and poppy religious songs in Poland; organs are the norm. Meanwhile, priests often wear cassocks in public (although this is declining).
With regard to vocations, the number of young men entering seminary is presently about 40 percent lower than it was in 2005, when Pope John Paul II died (a record year, vocations-wise). However, a few things must be said. First of all, the Polish birth rate plummeted in the 1990s; the number of Polish children born in 2003 was half that born in 1983. Thus the number of young men entering any university and entering many professions has likewise declined. The number of Polish seminarians is still high: both Poland and the United States have a comparable number of graduate-level seminarians (3,571 versus 3,650), although the United States has more than double the Catholic population of Poland (about 75 million versus 35 million). Recently, the number of vocations in Poland has stabilized after the post-John Paul II decline, and in the past three years there has been an increase by 25 percent in Polish men joining religious orders (the Franciscans are especially successful in attracting vocations), and a more modest growth of women joining contemplative orders.
There are also many visible expressions of public piety across Poland. Each summer, more than 100,000 Poles go on walking pilgrimages to the Jasna Góra shrine; each diocese has a different pilgrimage, and, depending on the distance to Czestochowa, it can last from one day to three weeks. Each year since 1997, tens of thousands of young Poles (mostly teenagers) pray at the Lednica festival (think of it as a Catholic Woodstock). Corpus Christi processions in the big cities are attended by the thousands, as are Stations of the Cross, held on city streets during Lent.
In other words, we can say that at the popular level, Poland remains a Catholic powerhouse, although there are signs of decline. With regard to policy, the situation is more complex. In general, the post-communist era has seen a return of Christian values to the public sphere. In 1990, religious education was reintroduced into public schools. Thanks to the concordat, ratified by Poland’s Parliament in 1998, the state recognizes Catholic weddings.
In terms of policy, the Church’s biggest victory was the 1993 abortion law. As in other communist countries (we see this today in Cuba, which has one of the highest abortion rates in the Western hemisphere), abortion was practiced as a form of birth control in Poland. After 1989, Catholics campaigned to ban abortion. In 1993, Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka (later Poland’s ambassador to the Holy See, and currently a member of Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors) signed a law banning abortion with three exceptions: when the pregnancy results from rape or incest, when it threatens the mother’s life or health, and in the case of fetal deformity. This was the first time anywhere that extremely permissive abortion legislation was replaced with largely pro-life laws. Initially, Polish society was incensed; pro-abortion protests were held in Warsaw, and one million signatures were collected in a petition to bring back the old legislation.
However, in the subsequent two decades, Poland became pro-life. The Polish bishops often spoke out against abortion, exhibits showing murdered unborn children have been shown in many cities, and catechesis has educated young people about this. Polish pro-life movements have grown in number, and pro-life marches are held in 120 cities each year. Since 2006, the Polish Church has opened 58 “Windows of Life,” where mothers can anonymously leave infants for whom they’re unable to care, who are then cared for by nuns. Ninety children have been saved in this way, and the incidence of infanticide in Poland dropped from 47 in 2000 to just four in 2014. According to CBOS, Poland’s state polling agency, 64 percent of Poles supported abortion on demand in 1993, compared with 30 percent who did not. A 2016 CBOS poll, however, shows that 76 percent of Poles are against abortion being legal when a woman doesn’t want to have a child, versus 13 percent who support abortion. Encouragingly, Poles under 24 are the most pro-life segment of the population. Nonetheless, most Poles believe that abortion should be legal in the circumstances presently allowed by the law.
From 2007 to 2015, Poland was ruled by the Civic Platform party, which initially had a center-right program but moved aggressively to the left since coming to power. It didn’t change the abortion law, but it tried to legalize same-sex civil unions, although most Poles oppose them (ultimately, the attempt failed, thanks to a conservative fraction in Civic Platform). It subsidized in vitro fertilization and the morning-after pill. Also, the Civic Platform mayor of Warsaw, herself a practicing Catholic who in the 1990s was active in Catholic Charismatic Renewal, fired Prof. Bogdan Chazan, the director of a hospital, after he refused to perform a legal abortion to terminate a deformed unborn child.
Civic Platform’s swing to the left alienated it from many of its conservative voters. Above all, the party was engaged in numerous embarrassing corruption scandals that caused support for it to plunge. In 2015, the conservative, strongly Catholic Law and Justice Party came to power. Since then, the new government has ended subsidies for the morning-after pill and announced plans to end public financing of in vitro treatments. Law and Justice has also introduced generous public support for families with children; Poland’s birth rate is low, not because Poles don’t want to have children (in Britain, Polish immigrants have more children than any other ethnic group), but because of high unemployment and difficult living conditions. The biggest test to Law and Justice’s conservatism will come in the form of a looming abortion vote—a Polish NGO is collecting signatures for a civil bill completely banning abortion. They have enough signatures (450,000) for Parliament to be obligated to vote on it, and it will likely do so in the fall.
Three years into his pontificate, it is clear that Francis is greatly concerned about socioeconomic inequality. He has repeatedly shown his love for the poor, and he has called youth unemployment the greatest tragedy of our day. In Poland, he will find a country dealing with these issues. Today’s Poland is no longer the country of the Solidarity era, with drab, gray, concrete apartment complexes and rusty factories belching out smog. Poland’s major cities look no worse than anywhere else in Western Europe. Poland’s GDP has grown at a higher rate than in any other post-communist country since 1989. And EU subsidies have modernized highways and other infrastructure.
However, the largesse of that prosperity has been spread unequally. About 800,000 Polish children suffer from malnutrition. The unemployment rate stands at 10 percent. While that’s not as bad as in some other European countries, Poland has the second-highest number of people employed on temporary contracts in the EU, after Spain. These employees do not have luxuries like paid vacation and sick days, and often don’t even have health insurance. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, two million people, mostly the young, have left the country for Western Europe, a devastating economic and demographic blow to a nation of 38 million. That void has been partially filled by the growing number of Ukrainians moving to Poland, but there are still many Polish families torn apart by emigration and many industries lack skilled labor.
In other words, Pope Francis’ July visit to Poland could be greatly promising. The land of St. John Paul II continues to be strongly Catholic, but signs of decline suggest that a boost would be welcome. As a debate on abortion looms, a papal reference to the rights of the unborn could be a game changer; indeed, the Pontiff has forcefully spoken out against abortion, calling it the product of a “throw-away culture.” And Francis’ concern for the socially excluded will likely resonate with the many Poles frustrated by difficult economic conditions who are thinking of emigrating. Let’s pray he addresses all the issues, and at the same time is inspired by the enduring vitality of Polish Catholicism.