According to the most recent data from Poland’s border guard service, at the time of writing there are nearly two million Ukrainian refugees in the country. Polish society has been generous in assisting Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression, and perhaps no institution has provided as much aid as the Catholic Church. Not since Poland was under martial law forty years ago has the Polish Church provided works of mercy on such an enormous scale.
A personal account
On February 27th, the first Sunday after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I went to the 11:00 Mass at Krakow’s St. Francis’ Basilica, close to where I live. Because the intention of that Mass was peace in Ukraine, not only were the pews closely packed, but there was no place to stand.
Consequently, I decided to go St. Mary’s Basilica on the Main Market Square for the 11:15 Mass. Following the service, a collection to aid Ukrainian war victims was held. On Ash Wednesday, meanwhile, I attended St. Anne’s Collegiate Church. The priest’s homily focused on fasting as a means of praying for Ukraine (he also invoked Pope Francis’ call to fast for the suffering Ukrainian people) and expressing solidarity with victims of war. Naturally, a collection for war victims was held again.
The following Sunday, I attended Mass at St. Francis’ Basilica again. During the parish announcements, the friar celebrating the Mass informed that the basilica and adjacent Franciscan seminary had taken in thirty-six Ukrainian refugees, with more on their way.
At every single Mass I have attended in Krakow since the war broke out, the conflict has been mentioned during the homily, while a collection to aid refugees and victims of the war has followed each service; at the most recent Mass I attended, the priest asked the congregation to donate school supplies for Ukrainian refugee children now attending Polish schools.
Meanwhile, on Sunday I signed up with Caritas to give soup to refugees in a tent next to Krakow’s Main Railway Station, through which probably hundreds of thousands of refugees have passed in recent days. This effort was coordinated by priests and seminarians, while more volunteers signed up than was necessary.
All over Krakow, many businesses and public offices are bearing blue-and-yellow flags. Many institutions are taking donations of clothes, medicine, dried foods, and other goods for Ukrainian war victims. I have seen many protests expressing solidarity with Ukraine; most recently, I saw protestors in front of the American consulate demanding that NATO create a no-fly zone around Ukraine.
These expressions of sympathy are not merely anecdotal. A recent poll shows that more than 90 percent of Poles support taking in refugees from Ukraine (34.8 percent want to take in those Ukrainians in greatest need, while 57.9 percent believe all should be welcomed).
Arguably, this generosity results from the brotherhood of painful historical experience. The Poles have experienced oppression and military aggression at the hands of Russia before. Meanwhile, they remember when their country was ravaged by Hitler and Stalin in September 1939, and France and Britain declared war on Germany but did not lift a finger to aid them. The Poles bravely fought for their homeland, as the Ukrainians are bravely fighting today, but that was insufficient for victory due to the West’s indifference.
The institutional Church in any country is a reflection of the local society and culture. Thus, since the start of the war, Poland’s Catholic bishops, priests, nuns, seminarians, and lay faithful have been very generous in aiding both Ukrainian refugees locally and Ukrainian victims of military aggression east of the border.
Polish bishops and the war
In recent days, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has come under strong criticism around the world for his close ties to Vladimir Putin and his defense of Russia’s war against Ukraine. One of the first Catholic leaders to call him out was Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, Archbishop of Poznan and President of the Polish Episcopal Conference. Last week, Archbishop Gądecki sent a letter to Kirill, pleading that the Russian Orthodox leader condemn the assault against Ukraine. He wrote:
I am asking you, brother, to appeal to Vladimir Putin to stop this pointless fight against the Ukrainian nation, in which innocent people are dying, while suffering is cast upon not only soldiers but also civilians – especially women and children. […] No reason, no argument excuses a decision to launch a military invasion on an independent country, bombing residential areas, schools, and kindergartens.
In the same letter, the archbishop asks Kirill to persuade Russian soldiers to not participate in this war of aggression.
Meanwhile, on March 15th the Polish Episcopal Conference issued a letter that reads:
Deeply moved by the tragedy of war, we firmly condemn attacks directed against civilians that have led to a huge number of victims, especially among women and children. We implore those responsible for the aggression against the Ukrainian state and nation to cease their military activities as soon as possible and undertake efforts to decide on a just peace. At the same time, we ask all believers to zealously pray and, when possible, fast for the intention of peace in Ukraine.
The letter concludes by thanking Caritas Poland for its generosity towards Ukrainian refugees.
Such strong words by Poland’s Catholic bishops were not empty rhetoric as a number of bishops have directly taken refugees into their own residences. The Archdiocese of Krakow, the former see of St. John Paul II, has taken in “more than ten thousand” (kilkanaście tysięcy) refugees into its various institutions, including the Archbishops’ Palace. Archbishop Józef Kupny of Wroclaw has opened the Hotel of St. John Paul II, an institution belonging to the archdiocese, to house more than one hundred Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, two Ukrainian families live in the home of Bishop Andrzej Jeż of Tarnow, and an unspecified number of Ukrainian mothers and children have found refuge in the residence of Bishop Marek Solarczyk of Radom.
Aid at all levels
While its role in Church life is critical, the episcopate is only a small part of the Church. And at the most grassroots, parish level, the Church in Poland has also been very generous. In a statement for Polish Radio, Rev. Leszek Gęsiak, S.J., spokesman of the Polish Episcopal Conference, has said: “There is probably no parish, monastery, convent, seminary, or retreat center that has not opened its doors to those who are arriving.”
Nearly one thousand female religious communities in Poland are actively aiding Ukrainian refugees; that is almost all of them. More than half of them have provided lodging to refugees. Including the seventy-six Polish religious communities in Ukraine, Polish female religious are providing sanctuary to eighteen thousand victims of war. Meanwhile, Polish nuns have organized countless collections to aid refugees.
Male religious orders are no less generous. For example, the Marian shrine of Jasna Góra in Czestochowa, run by the Pauline Fathers, has housed more than one hundred Ukrainian refugees on its premises. This is of great symbolic value, as for centuries Jasna Góra has been the most important shrine and pilgrimage site in Polish Catholicism. In 1979, during his historic first pilgrimage to Poland, St. John Paul II said something obvious to every Pole at Jasna Góra: “Here, we were always free.”
There are more than ten thousand Catholic parishes in Poland; so many of them are engaged in helping refugees from Ukraine that it would be impossible to list them all. However, one that particularly deserves mention for its humanitarian aid is St. Margaret’s Church in Łomianki, a small suburb of Warsaw. Currently, 700 Ukrainians have founded lodging in the parish. Meanwhile, the church has organized a warehouse where the faithful can donate gifts to the Ukrainians; one hundred parishioners have volunteered to segregate and hand them out.
The majority of the Church’s assistance to both Ukrainian refugees in Poland and victims of war in Ukraine has been coordinated by the Polish branch of the international Catholic charity Caritas. As of March 13th, the organization has sent more than 150 trucks to Ukraine containing three million kg (about 6.6 million lbs.) of food, water, sleeping bags, hygiene products, batteries, and other necessary equipment.
Other religious groups are also helping
Because the vast majority of Poland’s population is at least nominally Catholic and other religions and denominations are much smaller in comparison (given the enormous exodus of Ukrainian refugees coupled with growing immigration from Ukraine and Belarus that started long before the war, however, one can expect that Poland will have a sizable Orthodox minority in the very near future), this article focuses on the Catholic Church’s efforts. However, other religious communities have also been generous in aiding Ukrainian refugees.
The Mariavites, an Old Catholic breakaway church founded in the early twentieth century in Poland when the Vatican rejected the alleged mystic visions of a Polish nun, have taken in, as of March 3rd, twenty-two Ukrainian refugees with more on their way. Given the small size of this church, this is an impressive number. Similarly, Poland’s Lutheran Church (which numbers between sixty and seventy thousand members) has likewise implored its members to donate to help Ukrainian refugees. I also know that my Protestant friends in Poland have donated money to aid Ukrainians.
Having experienced the Holocaust and a chauvinistic campaign of the communist regime in 1968 that forced thousands of Polish Jews to be stripped of their citizenship and emigrate, Poland’s Jewish community knows about war, persecution, and displacement well. Thus, it is unsurprising that the Jewish community in Krakow and other Polish cities has worked to help Ukrainian refugees find lodging, including in its own institutions, and basic supplies.
The biggest refugee crisis in decades
Many of these observations are, of course, a bit impressionistic or even fragmentary. However, the scale of aid provided by the institutional Catholic Church in Poland to Ukrainian refugees is so enormous that I can only be selective in writing about specific examples.
According to UN Refugee Commissioner Filippo Grandi, the flight of millions of Ukrainians to the west fleeing Russian aggression is the fastest growing refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II. Christians throughout Europe (I expect that, eventually, many Ukrainians will flee to North America as well) have suddenly been faced with millions of people who have lost their homes and whose nation has been invaded. Because Poland shares a 332-mile border with Ukraine, the country is at the very center of the refugee crisis. In the three weeks since Russia’s invasion, multitudes of Polish Catholics have admirably opened their hearts to the newcomers. For many Christians, this is a test of faith and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live out the beatitudes in a unique way.
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