We have arrived in Poland this week to celebrate “World Youth Day,” and will encounter one of the world’s most intact and vibrant Catholic cultures, up there with Mexico and the Philippines. But, like these countries, the Church in Poland is dealing with the growing challenge of secularism, and new socioeconomic issues that are often addressed by our Pope. In general, his visit here should have significant consequences for Polish society.
In 1989, the return of democracy (and capitalism) to Poland was bittersweet for many Polish Catholics. 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 lands as Spain, Ireland and Quebec, many feared the same would happen to Poland; fortunately, not yet. Polish churches overflow on Sundays with plenty of young adults and families with children, too. Poland exports priests to secularized Western countries, missionary territories in Africa and Asia, and especially post-communist countries, where the Church was in the catacombs for decades. Crosses and shrines dot the landscape and in public places, including the Parliament; and more than 90% of Polish school children attend religious instruction classes. Nonetheless, secularism is creeping in, although occurring at a much slower rate than in Spain or Ireland. On any given Sunday, 39.1% of Catholics attend Mass. In other words, the decline is there, but it’s not as dramatic as elsewhere. With visible regional differences, the lowest level of Mass attendance is in industrial Lódź, and the highest is in Tarnów, at a whopping 70.1%, which probably makes it the most devout diocese in Europe (and possibly the world). Secularism is a greater problem in the big cities and in western and northern parts of Poland than in rural areas and the south and east.
In general, liturgy in Poland is traditional. Communion is given only on the tongue and many priests still wear the cassock in public. Though the number of young men entering the seminary is lower than it was in 2005 (when Pope John Paul II died – a record year, vocations-wise), the number of Polish seminarians is still high. Poland and the U.S. 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. A more modest growth of women are 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. Depending on the distance to Częstochowa, it can last from one day to three weeks. Since1997, tens of thousands of young Poles (mostly teens) pray at the Lednica Festival (think of it as a “Catholic Woodstock”). Corpus Christi Day processions in the big cities are attended by the thousands, and Stations of the Cross are even held on many city streets during Lent. We can say that Poland remains a Catholic powerhouse, although there are signs of decline.
The post-communist era has seen a return of Christian values to the public square. Religious education was reintroduced into public schools in 1990; and the state now recognizes Catholic church-weddings. The Church’s biggest victory came in 1993. The Prime Minister signed a law banning most abortions. This was the first time anywhere that extremely permissive abortion legislation was replaced with pro-life laws. In effect, Poland became pro-life. Polish bishops often spoke out against abortion and Polish pro-life movements have grown in number, with pro-life marches being held in more than 120 cities each year.
In 2015, the strongly Catholic “Law and Justice” Party came to power. It has introduced generous public support for families with children. The birth rate is low because of high unemployment and difficult living conditions. The biggest test will come in the form of a looming abortion vote. There are enough signatures for Parliament to be obligated to vote on it, and it will likely do so in the Fall.
It is clear that Pope Francis is truly concerned about socioeconomic inequality. He has repeatedly shown his love for the poor, and called youth unemployment the greatest tragedy of our day. In Poland, he will find a country dealing with these issues. No longer the country of the Solidarity era, with drab, gray, apartment complexes and rusty factories belching out smog, Poland’s major cities look no worse than anywhere else in Western Europe. However, the unemployment rate stands at 10 percent. Employees do not have luxuries like paid vacation and sick days, and often don’t even have health insurance. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, two million people, mostly the young, have left the country for Western Europe, creating a devastating economic and demographic blow to a nation of 38 million.
So, Pope Francis’ visit could be greatly promising. The land of St. John Paul II continues to be strongly Catholic, but little signs of decline suggest that a boost would be welcome. The Pope has forcefully spoken out against abortion, calling it the product of a “throw-away culture.” His concern for the socially excluded will likely resonate with many Poles frustrated by difficult economic conditions who are thinking of emigrating. I hope and pray he addresses all these issues and, at the same time, is inspired by the enduring vitality of Polish Catholicism.