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Our Take - American Catholic Parochialism

January 2004

Volume XXIV, No. 1

A religious poll commissioned in March 2003 by the leading Polish daily Rzeczpospolita indicated that in terms of declared allegiance, Poles are the most religious nation in Europe. Sixty percent stated that they are observant Catholics, while 35 percent said that they believe in God but do not always agree with the strictures of their Churches: they wish to believe "in their own way." Two percent said they are atheists, and three percent were not sure. Altogether, 95 percent of Polish citizens stated that they are religious believers.

The number of Protestants and Eastern Orthodox in Poland does not exceed 3 percent, while Jews and Muslims command a statistically insignificant percentage. Thus the vast majority of the respondents were Catholics. In addition to being the most religious, Poland is also the most Catholic nation in Europe, if only in terms of declared allegiance.

Such statistics have their consequences. Poland is home to numerous Catholic religious orders, many of them founded in Poland. Polish monks and nuns work in hundreds of charitable and religious establishments in dozens of countries ( The work of Polish women religious with handicapped children is exemplary. Foreigners are usually directed to the showcase establishment for blind children in Laski near Warsaw, but there are many others worth visiting and writing about. The establishments for the handicapped in Lódz, Niegów-Samaria, Elk or elsewhere are unique. This writer visited half a dozen such establishments in which hundreds of children and handicapped adults lead--surprisingly--an apparently happy life. In one such establishment, a bundle the size of an infant with a large head responded to a smile with a hearty smile of its own showing its large, healthy, but evidently aged teeth. When I asked why the teeth seemed "used," I was told that the bundle was twenty-something years old. It--and its companions in deformity--resided in cleanliness, enjoying white bed linen in a room that was not permeated by foul smells. Those who could walk did, playing and signing songs under the leadership of their wychowawcy (mentors and caretakers). If the degree of civilization of a country is measured by the treatment it affords to its weakest citizens, Poland ranks close to the top.

This Catholic culture has produced a slew of Catholic publications ranging from the sophisticated monthly Znak, the profoundly spiritual W drodze, and the academic quarterly Ethos to hundreds of popular publications. The spread of sociopolitical choices is likewise wide, from the prudent and thoughtful Tygodnik Powszechny to the generally poorly-edited right-wing publications. There is enough substance in these periodicals to introduce important corrections to the American Catholic discussions about the role of Church in society. The youth movement "Oases" initiated by the late Rev. Franciszek Blachnicki could be a model for similar initiatives in America's suburbs and inner cities. Virtually nothing concerning these developments has been reflected in English-language publications. One negative feature of the Polish Catholic initiatives is their timidity--their leaders all too readily concede the top place at the table to the French, German, or Anglophone movements, periodicals, or individuals. The latter are only too happy to oblige--and to deal with the rest of the world as if it were in need of their tutelage.

The biographies of some of these Polish personalities are awesome. Consider the above-mentioned Franciszek Blachnicki. Born in 1921, he was arrested in 1940 by the Germans for participating in the Polish Resistance. He was sent to Auschwitz as prisoner #1201 and spent a month on death row, Auschwitz-style. He was later transferred to hard labor and spent the remainder of the Second World War in other German death camps. He was liberated by General Patton's army, returned to Poland, and became a priest. Arrested for anti-Communist activity in 1961 in Soviet-occupied Poland, he was sentenced to three years' probation. He completed his habilitation thesis at the Catholic University of Lublin, but the communist Education Ministry refused to recognize it. Blachnicki led an extremely active pastoral and intellectual life as a creator of the Oases Movement, or small groups of youths operating in ways appropriate for a society whose ideology was anti-Christian. While in Carlsberg in West Germany, he started the movement later called "Light and Life" (Swiatlo i Zycie). He died in 1987 leaving a rich legacy of disciples and writings.

The editors of the American Catholic periodicals all but ignore such Catholic personalities, movements, and developments. When one peruses their publications one sees an endless string of Anglo-Germano-Irish names pontificating on issues large and small. The remoteness of these monologues from the actual history and problems of Catholic Christianity seems obvious to those who are not imprisoned in the upper-middle-class strata of American society. An inability to rank-order issues is glaringly obvious in these publications. They keep writing about topics and groups of people on whom attention has been bestowed by the non-Catholic media, while others are not even mentioned by name. The impression left after reading such periodicals is that the editors strive to retain at any price the sympathetic attention of those who are in a position to bestow or withhold recognition in American society. Their editors seem to desire so strongly that Catholicism win that they lose sight of "first things" while declaring their allegiance to them. Yet the goal of Catholicism is to be faithful rather than to win. It is the striving after too much worldly wisdom that ails these periodicals.

Not that the blame is totally on one side. The Polish Church and Polish Catholic intellectuals are not very helpful in putting their best foot forward when it comes to representation abroad. In the United States, the Polish Catholic parishes (headed by Polish-educated priests mainly from the Society of Christ) have done precious little to integrate Polish Catholicism into the larger Catholic context in America. In many ways, these Polish parishes cultivate ghetto attitudes which the authorities believe are supportive of their members but which in fact prevent them from exerting their share of influence on society. Suffice it to say that there exists no translation into English of the Polish Christmas carols, among which there are some poetic and musical masterpieces.

On balance, the Polish Church must be doing something right. It survived Communist persecution and none of its bishops engaged in collaboration with the Communist secret services. Its contributions to architecture, art, and literature are outstanding. To offer American Catholics a view of the vibrantly Catholic culture which it has helped create seems worthwhile. Why then do Catholic intellectual publications lament so loudly the nakedness of the public square in America while studiously avoiding a look at a public square that has not yet been stripped bare?

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