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Polish Catholicism

A Historical Outline

Kevin Hannan

One can speak of the religion of a nation only secondarily, since religious faith originates and exists, or may be extinguished, within the individual. Yet no discussion of predominately Catholic Poland is complete without reference to religion. We are primarily concerned here with a secondary manifestation of religion expressed in historical, cultural, and political developments.

Observing Poles in their churches, one glimpses the depths of the human capacity for belief. For many Polish Catholics, the Catholic Church is the repository both of transcendent, universal truth and of the values and lessons of Polish history. While critics have dismissed it as an unremarkable blend of folk superstition, nationalism, and antimodernism, Polish Catholicism has proved to be a vital force in European history as much in recent decades as in the past. Poles continue to practice Catholicism not only as a ritual and tradition, but also as a living, relevant idea embraced by the individual believer with enthusiasm.

The mission of Cyril and Methodius occurred before the religious split between East and West, and the two brothers maintained close contacts with both Rome and Byzantium.

As with some other "national" varieties, the Roman Catholicism of Poland is, for the believer, analogous to an onion. The core contains the barely expressible truths of heaven and earth. The outer layers may embody qualities that are nationally specific, superfluous, maudlin, or simply imperfectly human, evidence of Catholicism's ability to absorb and celebrate within a religious context a broad variety of human cultures and expressions. The core of this onion of Catholicism is separated from its exterior by layers of fine onionskin, so that it is impossible to determine, in peeling away individual layers, when one has removed the exterior and already begun to discard the core. Yet the onion is of little use if reduced to a pile of individual layers: an evidence of Catholicism's perfect grounding in both the body and the spirit. The believer does not concern him/herself with the splitting of onionskins, but takes the onion whole, outer imperfections and all.

One is struck upon entering a Roman Catholic church in Poland by the clutter of symbols and the abundance of imagery. Some Orthodox churches leave a similar impression with icons and lamps. It might appear to a visitor that the Polish churches are houses for the local religious artifacts of the ages. Processional banners, candles, statues, colored streamers hung from the heights of the interior, stations of the cross, paintings, frescoes, and icons are visible. Some churches display rosaries, jewels, miniature commemorative shields, and metal wota donated by individuals in gratitude for and commemoration of answered prayers. Certain paintings portray national saints, such as Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who, during the Second World War, volunteered to die in Auschwitz in place of a fellow prisoner, a former sergeant in the Polish Army by the name of Franciszek Gajowniczek (d. 1995). Many churches contain a copy of the national icon of the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra. In addition to the crucifix, the essential symbol of Catholic Christianity, Polish churches during the Easter season display a statue of the Resurrected Christ with a staff and banner of victory, typically upon the altar. The sense of clutter in the churches grew in the final decades of the twentieth century with the installation of a hanging video screen, upon which words to hymns are projected overhead during services. That installation in many of the older structures is a permanent, unsightly fixture.

It might appear to a visitor that the Polish churches are houses for the local religious artifacts of the ages.

Observing those church interiors, a native of another country might feel sympathy for the reformers who desired to clear the houses of worship of distractions and, in some instances in other parts of Europe, destroyed church interiors in the name of reform. A single point of theological and aesthetical focus today characterizes Protestant houses of worship as well as some contemporary Roman Catholic ones, in contrast to many Catholic churches in Poland. During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Poland experienced little of the religious violence that occurred in other parts of Europe, and there was no mass destruction of Polish churches. For Polish Catholics, all the layers of artifacts and symbols in the churches have their rightful place. Distracting as they might appear to the visitor, these represent the layers of Polish history and the influence of the Church upon that history.

The first mention of Christianity in Poland relates to the mission led by two brothers, Cyril (known also by his baptismal name Constantine and called the Philosopher) and Methodius, who arrived in Moravia from Byzantium in the year 863. The story of Cyril and Methodius is rich in symbolism, though Poles tend to disregard its significance because the direct influence of the Cyrilo-Methodian mission in Poland was brief and impermanent, soon to be replaced by the traditional Polish orientation towards Rome. The mission of Cyril and Methodius occurred before the religious split between East and West, and the two brothers maintained close contacts with both Rome and Byzantium. Proclaimed copatron saints of Europe along with Saint Benedict, by Pope John Paul II, Cyril and Methodius represent a model for reconciliation between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

The layers of symbolic artifacts in Polish churches represent the layers of Polish history and the influence of the Church upon that history.

By the ninth century, the territory of what is today southeastern Moravia and southwestern Slovakia was the center of an expanding political and economic power that became known as Great Moravia. This is the first Slavic state for which there exists combined archeological, historical, and linguistic evidence. At the request of the Moravian ruler Rostislav, Cyril and Methodius led a Christian mission to Moravia. The beginnings of Slavic Christianity and the Slavic literary tradition date to that time. Under Rostislav and his successor Svatopluk, Great Moravia's borders further expanded to include Slovakia, Pannonia, Bohemia, and parts of modern Poland and Austria. Though Great Moravia was destroyed by the Magyars and Franks in the first years of the tenth century, the influences of the Cyrilo-Methodian mission survived in the Balkans, and later penetrated to the territory of the East Slavs. Saint Cyril created an alphabet and a literary language used today (after modifications) in Russia and the other Orthodox Slavic areas, as well as in the Eastern Catholic rite in Ukraine and Belarus.

It should be noted here that for many centuries Western and Eastern Christianity have met, intermingled, and influenced each other along Poland's eastern borders. The Catholicism of Poland may appear more "eastern" than most varieties of Roman Catholicism, just as the Eastern Christianity of neighboring Ukraine and Belarus is more "western" than that of Russia. But Poles tend to view the eastern borders of Roman Catholicism as stark and well defined in relation to neighboring Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities.

The Life of Saint Methodius describes a "powerful pagan prince" of the Vistulians whom Methodius persuaded to accept baptism. Based on that evidence and what is known of early political contacts between Krakow and the Czech state that developed in Bohemia following the destruction of Great Moravia, it seems probable that the mission of Cyril and Methodius had some success on Polish territory. Yet full Christianization came to Poland from the West. Poland's official Christianization in 966 meant the official establishment of Christianity in its Latin form.

In 965 Mieszko I (d. 992), the first historical ruler of the Polish Piast dynasty, married Doubrava, a Czech princess of the Premyslid dynasty. Doubrava's uncle Vaclav, who is memorialized in the carol "Good King Wenceslas," was martyred in 935 and proclaimed a saint. Her great-grandmother was Ludmila, also canonized by the Church and honored as one of the national saints of Bohemia. The beginnings of the Czech state in Bohemia preceded those of Piast Poland, a fact reflected spatially in Poland's greater distance from the Franks and from Rome. In 966 Mieszko I accepted baptism in Gniezno, which in the year 1000 became the seat of an archbishopric. It should be noted that Vladimir of Kiev, who accepted Christianity from Byzantium in 988, was the last among the Slavs to join what at that time promised to be a form of cultural advancement.

Christianity led to the acceptance of monogamous marriage and respect for the value and rights of the child in society. Yet there was popular resistance to abandoning the old pagan beliefs. In the eleventh century Poland experienced a revolt against the Church and state. Pagan beliefs were particularly well entrenched among the Slavs of Pomerania and the Elbe region, as well as among the neighboring Balts. Saint Wojciech (Adalbert), one of the patron saints of Poland and a former bishop of Prague, was martyred in 997 while trying to convert the Baltic tribe of Prussians to Christianity.

Following the Union of Florence in 1439, the Moscow Metropolitan Isidore proclaimed the Union of the Eastern and Western Churches in Moscow's Uspenskii Sobor in 1440. This proclamation was angrily rejected by the ruler of Moscow Vasilii II who condemned the Metropolitan and imprisoned him in the Chudnov monastery.

In cultural milieus intolerant of Catholics, Poles are sometimes cast as fanatically religious. This is an inference based more on the statistic, infrequent today in Europe, describing the nation's identification with Catholicism, than on the individual Pole's expression of private religious faith. Many Polish Catholics display little interest in dogmas and are remarkably tolerant of other faiths. The tradition of religious tolerance in Poland dates back to the centuries of religious struggle in Europe, when the country was a haven for religious refugees of all kinds persecuted in other countries. During the bloodiest periods of religious violence in Europe, Poland was a place of unparalleled tolerance. Catholic religious absolutism was never a policy of the Polish monarchy.

In the fourteenth century and due to intermarriage, Poland was united politically with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Poland thus became a kingdom of both Western and Eastern Christians: Lithuania had previously conquered what today is called Belarus and Ukraine. In addition to the Eastern Orthodox, Poland's religious minorities have included monophysite Armenians; Jews; Karaites, who reject the Talmud and accept only the Old Testament; and Muslim Tatars. By the second half of the sixteenth century, a sizeable chunk of the Polish nobility had become Protestant. Calvinism exercised a strong influence in Little Poland (Malopolska) and in Lithuania, while much of Prussia and the region of Wielkopolska followed the teachings of Martin Luther. Only with the reforms instituted within the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation did the majority of Polish Protestants return to Catholicism. Isolated communities of Polish Lutherans survive today, notably in Teschen Silesia.

Religious matters were further complicated at the end of the sixteenth century with the creation of the Greek Catholic, or Eastern Caholic (Uniate) Church. The Union of Brest was signed in 1596 by the Catholic bishops and by most of the Orthodox bishops of Polish territory. The former Orthodox acknowledged the Pope of Rome rather than the Patriarch of Constantinople as the head of their Church, while they retained their Slavonic liturgy and religious traditions, including the married priesthood. Factors influencing the union were the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the desire of the Orthodox clergy to improve their social and educational status, and Rome's aspirations for reunification.

The opinion that the Orthodox bishops were forced into the union with Rome became standard when the Moscow-generated history of the region gained ascendancy. Yet as Jerzy Narbutt points out in his book Dwa bunty, the Brest Union was but a confirmation of the Union of Florence (1439), whereby the unity of the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity was proclaimed. Accordingly, the Moscow Metropolitan Isidore "proclaimed the Union of the two Churches in Moscow's Uspenskii Sobor in 1440. This proclamation was angrily rejected by the ruler of Moscow Vasilii II who condemned the Metropolitan and imprisoned him in the Chudnov monastery. Fortunately, the Metropolitan succeeded in escaping to Poland." (52) Yet many of the Orthodox who did not accept the Union of Brest were embittered at Rome and at Catholic Poland. Today the existence of the much-persecuted Greek Catholic Church in western Ukraine and other areas represents a major source of tension between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

In the eighteenth century Poland became an island of Catholicism surrounded by Protestant Prussia and Sweden in the northwest, by Hussite Bohemia in the south, and by Orthodox Russia in the east.

Political conflicts with hostile neighbors over the centuries strengthened the position of the Catholic Church in Poland. The country became an island of Catholicism surrounded by Protestant Prussia and Sweden, by Hussite Bohemia, and by Orthodox Russia. The religious policies of those states did not reflect the religious tolerance (of the premodern variety) that flourished in Poland. With time, the national ideologies of Poland's foes, especially Prussia and Russia, became strongly anti-Catholic. Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Russians promoted the idea of Moscow, the seat of a Russian Orthodox patriarch, as the "third Rome." Moscow denounced Rome and Catholicism as heretical.

Poland's declining political fortunes, climaxing with the partitions of Poland among Prussia, Russia, and Austria at the end of the eighteenth century, were not unrelated to these developments. Obviously Poland paid a high price for its fidelity to Catholicism. But ill fortune also strengthened the association of Polishness with Catholicism. Under the partitions, the Church was viewed as a prime foundation of Polish society, and it was the only Polish institution to continue to function in all three partitions. Inspired by Adam Mickiewicz and other poets of the first half of the nineteenth century, some Poles came to see a parallelism between their nation and the crucified Christ. Just as Russians assigned a special role in human history to Moscow, the "third Rome," Poles toyed with the idea that the historical struggles and injustices experienced by Poland had exceptional significance for all of humanity. Some Poles looked to Poland to initiate a new era of human history. A similar development is sometimes perceived in Ireland where English persecution strengthened Roman Catholicism.

Bismarck's policy of Kulturkampf introduced in Prussia in 1872 was generally directed at all Catholics under German rule, though Catholic Poles were especially affected. Laws were passed prohibiting the use of Polish in Polish schools. At the same time but for different reasons, similar laws were passed in the Russian empire where Poles were forbidden to use the Polish language even at Warsaw University. Led by the Catholic clergy, the Poles of Prussia fiercely resisted Bismarck's policies. In the meantime under the Russian partitions, a statue of Tsar Alexander II was erected in 1889 in Czestochowa, and it became a symbol of the policies of Russification. The placement of the immense statue at the entrance to the Jasna Gora monastery seemed to represent both Russian intent to block entry to the monastery and the Russian government's opposition to the Catholic Church. The statue was pulled down in 1917.

Since the end of the Second World War, the old traditions of cultural and religious diversity in Poland are a memory of the past. Today's Poland is arguably the most homogeneous country in continental Europe from the standpoint of its religious and ethnic composition.

The experiences of the Second World War, the occupation of Poland by the Nazis and Soviets, and the imposition of a pro-Soviet communist government in the postwar period further reinforced the position of the Catholic Church in Poland. Both the Nazis and the Soviets targeted the Catholic Church for destruction. Following the Second World War, Poland's borders shifted to the west. The population squeezed into those borders (many of them being the PolishVertriebene, or expellees from the east) was overwhelmingly Polish and Roman Catholic.

Since the end of the Second World War, the old traditions of cultural and religious diversity in Poland are a memory of the past. Today's Poland is arguably the most homogeneous country in continental Europe from the standpoint of its religious and ethnic composition. It therefore seems strangely reactionary and nostalgic when some Polish and foreign intellectuals invoke the now-deceased multicultural and multinational Poland, and call upon the now-homogeneous Polish nation to practice diversity and behave as if the country had major problems with the "minorities."

A milestone of Polish history was the election in 1978 of Karol Wojtyla as Pope of Rome. The Catholic world was stunned at the selection of the first non-Italian pope in centuries. A person of enormous intelligence and charisma, John Paul II personally embodies the noblest traditions of Polish Catholicism. He has been criticized by some in the West as too Polish, i.e., too traditional, too far removed from the concerns and sensibilities of the West. John Paul II was at least partly responsible for the collapse of the Soviet system. His visits to Poland as pope before the downfall of Communism vividly underscored the contrast between the mendacious ideology of the Communist system and the truths of Christianity.

The history of Christianity in Poland is related to the Pole's stereotypical enthusiasm for the abstract idea and the nation's obsession with historical duties. According to the Dagome Iudex, a twelfth century summary of an earlier Latin document sent by the Polish king to the papal see, Mieszko I asked that his entire kingdom be placed under the protection of the pope. Certainly Mieszko I was motivated in part by political considerations, though his request for union with the papacy has a special significance in light of subsequent Polish history. Another event that, in the light of Poland's thousand year history, became something more than mere gesture was King Jan Casimir's consecration in Lwów (Lviv in contemporary Ukrainian) in 1656 of the Polish nation to the Virgin Mary, who was proclaimed Queen of Poland. At the initiative of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland from 1948 through 1981, Jan Casimir's vows were symbolically renewed by the entire Polish nation in 1956, a year of dramatic political events in Poland. One of the grandest of the Polish nation's Catholic statements was Jan Sobieski's defeat of the Turks at Vienna which, incidentally, occurred during the night of 9/11-9/12, 1683, September 11 thus being the day of the Muslims' greatest success in conquering Christian Europe. Poles saw that struggle as a religious one, and had Sobieski not felt a very Catholic obligation to lead his Polish troops to Vienna, Europe's political fate might have been quite different.

The spiritual center of Polish Catholicism is the monastery of the Pauline Fathers in Czestochowa, called Jasna Góra, or the Mountain of Light, which houses the chapel of the icon of the Black Madonna. A painting on a wall above the chapel shows the Jasna Góra monastery as a medieval fortification threatened by mounted invaders, a scene that became the centerpiece of Polish self-perception. The monastery today is somewhat less impressive, on first appearance, than the fortress shown in that painting. The landscape surrounding Czestochowa is rather flat, with dense, unimposing forests. The industrial town that has grown up around the fortress monastery obscures the elevation of the site on which the monastery was erected in the fourteenth century. The focus of the monastery buildings contained within the fortress walls is a tower first erected in the fifteenth century, a structure not unlike some other historical towers in Poland, in which the majesty of height is not entirely matched by originality of architectural design. Viewing the austere exterior of the monastery from a distance, the visitor may be surprised later at the opulence and grandeur of the numerous churches and chapels tucked away within the monastery walls.

Religious art in Western Christianity has long emphasized the humanity of Christ. This is visible in the works of the Western European masters, as well as in the modern American iconography, which depicts Christ as a very human, long-haired white Anglo. In Poland, Christ's human nature can be seen in the cult of Christ the Man of Sorrows (Chrystus Frasobliwy), a popular theme of folk sculpture that was popularized from the fourteenth century on. Portrayed as fully human, Christ the Man of Sorrows sits pensively, robed and with a crown of thorns, one hand supporting a troubled head with furrowed brow. The cult of Christ of Divine Mercy, introduced in Poland by St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), is associated with a popular religious painting in which Christ's human attributes and capacity for mercy are emphasized. In contrast, in the Slavic East the figure of Christ the High Priest, seated on a throne in the vestments and crown of a Bishop of the East, is emphasized. This image is seldom encountered in Poland, though an imposing sculpture was recently erected.

Jasna Góra houses a museum and library, and the entire complex represents a sanctuary of Polishness. It also demonstrates to visitors from abroad that the medieval tradition of pilgrimages is alive and well in Poland. Before the main entrance stands an oversized statue of Cardinal Wyszynski, who guided the Polish Church through the years when Poland was occupied by the Soviets. Wyszynski is viewed by many Poles as a national hero. The modernistic stage of steel beams and guywires erected for the papal Masses is still in place above the monastery wall, in readiness for John Paul's return. Within sight of that platform is an immense statue of John Paul II. A tablet at the base of that statue displays a quote from John Paul's 1978 visit to the monastery: "If we want to learn how history works in the hearts of Poles, it is necessary to come here, it is necessary to put one's ear to this place, to hear the echo of the whole life of the nation in the heart of its Mother and Queen."

A sign posted at the monastery entrances proclaims in seven languages: "This is a holy place. Come here as a pilgrim." Nearly three and a half million pilgrims visited the monastery in 2002. As with other Christian monasteries and with holy sites of other faiths, pilgrims journey to Czestochowa to satisfy a spiritual need or impulse. In Poland there is final recourse for every trial and tribulation. In times of trouble, Poles go to Czestochowa to pray before the Black Madonna.

Most observers will conclude today that the Second Vatican Council was a success in Poland. Polish Catholics at all levels of society embraced the reforms; the Council brought forth none of the divisiveness that has been seen in America.

Jasna Góra is a Marian shrine, with the focus of devotion on Mary the Mother of God. Unlike Lourdes and Fatima, pilgrimage sites with which it compares in the Catholic world in stature and popularity, Jasna Góra is not the site of a Marian apparition. From the official perspective of the Church, it is the choice of the individual believer to accept or reject the Marian apparitions, which, at any rate, play no central role in the doctrines and teachings of Catholicism. Jasna Góra is therefore a place where a nation chose to celebrate its ties to Christianity. Something of a window to another world rather than a mere religious painting, the Black Madonna, as the painting of Virgin Mary in Czestochowa is customarily called, is credited with miracles associated with Polish history, especially the repulsion of foreign invasions. Following the Swedish siege of the monastery in 1655, the icon's importance came to be acknowledged throughout the nation as a symbol for all Poland.

At the center of Jasna Góra, behind the fortifications and the monastery buildings that have been erected over the centuries, is the chapel of the Black Madonna. This chapel more closely resembles one of the churches of the Holy Land than it does a Roman Catholic shrine of Europe. A gate of black iron and ornate metals extends to the ceiling in front of the small chapel, so that one may view the chapel during those times the gate is secured. In front of the gate hang immense, ornate votive lamps. The nave before the chapel has no pews, so that pilgrims must either stand or kneel. Both chapel and nave are filled throughout day and evening with pilgrims.

High above the chapel altar, the icon of the Black Madonna is concealed behind an ornate silver shield, which at specific times of day is ceremoniously raised to a dramatic fanfare of horns and drums. That music is not a recording but is performed by monks. Along the outer perimeter of the chapel a rail partitions a path which leads behind the altar. The altar in the chapel is located directly beneath the elevated icon, so that the priest celebrant says Mass with his back to the congregation, as was the Catholic practice before the Second Vatican Council. Mass is celebrated throughout the day in the chapel and in adjacent churches, so that the pilgrim has the opportunity to walk from one service directly to another.

Some young Poles today consider their nation's ubiquitous Catholicism to be suffocating and inhibiting.

The oldest extant source on the icon is the fourteenth century Latin work Translatio Tabulae Beatae Mariae Virginis, quam Sanctus Lucas depinxit propris minibus, a copy of an earlier chronicle. According to this chronicle, the icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist upon wood from the kitchen table of the house in Jerusalem where the Virgin spent the final years of her earthly life. Clearly, however, this and other icons of Byzantine style are of more recent provenance. Legend states that Emperor Constantine the Great brought the icon from Jerusalem to Constantinople, where it was acquired by a Ruthenian prince. It subsequently became the property of Prince Wladyslaw of Opole, who established the monastery at Jasna Góra in 1382. Wladyslaw donated the icon to the monastery, probably in 1384.

Measuring 81.6 x 120.2 cm (97 x 137 cm with the polychrome frame), the icon presents a frontal image of the Virgin holding the child Jesus in her left arm. Stylistically, the icon represents the Byzantine model known as the Hodegetria. However, judging by the writings the icon has generated, the average Pole has long since lost any sense of connection with the Byzantine origins of the icon. For him or her, the icon is simply a Polish representation of the Madonna. The bottom layer of the icon of the Black Madonna consists of three planks of linden wood, each 3.5 cm thick. According to the traditional method of "writing" icons, canvas was applied to the wood, and the canvas then covered with gesso. The tempera with which the icon was "written" forms the top layer. On special occasions, the icon is "dressed" with an elaborate riza of gems and precious metals, revealing only the heads and hands of Mary and Christ. Over the centuries, popes, kings, and nobles donated numerous gold and jewel-encrusted embellishments for the decoration of the icon.

The priests within the Jasna Góra complex exude energy and a sense of purpose, and they appear eager to deal with the anxiety and despair that bring some pilgrims here. Most of the crowds that fill the monastery complex are dressed somewhat formally. The pilgrims represent foreign visitors and a cross section of the Polish population. Observing families leisurely strolling the perimeter of the monastery complex, one might suppose this is a park in the middle of a city. Large numbers of Poles make a summertime pilgrimage on foot to Czestochowa from their homes. While the intended gain is spiritual, the unintended physical benefits should not be discounted. The journey can last several days or even a week, and the pilgrims typically make arrangements beforehand to lodge in the homes of local citizens along the way.

One of the most impressive sights viewed from the height of the monastery walls is the First Communion processions of children that wind along the roads below the monastery. Moving hurriedly on foot, the lines of children, girls in white gowns and veils, boys in suits and ties, approach from the distance and pass through the main gate to one of the churches. Weddings and funerals also take place here.

Catholicism remains one of the most fascinating aspects of contemporary life and culture in Poland, a testament of history and tradition that survived centuries of determined opposition and persecution.

Somewhat more imposing architecturally than Czestochowa, though less significant historically, is Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, another distinguished Polish pilgrimage site. Located some twenty miles southwest of Kraków, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is nestled in the foothills of the Carpathians. The site is associated with Pope John Paul II who was born nearby in Wadowice. Comprising forty-four churches and chapels, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska was established in the seventeenth century as a replica of the holy sites of Jersualem, clearly a part of the Counter-Reformation movement in Poland. Like Czestochowa, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska boasts a miraculous icon, Our Lady of Kalwaria, a painting in the Western European style. Another beloved icon and pilgrimage site is found in Wilno (Vilnius), the capital of Lithuania. The Ostrobramska Mother of God in Vilnius has enjoyed enormous popularity among both Catholic and Orthodox believers. Other icons, some venerated as miraculous, were found in Poland's eastern marches in what is today Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. Two of the most beloved were removed to Wroclaw in the postwar period: the Mother of God of Zborów nad Strypa, which accompanied King Jan Sobieski during his military campaigns, including his defense of Vienna; and the Mother of God of Podkamien.

Some young Poles today consider their nation's ubiquitous Catholicism to be suffocating and inhibiting. Individuals immersed in the relativism of the West, where all the varied and contradictory systems of human beliefs are increasingly accorded equal attention, protest against the value-oriented teachings of the Catholic Church in Poland. In modern Polish cities it is easy to escape from religious symbolism, and church attendance is not required. Visitors to Poland can easily find milieus where traditional Polish Catholicism is scorned and rejected.

Catholic churches in Poland and the United States typically look quite different, and, corresponding to the physical environment, the services held in them have different ambiences and liturgical emphases. Liturgical devotions in Polish churches seem more private in character than in American churches, where the mind more often communes with the immediate community than with the deity and the saints of the centuries. Observing contemporary Catholic Poland, one hardly senses the tremendous upheaval that took place in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and in the years that preceded the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. The changes related to the liturgy, the role of the clergy and laity, and church policy on ecumenism are less pronounced in Poland. In America changes associated with the Council were introduced almost immediately, whereas the attitude of the church hierarchy in Poland was more cautious. Liturgical reforms in Poland were introduced gradually, and the Polish hierarchy was unwilling to discard tradition solely for the sake of experimentation. In Western Europe and America the changes that followed the Council brought about considerable disruption, so that even today there remains a lack of uniformity in certain liturgical and administrative practices, as well as a lack of consensus on the intent and meaning of certain reforms of the Council. No such developments can be observed in Poland, where the introduction of the vernacular and of the second altar for the priest facing the congregation have been accepted without causing disruption in other segments of the liturgy.

Most current observers will probably conclude that the Second Vatican Council was a success in Poland. Generally, Polish Catholics at all levels of society embraced the reforms; the Council brought forth none of the divisiveness that has been seen in America. From the perspective of the West, this is one of the puzzles of Polish Catholicism. In few other countries was the introduction of the reforms of the Council so well received and so lacking in controversy as in Poland. And yet, despite the general acceptance of the reforms, the Polish church, outwardly and inwardly, has remained more traditional than the Catholic Church in the West. One can hardly escape the conclusion that together with the reforms intended by the Council, other influences played a role in American and Western European churches. In Poland, the Council reforms were implemented without distortions and re-interpretations.

Catholicism remains one of the most fascinating aspects of contemporary life and culture in Poland, a testament of history and tradition that survived centuries of determined opposition and persecution. Of course, since the fall of Communism, the influence of the church has declined to some degree. Some Poles remark that their long history of oppression and foreign rule did not prepare them for the freedoms they have enjoyed since 1989. Those individuals are frustrated that the Church, which led the Polish nation to victory over determined enemies, now faces in the consumerism and hedonism of the West a more treacherous enemy. Yet considering the history of Catholicism in Poland, one inclines towards optimism and expects the Church will succeed in the future in finding its place in the culture of Poland as it has done through the centuries.


Jan Sergiusz Gajek et al., editors, Cyryl i Metody. Apostolowie i nauczyciele Slowian. 2 vols. (Lublin: KUL, 1991).

Violetta Gradek, "Do czarnej Madonny," Dziennik Zachodni (Katowice), 15-16 February 2003.

Antoni Jackowski, Jan Pach, and Jan Stanislaw Rudzinski,

Jasna Góra (Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo Dolnoslaskie, 2001).

Jerzy Kloczowski, A History of Polish Christianity translated by Malgorzata Sady et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Jacek Kolbuszewski, Kresy (Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo Dolnoslaskie, 1995).

Jerzy Narbutt, Dwa bunty (Katowice: Unia, 2003).

A. G. Velykiy, S litopysu khristiyans'koy Ukrainy, vol. 2 (Rome, 1969).

Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way. New York: Hippocrene, 1994.

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