Pol­ish church adrift 10 years af­ter John Paul II death


A decade af­ter his death, John Paul II is still revered in his na­tive Poland with bill­boards, CDs and other col­lectibles un­der­scor­ing his pop­u­lar­ity, but ex­perts say the church here is strug­gling with­out him.

Dur­ing his epic 26-year pon­tif­i­cate the only Pol­ish-born pon­tiff be­came a pil­lar of na­tional unity in his home­land and re­in­forced the Church’s role in the over­whelm­ingly Catholic na­tion.

As pon­tiff, John Paul II was the de facto leader of the Pol­ish Church. But now with­out his firm hand, di­vi­sions abound.

“The Pol­ish Church is di­vided into sev­eral streams and has never been so lack­ing in strong lead­er­ship,” Marcin Prze­ciszewski, edi­tor-in-chief of the Catholic news agency KAI, told AFP.

De­spite the cri­sis in its lead­er­ship, Poland’s church is popular com­pared to else­where in Europe, says Prze­ciszewski, not­ing that so­cial sec­u­lar­iza­tion has not taken the high toll it has ex­acted in other Euro­pean coun­tries such as France.

Many of Poland’s 30,000 priests were in­spired to take their vows by John Paul’s pon­tif­i­cate. Even a decade af­ter his death, Poland is still known as a lead­ing global “ex­porter” of clergy.

Eighty per­cent of Poland’s 38 mil­lion cit­i­zens iden­tify them­selves as Catholic.

Although Sun­day Mass at­ten­dance fell to an his­toric low of 39.1 per­cent in 2013, the fig­ure is still sky high com­pared to the Czech Repub­lic or France, where it hov­ers around 5 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the church’s Sta­tis­ti­cal In­sti­tute in War­saw.

The cur­rent Pol­ish fig­ure is down con­sid­er­ably from the 57 per­cent high recorded in 1982 at a time when Poles saw the church as a bul­wark against the then com­mu­nist regime that col­lapsed peace­fully seven years later.

“There hasn’t been a sud­den plunge in at­ten­dance but rather a steady decline over the years,” church statis­ti­cian Fa­ther Wo­j­ciech Sad­lon told AFP.

An­ti­cler­i­cal Move­ments

An­ti­cler­i­cal move­ments aimed at curb­ing the in­flu­ence of the Church have been on the rise in Poland in re­cent years.

Vodka baron Janusz Pa­likot, who launched his epony­mous po­lit­i­cal party in 2011, steered it into third spot in par­lia­ment with a cam­paign highly crit­i­cal of gen­er­ous tax breaks for the church.

Dur­ing his pa­pacy, Karol Wo­jtyla’s moral author­ity went vir­tu­ally un­ques­tioned in Poland, even among non-believ­ers.

Af­ter his death the church “felt threat­ened and be­came rad­i­cal­ized,” ac­cord­ing to Jozefa Hen­nelowa, 90, a friend of the late and a jour­nal­ist of Poland’s Ty­god­nik Pow- szechny, a lib­eral Catholic weekly.

Ra­dio Maryja, a fun­da­men­tal­ist Catholic broad­caster with a strong fol­low­ing has spear­headed a cam­paign for the fur­ther tight­en­ing of Poland’s al­ready re­stric­tive abor­tion law and a to­tal ban on test­tube ba­bies.

Pol­ish bish­ops warned mem­bers of par­lia­ment this week they could be de­nied com­mu­nion if they en­dorse draft leg­is­la­tion per­mit­ting in vitro fer­til­iza­tion (IVF). The Vat­i­can op­poses the method due to its risk of destroying em­bryos.

Mean­while sev­eral re­cent high­pro­file cases of pe­dophilia among clergy have com­pro­mised the cred­i­bil­ity of the Pol­ish Church like never be­fore.

Priest pe­dophilia has long been a taboo topic in Poland but shot into the public spot­light with the case of Pol­ish Arch­bishop Jozef Wesolowski, who is al­leged to have had sex with boys while serv­ing as a pa­pal en­voy in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic.

Poland’s Catholic Church apol­o­gized in June 2014 for the pe­dophilia in its midst at a land­mark cer­e­mony at­tended by top clergy and abuse vic­tims. But it has so far ruled out com­pen­sat­ing vic­tims, even as it faces its first civil law­suit for dam­ages.

While av­er­age Poles have taken a shine to Pope Fran­cis’s for­ward­think­ing and mod­est tastes, some Pol­ish bish­ops ac­cuse him of be­ing too lib­eral or even Marx­ist.

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