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 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.