The Communist Era: Golden Age of Catholicism in Poland?
ISOLATION HELPED TO PRESERVE IDENTITY & FIDELITY
“Only under the Cross, only under this sign, Poland is Poland and a Pole is a Pole,” wrote the 19th-century poet Karol Balinski, echoing the inseparable and undeniable Polish symbiosis of nation and religion. A Pole need not be Catholic to achieve true Polishness, Balinski would argue, but he must accept the enduring, millennium-old legacy of Catholicism in Poland. Indeed, the actual history of the Polish state begins with its baptism in A.D. 966 by King Mieszko I.
Under the Cross Poland was born. And under the Cross Poland saved Europe from the Ottoman invasion at the gates of Vienna in 1683. King Jan Sobieski III declared afterward, Venimus, vidimus, Deus vicit (“I came, I saw, God conquered”). And under the Cross Poland yet again saved Europe in 1920 — this time from the Bolshevik invasion when Polish forces defeated the Red Army at the “Miracle on the Vistula.” The victory definitively crippled the Bolsheviks, at least for a few decades; Vladimir Lenin referred to it as “an enormous defeat.” And in 1989 Poland cemented the Soviet demise in Central and Eastern Europe through its Solidarity movement, which was irrefutably accompanied by decades of Catholic resistance.
Dozens of other events throughout the history of Poland occurred in which Christ Crucified or the Blessed Virgin Mary was credited with miraculous intervention. Likewise, on dozens of other occasions, our Lord has allowed Poland to be brought to her knees like the Prophet Job in order to test her virtue.
Adam Mickiewicz, Romantic poet and bard of Poland, reflecting on a century of partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the hands of its neighbors, referred to his country of the 19th century as the “Christ of Nations.” Poland’s persecution and the suffering of her people were to bring about the salvific redemption of mankind, Mickiewicz envisaged, an endeavor some may argue is underway as the ever-expanding modernist mushroom cloud that detonated in Western Europe is now being repelled by unlikely heroes in the East.
The Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, in his autobiography, described Poland of the 20th century as “crucified between two thieves, Nazism and Communism.” In this sense, the communist occupation of Poland can be viewed through a different lens: as a redemptive sacrifice and a blessing in disguise, albeit a very costly one. While the Catholic Church across Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s imploded under the pressures of reform gone wild, Poland behind the Iron Curtain was isolated enough to preserve her identity and fidelity to the Catholic faith.
The aftermath of the Second World War gave rise to the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in France, the Frankfurt School in West Germany, and Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal in the U.S. In Poland, however, the war’s aftermath gave rise to 40 years of communist subjugation, attempted infiltration of the Church by the Security Service, mass disappearances, and state-sponsored assassinations. Bl. Jerzy Popieluszko and Pope St. John Paul II represented the underground forces in the People’s Republic of Poland — but they were revolutionaries by virtue of their faith and bold actions, not their radical theology.
The rallying cry of this resistance was the Polish translation of the 19th-century French hymn Nous voulons Dieu (“We Want God”). In 1979 more than half a million people hailed the Polish Pope in Krakow during his historic visit amid a caravan of military convoys and police blockades, an event dubbed the “Polish Woodstock.” In spontaneous unity and peaceful defiance, they sang, “We want God! We want God in our books and our schools!” Such perseverance in the face of enduring occupation is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s observation that “the wicked exist in this world either to be converted or that through them the good may exercise patience.” Divine providence so deigned that through its brutal veil the Iron Curtain should reveal the beautiful fruits of Christian fidelity.
The end of communism did not, however, usher in a new Golden Age of Catholicism in Poland — the communist era was the Golden Age of Polish Catholicism. The cloak-and-dagger seminaries, underground ordinations, and clandestine catechesis were the 20th century’s equivalent of the Roman catacombs. It was precisely at this hour that Poland’s Catholicism was at its zenith. After the Iron Curtain fell, the faith slowly waned, giving way to the wonders and whims of secularism and the hollow promises of Western progress. At times, it was also commandeered for purposes not of spiritual development but of political self-interest and expediency. And as political parties in Poland continue to purge their communist past, reminders of virtuous fidelity are jettisoned along with it.
On that same visit in 1979, John Paul II celebrated an open-air Mass at a gravel pit in Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp. An order of Carmelite nuns later erected a large cross at the site in honor of the Pope’s visit and in commemoration of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1984, the Carmelites opened a convent near Auschwitz. In 1998, 152 additional crosses were erected at the gravel pit to honor the 152 Catholic Poles executed by Nazis at gunpoint. The site quickly turned into a destination for pilgrims, and the number of crosses continued to increase spontaneously.
Equally as fast did news of the Christian symbols at the former concentration camp spread through international headlines. The new center-left government, the Polish episcopate, and the Polish people were suddenly thrust onto the global stage as calls for the removal of those crosses came from the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere. At the turn of the 21st century, the Polish government, eager to join NATO and assume its rightful place in the European community, deferred the delicate international matter to the episcopate as the case danced around local courts. The bishops, in turn, denounced the politicizing of the crosses, discouraged Catholics from religious observance at the site in Auschwitz, and even forbade the celebration of Masses there.
Upon the announcement of the bishops’ decree, throngs of Polish faithful rallied to protest the secularization of the religious site. Labeled “Defenders of the Cross,” they found surprising allies in a renegade traditionalist priestly order, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). In a sermon at the disputed site, an SSPX priest declared that canon law demands a chaplain serve the faithful who feel abandoned by their shepherds and have no other access to the sacraments. “I repeat and confirm: a Roman Catholic priest is standing before you.” He continued:
It is not the Defenders of the Cross who have accelerated this war: it is a spontaneous defensive reaction of the entire nation. Those who should defend the cross are on the opposite side of the barricades. How is that possible? From where does this tragic situation come?… In effect, everything we are experiencing now has its cause. This cause is the crisis, this terrible crisis in the Church: ecumenism.
The SSPX, the leadership of which was excommunicated by the same Polish Pope who declared in his historic visit to Poland that “the exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man” and “without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland,” came to the rescue in what many considered a dereliction of episcopal duty. The SSPX went on to celebrate three Tridentine Latin Masses at the site, erected a cross of its own, and blessed all remaining crosses.
In the end, all crosses but the one commemorating the Pope’s visit were removed, the Carmelite convent was ordered closed, and the SSPX was blamed for the inflamed tensions between the Church and the state.
Poland in the 21st century remains the country in Europe with the most practicing Catholics. The Church plays an active and influential role in the public and private lives of many Poles. And with the most conservative party currently in power in post-communist Poland, one would be correct to assume that the relationship between Church and state in recent history has never been better. However, the quality of faith is on shaky ground. Polish liturgical culture is steeped in tradition, but in many cases orthodoxy has been severed from that enduring anchor. Many devotions have been detached from the rich theology that undergirds them. This has resulted in spiritual Alzheimer’s. The most obvious example can be found in contemporary Polish art and architecture.
The Temple of Divine Providence in Warsaw was first conceived in 1791. The original design was classic Roman-Greco in the form of a Greek cross, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1792. But construction was halted during the Russian invasion later that year. The project resumed after Poland regained independence in 1918, but financial difficulties and the outbreak of war in 1939 prevented it from being realized. The project was finally revived in 2002. Sixteen years and $70 million in public and private funding later, what was originally intended to be the national pride and pantheon of Poland has been reduced to a Soviet-realist concrete monstrosity.
The opportunity to provide Europe with the next Sagrada Familia or Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes has been replaced by a vast, empty conference room. There is nothing sacred about this so-called temple. The worshiper is unable to find kneelers in the pews because there are no kneelers — or even pews, for that matter. Instead, rows of plastic chairs are neatly arranged. In lieu of a glorious high altar worthy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there is an austere, ultra-modern rectangular table made of a slab of marble — a stark contrast to the multicolor neon lighting installed throughout the space.
The problems plaguing this house of worship are not a matter of taste; they are a matter of faith. And the fact of the matter is that a passerby would be hard-pressed to tell with any certainty that it is a Catholic church. Poland’s attempt to shed any vestiges of its communist past by fulfilling its grand dream to build a new national cathedral has backfired. The structure paradoxically pays homage to the communist demystification of religious art and architecture. Its ugliness shrouds the beauty and majesty revealed through the authentic, orthodox teachings of the Catholic Church. Yet many Poles blindly welcomed it.
Fr. John Perricone associates these dire trends, which have infiltrated every corner of the Catholic world, with the new theologians who “spawned in the ferment of early 20th-century modernism, [and] devotedly went about the business of refashioning the Catholic Church” (“What in the World is a ‘Worship Space’?” Crisis.com, March 14). He argues that “under this unforgiving regime, Catholics have suffered architectural and artistic anomalies that strain credulity.” Poles are eerily fascinated with the novelty of such unorthodox negligence and philosophical ambiguity, as also evidenced by the 118-foot sculpture in western Poland of Christ the King that more closely resembles a Soviet laborer than Christ Glorified. It is as if spirituality has replaced scholasticism as the cornerstone of the Catholic faith in modern Poland.
Doubtless, the Church in Poland is suffering the latent effects of the modernist malady that has already decimated its Western counterparts. Yet, it continues to deny any overt association with modernism. The Conference of Polish Bishops champions itself, and rightly so, as the primary European bulwark and Defender of the Faith against the threats of abortion, homosexual and transgender activism, and the influential German Church. Its primary weapon is a rare commodity in the West — a generation of young, practicing Catholics — but it also happens to be the most unreliable.
Hilaire Belloc wrote of the threat of modernism that “old men now living can remember uneasy rebellion against tradition; but young men only perceive for themselves how little there is left against which to rebel, and many fear that before they die the body of tradition will have disappeared.” Belloc’s chilling prospect is the Church’s gravest threat. Therefore, Catholics should not cast aside their dismay at the state of the Church today, nor should Poles expunge their memories of captivity under communism, lest the victorious struggles of yesterday be eroded by the pyrrhic apathy of tomorrow.
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