Ali’s Angle: Poland’s John Paul II Divisions

If I were living in the UK, Easter would mean a bank holiday. This can mean a number of things, depending on your age and/or marital status. For people of my parents’ generation, it means staying home to avoid the crowds. For couples with young children, it means going somewhere for a ‘fun’ day out, which inevitably leads to said children developing sunstroke, falling off a piece of play equipment and bashing their head and/or eating too much ice cream and vomiting everywhere. For young singletons like me, it means going out on the razz, usually in beer gardens, and drinking your own body weight in alcohol, which inevitably leads to developing sunstroke, falling over and bashing your head and vomiting everywhere.

However, I live in Poland where Easter is a far more sombre affair. Considered the holiest event of the year, it means going to church to have a basket blessed, shops and restaurants closing early on Good Friday, going to church for mass, eating Easter breakfast with the whole family, going to church for mass again, the dreaded Śmigus Dyngus, when no woman is safe, and possibly some more church-going. And, of course, most places are closed.

Easter for me is a reminder of how seriously Poland takes its religion. Okay, in big cities like Krakow most of the pubs still open on the Rynek, which shows that some people care more about making money than God. But on the whole, Easter is serious business here – a far cry from the pint-downing heathens on my fair isle. Of course, this year there is more reason for Polish Catholics to take these things seriously. April 27 was the day of John Paul II’s canonisation, an event that divided the country’s MPs.

John Paul II is an icon for Polish people. He was instrumental in the fall of Communism, apologised for the many atrocities the Catholic Church has committed and had good relations with leaders of other faiths. He had his critics, but all in all he is considered to have been a good egg. The Polish People’s Party proposed a motion to commemorate his canonisation, stating: “On the eve of the canonisation of Pope John Paul II, head of the universal church and a great Pole, the Polish parliament expresses its joy and gratitude at this historic event.” However, liberal parties expressed opposition, saying that it was too religious in tone and that we should be concentrating on what he did as a man for his country rather than his religious occupation.

As an ardent secularist myself, I see their point. As a secular state, with a constitution that guarantees religious freedom, it is important that Poland keeps its state affairs and religious affairs separate. Okay, so 95 percent of Poles are Catholic (although this is based on baptisms; the number of practicing Catholics is debatable), but they can still practice their religion while having a government that treats all denominations equally, regardless of how much in a minority they are. On the other hand, Poland is still a very religious country and John Paul II was a deeply religious man, something that should be recognised when commemorating his life and, obviously, his canonisation. So here is an idea: recognise all his achievements, both as a man of the cloth and as a man of his country. Surely everyone will be happy?

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16 thoughts on “Ali’s Angle: Poland’s John Paul II Divisions

  • May 13, 2014 at 7:38 pm
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    “the number of practicing Catholics is debatable”–I would not be surprised to learn that the number of practicing Catholics has declined. However, has the decline been as severe in Poland as it has here in the U.S. in recent years? Within the past few years, the diocese here in Springfield, Mass., has closed many churches and Catholic schools. Churches that remain open have fewer Masses, and lower attendance. Have any churches or schools closed in Poland, due to decline in attendance?

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  • May 21, 2014 at 2:12 am
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    I followed with great enthusiasm the whole canonization of JP II from a distance. He was very popular in Brazil (where I lived for many years), and having a Polish wife this story was clearly of great interest.

    Having said that, I view John Paul as a very controversial figure. Yes, he was ” instrumental,” as you write, for the end of communism in Poland, but his conservatism also persecuted many progressive movements within the church, like the Theology of Liberation – which was by the way responsible for helping countless Brazilians victimized by the cruel military dictatorship there. Also, he helped the Charismatics – who are very conservative – flourish. His initiatives caused many Catholics to distance themselves from the Church, and then there’s the blind eye he turned to pedophile priests….

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  • May 27, 2014 at 11:14 pm
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    Polish Catholicism is, at this point, part of Polish culture. The whole separation of Church and State doctrine is bizzarre in that context. This isn’t about being secular or not – this is about a nation’s culture. Most Poles I know do not believe that Jesus was God (or even that one or the other existed or exists) – but all of them would consider themselves Catholic. You can’t separate the Polish state from the culture of its people – the state is there to nurture and be an expression of that culture – if it is not then a legitimate question is what is the purpose of this state??? In fact, if Poland is just an administrative division then why should its borders run the way they do? Why should there be an immigration policy? There is no logic here. Maybe Poland should be incorporated into a bigger polity? Unless you are willing to argue that we might just shut this house down, you have to admit that viewing this through the prism of Western European religious wars makes zero sense. Further, even in Western Europe, the belligerents may have fought over the Pope or divorce or, in France, over “secularism” but they all would have agreed to a man and woman that Islam has no place in Europe. It is only in today’s bizzarro Brussells world that we are told – top down – that Europe is “secular” and that separation of Church and State is some defining value. Given that the Third Polish Republic is hardly a country of law, I would also not ascribe much value to its Constitution.

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    • May 27, 2014 at 11:34 pm
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      Bizarro Brussels world? what exactly does THAT mean? I think that even Europe is becoming more diverse, and with such a path there are only two things you can do — accept the changes or combat them. History has proven that going against the current can have catastrophic consequences.

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      • May 28, 2014 at 2:15 am
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        “History has proven that going against the current can have catastrophic consequences.”

        Care to elaborate? Do you have any spine of your own or do you just drift with the current?

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        • May 28, 2014 at 3:06 am
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          Arno, take as an illustrative point what happened in the American South; white folks tried to keep an outdated system alive for way too long… Progress came anyway and the cost in human life was horrendous. I’m not saying that you should lie down and take it, but the flow of progress is what it is, and with progress comes changes you will dislike

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          • May 28, 2014 at 6:46 pm
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            I think you and I have a different understanding of progress.

  • May 27, 2014 at 11:19 pm
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    Incidentally, that is also why so many people attack Polish Catholicism – it has nothing to do with its religious nature – rather the reasons for the attack are that it is a defining characteristic of the Polish nation – to break the nation, it is necessary to break its culture and here religion is part of that. Of course, the very same people who attack Polish culture in this fashion also refuse to give up any of their culture. Only the naive have been convinced that “capital knows no boundaries” or some such trope. Just look at the UK – no true Briton from 100, bah even 50 years ago, would recognize what has happened to that country. And by that I mean a Lord or a cockney, each would be astounded.

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    • May 27, 2014 at 11:36 pm
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      I have no problem with Polish Catholicism — I actually admire that you preserve so many things the rest of us have lost (I grew up between Brazil and the US). And you guys have proven that your culture is not easily broken, even though so many tried. My only issue is the xenophobia and racist attitudes I see from many Poles — something that should have disappeared

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      • May 28, 2014 at 2:20 am
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        You can’t preserve a culture without keeping the Other out at least in some way. Once one “other” comes in, she will agitate for others since that way it will feel like it’s not sticking out anymore. Poles are not racist or xenophobic. They just don’t like non-Poles who want to come into their country. Unless “non-Poles” are a race, it seems that you are off the mark. As far as “phobic” is concerned, clearly they should be afraid that their community will become different if the Other is let into it. Anyone who cares about their own community should be “phobic” in that sense. To lack fear is to lack a self-preservation instinct.

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  • May 28, 2014 at 3:09 am
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    “They don’t like non-Poles that come in”… That is precisely what xenophobia is, Arno.

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    • May 28, 2014 at 6:45 pm
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      If I don’t like you coming into MY house, I am a xenophobe? Where does it stop? If I don’t like you taking MY woman, I am a racist? If I don’t like you sticking a knife in MY gut then I am a reactionary? If that is true then I am more than proud to be a racist, reactionary xenophobe.

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      • May 28, 2014 at 8:10 pm
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        I did not bring up the word reactionary… Arno, I understand your feeling about preserving your culture by keeping outside influences out (if that was your point). but you probably misunderstand mine. I live in a country where immigrants – including Poles – have contributed immensely to the fabric of what we have become, and that is a good thing. Maybe because of our cultural differences we have a different concept of what multiculturalism can bring….

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  • May 30, 2014 at 2:13 pm
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    I think that if you want a secular country you need to leave Poland. Keep your Euro ideas in Brussels

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