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A Polish Ben Op

Father Wlodzimierz Zatorski, OSB, and noted sinner

On my final night in Poland, at Tyniec Abbey in the countryside not far from Krakow, I met with a Benedictine priest-monk named Wlodzimierz Zatorski. Father Zatorski asked to sit down with me because he’s a fan of The Benedict Option book. He told me that when he read it, it registered with him because he’s been trying to do put together a particular Ben Op-style project for 20 years.

Father Z.’s idea is to start a small quasi-monastic community in which two or three monks live with a group of lay Catholics, aged 40 and above, and share an ordered spiritual life while working in the world. Why aged 40 and above? Father Z. said he’s been the director of the monastery’s oblates for many years, and experience shows him that lay believers need to reach that stage in their life in order to do the kind of spiritual work he envisions for this community.

Father Z. told me that the life of the Catholic Church in Poland would benefit from introducing a more disciplined, monastic spirituality into the lives of lay Catholics. He is inspired in part by the way ordinary Orthodox Christian spirituality is more monastic in its style and content. He would like to see how this might work for a small Catholic community.

He has a couple of possibilities in mind for establishing a location, and has been in touch with bishops about it, and has written at length about the vision. But what Father Z. really needs now are people with the financial resources to help launch the community. I told him I would be happy to help. If you are Polish and would like to be in touch with him, to find out more about the monk’s vision, write him at wlodzimierz — at — benedyktyni — dot — pl

(Be aware that Father Zatorski does not speak English, so please don’t write him unless it’s in Polish.)

We talked for about an hour, during which he discoursed about the spiritual and culturarl challenges in Poland today, and talked about the Desert Fathers. Father Zatorski is deep. He is not interested in spiritual tourism. This priest-monk wants lay Catholics who seek Christ, and are willing to try a new way of living and praying together. I urge my Polish readers to reach out to him.

By the way, also on my last day at the monastery I met Monika, a college student who was on the Teologia Politiczyna summer school program where I spoke. I don’t remember her last name. She very kindly thanked me for the difference The Benedict Option made in her life. She said reading it convinced her of the value of staying close to her home community, and living out stability with them. I was so humbled to hear her story, and thanked God that my work had meant something to her.

I see from the comments on my previous Poland posts that I’ve given the wrong impression to some people. Yes, Poland is in a spiritual crisis, with the Catholic Church struggling to remain relevant to the lives of the post-communist generation of Poles. Nearly every Polish Catholic with whom I spoke about the religious situation in their country said that the institutional Church has been resting on its reputation — I heard lots of comments about the pridefulness of the bishops, and the lack of zeal for evangelism and discipleship. I heard that its leaders are living in denial about the widespread falling-away from the faith of the young. Mind you, I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of these complaints; I am simply reporting to you what I was told.

But — and this is a big caveat — it seemed to me that Poland is in a much better position to build a countercultural resistance to this decline. After a young Catholic in Warsaw told me that he feared the Church in Poland would look like the shell-shocked and shattered Irish church in a decade or two, I repeated that claim to young Catholics I met in Krakow and Tyniec. I didn’t take notes, but I can’t recall a single person disputing that possibility. That said, American Catholics, who are facing more or less the same challenges would be grateful to have the spiritual and cultural resources of Polish believers. Now is not a time for Poles to despair. Rather, it is a time both to recognize the depth and seriousness of the crisis upon them, and to recognize the residual strengths of their communal faith, which has held more firmly in Poland than in any other European nation (or in the United States). Poland has been late to join in the our Western decline into post-Christianity, but if the Poles wake up and get active, they can show the rest of us the way forward through the darkness.

Here’s Monica, a bright young Polish Catholic face shining the light:

Monika and me

UPDATE: This comment, from a reader on a different Poland-related blog post of mine, helps me to understand what Father Z. means:

I’m married to a Pole, and just returned from living in Poland for almost two years. The churches still draw a big crowd, and many have outside loudspeakers for the overflow, but you’re right, it has lost it’s hold on the young.

And that is because of a fundamental defect in the Church in Poland. It is the old model – like medieval model – where the parishioners serve the church, not the other way around. The Church is not Rome. It is the parish, the faithful, the congregation. This is The Church – the Body of Christ..

But the Church in Poland is top down, not bottom up. “Attend mass! Pray! Give money!” But where is the community? Are there fish frys on Friday? Is there an annual parish carnival? Where are the clubs? Knights of Columbus? Holy Name Society? Boy Scouts? Nothing.

What Poland really needs is to have Catholic values merged with everyday life. The Church could teach Poles what Poland really needs – a set of business ethics. But they do nothing. Are they exposing corruption in government? Are they organizing the faithful to agitate for a lower VAT tax? Are they calling out dishonest businesses in their community? Hell no. They just blab on about Jesus and heaven, instead of trying to create heaven on earth. Poland could have the reputation of the most ethical, most business friendly place to do business in Europe, but the old men in dresses won’t lift a finger.

Well, it is not the place of the Church or any other body to produce “heaven on earth” — that is idolatrous. But I think I know what this guy means. He seems to be getting at the idea that in Poland, there is a separation of Church and Life, and that this is killing the Church. I heard the same thing, in somewhat different ways, from frustrated Polish Catholics (including, in his way, Father Zatorski, which is why he wants to try something different).

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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