I’m about to leave Poland, headed back home. Flight out of Krakow boards in a few minutes. I wanted to say a couple of things before I head out. I’ll elaborate more later if I have time.
First, I can’t overstate how much I have enjoyed being in this country. The people are so warm, the culture so rich, the food so delicious. Since I’ve started this new book project, I’ve been able to spend time among the peoples of countries that for much of my life, I never imagined I would be able to visit, because they were behind the Iron Curtain. The new friends I have made there will be with me always. Let me encourage my fellow Americans to travel to Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, and other countries that we call “Eastern Europe” (which, note well, they hate, because it’s a Cold War framework imposed on them). There is so much to learn here, and so much to love. I might sound like a tourist board marketer by saying that, but it really is true. If you’re an American who loves to travel in Europe, and you only know the UK, France, Germany, and the other familiar countries, then you only know half of Europe.
Second, I must admit that I did not foresee the sense of cultural crisis that exists in Poland, but which now, after nine days here, is undeniable. I had a number of conversations in Warsaw and in greater Krakow, with laity and clergy, with middle-aged people and young ones. Almost everyone I spoke to expressed deep concern about the direction of the country, and awareness that it’s at a crossroads.
Most of my interlocutors are political conservatives, though not all of them support the present government. Those with whom I spoke who oppose the populist government really hate it, with the same passion that progressives hate Trump back in the US. Some of the conservatives I talked to are reluctant supporters of the government, but all of them, even the unconflicted supporters, worry about the deep political division within the country. As in other liberal democracies, the splits among political factions are widening into a chasm.
The most concerning thing to me, and to my interlocutors (almost all of whom were practicing Catholics), is the state of the faith, and specifically of the institutional Catholic Church. This is the most surprising thing for an American like me to hear, because many of us have been accustomed, since the days of John Paul II, to thinking of Poland as a bastion of popular Christianity. The “Alas For Fortress Poland” sentiment I picked up on my first days here was more than confirmed by later interviews and conversations.
As I’m about to board the plane for home, the conversation that stands out strongest in my mind is one I had with a veteran priest. He is exasperated with the bishops and the institutional church. He told me that they are full of themselves, and completely indifferent to the mounting crisis around them. This cleric spoke with unusual depth and passion. In his view, they are proud and full of vainglory, and don’t see how dissatisfied Poles are with their leadership. He said the Polish church is coasting on past glories, and its leadership doesn’t grasp the seriousness of the moment.
A Millennial-generation Catholic who was part of that conversation told me later, “He’s right. I don’t know a single Catholic, of my generation or of any generation, who is satisfied with the bishops. Everybody is angry over the way they have handled the abuse scandal.”
Mind you, the abuse scandal has only just started in Poland. There is much more to come.
I spent my last couple of days in Poland at a monastery, where I spoke at a summer school attended by Catholic college students. Last night I talked with one at dinner. The student said that most of her friends have walked away from the Church, because they have never really been raised in it.
“This thing you talked about in your speech, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that is exactly how most of my generation were raised,” she said.
I heard the same kind of thing often on this trip, from practicing Millennial Catholics and Gen Z Catholics. In last night’s conversation around the dinner table, I repeated what a young Warsaw Catholic told me: that within 10 to 20 years, Poland will be where Ireland is today in terms of the faith.
There was nodding all around.
This is Poland, y’all.
The good thing is that relative to the churches in other Western countries, the Poles have a stronger base from which to mount resistance. But if the testimonies of the faithful Catholics I’ve been talking to over the last nine days are accurate, it seems to me that renewal and resistance will not come from the institutional Church. It will come from engaged laity and the priests who share their sense of mission in a time of crisis. Now that I think about it, I wish I had emphasized more strongly to the students in my speech that nobody is going to come save them. I did repeat to them something I heard from a middle-aged Catholic earlier in the trip: that the future of Polish Christianity depends on the faithful among Millennials and Generation Z, not in the trite general sense of “the young are our future,” but because they are the only ones who really understand the severity of the crisis.
The message I received loud and clear is that those who we Americans would call Baby Boomers, and even many Generation Xers, like me, are too detached from the main currents of faith and culture in this country to perceive what’s happening, much less mount effective resistance. One young Catholic in Warsaw said to me, “We are desperate for leadership.”
It seems to me that what Poland needs is some way to connect these younger Catholics to each other, and to lay and clerical Catholics who share their sense of crisis, and their eagerness to find a way through it. But how will they do it? Now is the time for spiritual entrepreneurs among the orthodox Catholic faithful to come forward.
We really are all in this together. What happens in Poland affects us Americans, and vice versa. Let’s build the networks now, and help each other.
Plane is boarding. More later.
UPDATE: Folks, I’m talking about Poland’s religious crisis. If you’re a secular person, you see no crisis at all — in fact, you might well think that Poland is doing well to rid itself of Catholicism. Most believing Christians see things very differently. From my point of view, a Poland that is a Slavic Sweden would have suffered an enormous catastrophe, no matter how rich it may be.