fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture We're Hiring

SOS Catholic Poland

New figures show that mass attendance is collapsing in what was once a bastion of fidelity
Screen Shot 2023-01-19 at 4.59.59 AM

Image above is of the triumphant 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to his native Poland. Times have changed since the heyday of the sainted pope. I've made this point several times in this space since 2019, but I feel the need to make it again after reading this new story in The Pillar, my go-to source for independent, orthodox news and analysis of the Catholic Church. The piece talks about new statistics on church attendance there, which is more or less in freefall. Here's a chart from the story:

Advertisement

While it is true that Christians in any other European country would love to have 28 percent of their people in church on Sunday, it is also true that for things to be so dire in Poland is the loudest of alarm bells for what's left of Christian Europe.

When I first visited Poland, in 2019, doing research for Live Not By Lies, I encountered faithful young Catholics -- meaning, Catholics in their twenties who went to mass, and who believed in the Church's teachings -- who would tell me that they expect their country to go the way of once-Catholic Ireland, within ten years. I found this very hard to accept, because it ran directly counter to everything I think about Poland. I was raised in the John Paul II era, in which Poland was a bastion of faith. And yet, this is what the young kept telling me. I realized, finally, that I needed Poland to be forever a bastion of faith in godless Europe. But it no longer was.

Finally I made it to the Tyniec Abbey near Krakow, and talked with a widely revered older monk, Father Wlodzimierz Zatorski. I asked him if it could possibly be true, what these young people were telling me. Alas, he said, it is true. But why? I asked. The English of Father Zatorski, who died of Covid a couple of years ago, wasn't great, but he did say these words: "The vainglory of the bishops."

I'm not sure exactly what he meant by that, but based on everything I've gathered since then about Poland, my guess is that Father Zatorski meant that after the fall of Communism, the Polish episcopate thought that they could rest on the Church's laurels, and take Poland's fidelity for granted.

Around this same time, a high school teacher in Poland told me that the widespread use of smartphones, and social media, has a lot to do with this. He said that no institution -- not church, not family, and certainly not the state -- is more influential in shaping the minds of the young than TikTok and other forms of social media.

Advertisement

Back in the US, I would share that with Catholic friends, who seemed as hard-pressed as I was to accept that it might be true. Again, there's something about American Christians of a certain age -- Boomers, Gen X -- who have an emotional need for Poland to remain Wojtylan forever. Maybe this is what Father Zatorski meant by the vainglory of the bishops. Maybe he meant that they too thought that Poland's fidelity was guaranteed, such that they didn't have to do much to adjust to the new realities of the postcommunist world. Here's a photo of Father Zatorski taken in our meeting:

The reason Father Zatorski wanted to meet with me was because he believed that the Benedict Option was necessary to ensure the survival of Christian life in his country. I wrote about it here in 2019. In that post, I said:

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.

In an update to that post, a reader said:

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 its 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, to be precise, the idea of creating heaven on earth is idolatrous, but I know what the reader is trying to say: that the clerical class upholds a de facto separation of Church and Life. Of course I don't live in Poland, so I don't know how true it is. I invite Polish readers to fill me (and all of us) in. Please write me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, with the word POLAND in the subject line, if you have something to add to the discussion and can't comment below.

In any case, the numbers don't lie. Look at the chart above. Father Zatorski believed that the Benedict Option model was the future for Catholicism in Poland. I am reminded too of Benedict XVI's teaching that in the post-Christian era in Europe, the faith will depend on small communities of the truly convinced to survive. I think too about what Father Cassian Folsom, the founding prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, said when he first told me about the Tipi Loschi community over the mountains in San Benedetto del Tronto: that any Christians who want to come through the darkness ahead with their faith intact are going to have to be part of a community like those faithful Catholics there. When I subsequently visited the Tipi Loschi (pron. "teepee LOHS-kee"), I saw exactly what he meant, which is why I made them a key part of my Benedict Option book. You don't have to be Catholic to live like this. What you need is a vision of living out the faith in a healthy community of committed Christians. They all worship at their normal parishes, but they also know that there is so much more to life in Christ than just showing up at mass on Sunday, and going through the motions. From The Benedict Option:

The need to control things are a sign of the middle-class Christian mentality, chides Marco Sermarini. He and his community friends were raised in what Marco disdainfully calls, “this bourgeois church, this church of comfort, this church where people didn’t want to take any risks to live radically for the Lord Jesus.” 

The story of how Sermarini and his lay Catholic community began in San Benedetto del Tronto, a small city on the Italy’s Adriatic coast, inspires because of its improvisational quality. 

Sermarini, who is also head of Italy’s G.K. Chesterton Society, and his community began as an informal group of young Catholic men inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio Frassati, a 20th century Catholic layman and social reformer who died at the age of 24. The Blessed Pier Giorgio (he has passed the first stage of canonization, earning the title) was known for helping the poor—and that’s what Sermarini and his friends did in college, reaching out to at-risk youth. 

After college, the men found they enjoyed each other’s company, and helping the needy, so they stayed together. As they married, they brought their wives into the group. In 1993, encouraged by their local bishop, they incorporated as an official association within the Catholic Church, an association of families they jokingly called the “Tipi Loschi”—Italian for, “the usual suspects.” 

Today, the Tipi Loschi have around 200 members in their community. They administer the community school, the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, as well as three separate cooperatives, all designed to serve some charitable end. They continue to build and to grow, driven by a sense of spiritual and social entrepreneurship, and inspired by a close connection to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, just on the other side of the Sybilline Mountains. As the Tipi Loschi’s various initiatives succeeded (and despite some that didn’t), the association of families came to regard each other as something more organic. 

They began helping each other in everyday tasks, trying to reverse the seemingly unstoppable atomization of daily life. Now, they feel closer than ever, and determined to keep reaching out to their city, offering faith and friendship to all, from within the confident certainties of their Catholic community. This is how they continue to grow. 

“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had, but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then, seek for God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. We started with this desire, and started trying to teach others to do the same, to receive the same gift we were given: the Catholic faith.” 

It’s becoming clear, Sermarini says, that Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families. “If we don’t move in this direction, we will face more and more crises.” 

This dear man, Marco Sermarini, is a joy-filled prophet. It embarrasses him every time I say it, but he is my hero, because he has what I aspire to have: a buoyant, confident faith, one that cannot be defeated by any setbacks, such as the death of his dear wife Federica a couple of years ago, from cancer. Anybody who meets Marco is immediately mesmerized by what God is doing in him, and in the Tipi Loschi community. These are everyday Catholics who have found a way to live that gives them light and warmth in an age growing dark and cold. When I ran into Marco, his kids, and a group of the Tipi Loschi recently in St. Peter's Square, after Benedict XVI's funeral, it was an occasion of true joy. The Sermarini kids have all grown so big now! I hadn't seen them in five years. And all of them told me they planned to stay in their city, which is not so big (50,000), because growing up in the Tipi Loschi community taught them that there is nothing better than living out the Christian faith in family and in community.

I hope any Poles who are discouraged over what's happening in their country will come to see things as Father Zatorski, of blessed memory, did, and as Marco Sermarini does -- and then act. And not just Poles! We Christians can't just sit here, waiting for someone else to come save us from the decline of the Christian faith in the post-Christian West. We are going to have to do it ourselves, with God's help. And we can! If triumphalism is a dead pose, so too is defeatism. What we need is realism -- a realism characterized by hope, not false optimism.

Anyway, if you have been of the opinion that the Benedict Option's claims are too pessimistic and alarmist, look at that chart about the situation in Poland, and read the Pillar's post about it. This is the reality of our time. Nostalgia for the heady days of John Paul II is understandable, but insofar as it prevents us from taking action in the face of threats to the faith today, it's deadly.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Church attendance is a poor metric of how spiritually evolved a given country is.

I believe that a much better metric is the country's level of social dysfunction. This level is so low it has given rise to the meme "Holy Poland." Specifically, the rates of murder, rape, and abortion are some of the lowest in the world. For example, the rate of murder in Poland is ten times lower than in Russia, and that's before the invasion of Ukraine when the Russians began to kill Ukrainian civilians at stratospheric levels. Similarly, the rates of divorce, single motherhood, homelessness, drug addiction, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, school shootings, terrorist attacks are extremely low. The latter two are basically zero. The streets are clean and safe, as they should be in a civilized country. Moreover, Poland has a very low level of economic inequality. Unlike Russia, Ukraine or the U.S. it has no oligarchs to speak of. Needless to say, compared to Poland the U.S. and Russia are plagued by some of the highest levels of social dysfunction in the world. As countries, they appear to be irretrievably broken.

Comments

Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now
JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
Catholicism in Poland was wound up around Polish nationalism for a very long time: it was how the means by which Poles resisted the Russians, both the imperial rule of the 19th century tsars and the Soviet domination under the Warsaw Pact. Poland has been free of that domination for over a generation now and the incipient decline of the Church is likely due in part to the fact it's no longer needed as a bastion of resistance against foreign rule, of which the younger population has no memory.
schedule 2 weeks ago
    Fran Macadam
    Fran Macadam
    Poland is the most hyped up about a supposed Russian threat, so much so that Zelensky tried to pretend his missile that hit Poland wasn't Ukrainian and would trigger direct Polish war against Russia. And yet Poles who fear Russia are still leaving Roman Catholicism in droves.

    But you're right, an aspect of nationalism is at play. Roman Catholicism was much more attractive to Poles when the pope was Polish, a huge matter of national pride when previously it was a no brainer to ask rhetorically, "Is the pope Italian?"
    schedule 2 weeks ago
      JON FRAZIER
      JON FRAZIER
      My point was that the younger generation in Poland has no memory of Soviet domination and of the Church's resistance to it. That doesn't mean the Poles, young and old, don't still see Russia as a danger. But now it's an external one they can confront under the aegis of NATO, they do not need the Church as a bastion of internal resistance.
      schedule 2 weeks ago
        Fran Macadam
        Fran Macadam
        No doubt, unregenerate mankind prefers war to the Prince of Peace. A trillion times more is spent ginning up for war than building peace.
        schedule 2 weeks ago
          JON FRAZIER
          JON FRAZIER
          Given the history I think it's easy to understand why the Poles are not fans of Russia.
          schedule 2 weeks ago
Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
A lot of words. But why ought they to be convinced when you yourself could no longer believe in its claims? If you can't live by lies, then why should they?
schedule 2 weeks ago