Catholic Church in Poland

Teaching Strategies

Statistics on Catholicism in Poland after the fall of Communism

Discussing these figures will help students understand that the image of "Catholic Poland" is more complicated than a casual observer might assume. Begin by asking the students what it means to call a country (or even a single individual) "Catholic." Does it refer to how a person answers a question about religious identity on a census questionnaire? If so, how do we account for the varying levels of religious practice among Poles (around 90% of whom declare themselves to be Catholic)? Does it change one's impression of Poland as a "Catholic nation" once we realize that most people only attend mass sporadically? In general, what do these statistics tell us about the religiosity of the Poles? How does the level of religiosity differ among various social categories, and how might we explain those differences. Drawing the students' attention to the statistics on moral values, ask what we should make of statistics showing that so many Poles disagree with the Church's official position on these matters (particularly premarital sex and birth control)? Finally, ask the students to speculate about the causes of the shifts between 1991 and 1998. Considering all these statistics together, ask the students to speculate about the future of Catholicism in Poland.

Excerpts from the sermon given by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw in 1987

Students can be asked how this particular Eucharistic Congress might have attained special meaning under the circumstances. What might the Pope have been trying to accomplish in this particular text? Were there any implicit messages behind his words? Why might he have avoided explicit political commentary in the summer of 1987? And even if the Pope did not intend any hidden messages, might his audience have heard such messages anyway? This is an excellent opportunity to talk with students about the difference between an author's intent and an audience’s interpretation, and to deal with some of the challenges historians face in dealing with these two levels of interpretation. Ask the students to explain why people who saw and heard the Pope later spoke of an increase sense of national identity, particularly given the lack of obvious political content in sermons such as this one.

Photographs from the Papal Visit of 1987

Ask the students to look for the police in these pictures; it is a trick question, because there were very few of them (look for the blue uniforms). Though tens of thousands of people lined the roads just to see him pass by, and millions attended his open-air masses, the entire state apparatus seemed to vanish for those few summer days. Crowd control was managed almost entirely by volunteers (they can be identified by their sky-blue paper hats). The Church, not the Communist state, even provided the motorcycle escorts of the “popemobile”. The site of the Pope's mass in Warsaw was loaded with symbolism. Ask the students to consider what symbolic impact this location might have had in these circumstances. Ask the students to speculate about the meaning of the various signs that were carried by the pilgrims. Can we make a distinction between "religious" and "political" symbolism in this context? The students can be asked to describe the feeling of being in a very large crowd; ask them to tell about the biggest event they've ever attended, then use that to compare to the million or so people who attended this mass in Warsaw in 1987. Here at the University of Michigan I evoke an image of our football stadium, which is the largest in the US and seats 112,000 people. Imagining ten such stadiums is daunting. Then ask the students to further imagine attending such a crowd in a country where religion was officially discouraged by the state authorities. A discussion of this event provides an opportunity for students to talk about the relative importance of the actual words spoken at events like this one. Although there were loudspeakers, many could barely hear what the Pope was saying. How, then, might a historian analyze the meaning or importance of this mass?

Photographs of the St. Stanisław Kostka church in Warsaw

The students should be asked to consider why the regime might have allowed this prominent Solidarity shrine to exist, and why they would accept such open displays of opposition yet at the same time enforce an unspoken rule that those displays must never leave church grounds. Was this an effective way to vent some of the opposition's steam without provoking real unrest, or did it simply allow Solidarity to organize and sustain the struggle? Was it appropriate for Solidarity to use the Church in this manner, blatantly taking advantage of a religious site for political purposes? How might Catholics have reconciled this blending of secular and sacred space?

Anonymous sermon from 1982

Students should be asked to compare this sermon with the other documents from the early 1980s included in this module, and explain whatever differences they find. Were these mainly differences of rhetorical style, or did they seem to reflect substantive disagreements within the Church? Given these differences, how should we characterize the Catholic response to General Jaruzelski's government or to the communist regime more generally? Are there common points that unite all the texts presented in this module, or should we avoid talking about a common "Catholic response" altogether? This is also an opportunity to talk with students about the importance of understanding context when interpreting a historical text. What differences would we expect when comparing a prayer, an official statement by a bishop, a papal sermon, and a regular Sunday sermon from a village priest? What pressures and constraints might the authors of these various texts have faced, and how might that have shaped the style and substance of each document?

Excerpt from a letter from the Episcopate to the parish clergy of Poland in 1981

A useful conversation can be launched by asking the students how they would have responded had they been in the bishops' shoes in 1981. How does one balance the religious injunction to maintain peace and preserve life on the one hand with the Church's opposition to the communist regime on the other? How should the Church respond when social justice and social peace seem to come into conflict? Such a discussion will generally devolve quickly into abstract moral terms, which then provides the instructor with the opportunity to remind the students of the specific constraints faced by everyone in Poland in 1981. The goal of discussing this text should be to show the students the delicacy and difficulty of the bishops' position in 1981.

Prayer for the Fatherland

Teachers can use this text not only to explore the complexity of the Church's stance in the 1980s, but also to discuss with the students how one might go about analyzing the distinctive genre of a prayer.

Excerpts from a sermon given by Primate Stefan Wyszyński in 1976

This document can be used to start a conversation with students about the nature of the conflict between the Catholic Church and the communist state. What sort of view is Cardinal Wyszyński arguing against in this piece? Is there anything distinctly communist about the ideal of separating Church and State? Would the Primate have been any happier with a system modeled on American or West European democracies? These questions move towards a clearer understanding of the nature of the Church's views about communist Poland. Students could be asked to imagine how an anticommunist dissident working to establish a pluralist democracy would respond to views like this. That can provide an opening for instructors to talk about the disagreements that always threatened to split the opposition in the 1970s and 1980s, with Catholic nationalists on one side and liberal democrats on the other. It may be that only the unifying power of John Paul II and the Solidarity movement could have brought these divergent forces together (see the sermon by the Pope in this module). After studying the revolutions of 1989, students could be asked to speculate how Wyszyński might have responded to the political order that emerged in the 1990s.

The Pledge of Jasna Góra

The text is a valuable teaching document for many reasons. First, it can be used to help students work through a rhetorical style that will be unfamiliar to most of them, and allow them to see how politics and religion can be intertwined. Students can be asked to explain why Wyszyński might have used the word "nation" so much, or why he cast the pledge as if it were being sworn on behalf of the entire Polish people. They can be prompted to consider the relationship between the theological and political elements of the text; did the latter necessarily emanate from the former? The second valuable element of this document is the way it clarifies the specific goals and ambitions of the Polish Catholic Church. The "Pledge of Jasna Góra" can be used to help students think about the importance of context in explaining a text. Since this was written during the Stalinist era but recited for decades to come, students can be asked to consider how its meaning might have subtly shifted over time, as people with different agendas recited the same words. Even more importantly, this provides an opportunity for students to think about the way a text can seem different when read and when recited, or when recited in a crowd of several thousand (or even several hundred thousand) pilgrims, as often happens. Assuming that the students' own religious sensibilities allow this, it can be interesting to have them recite the oath themselves, then ask them how it felt to participate in the ritualistic call-and-response format.

Statistics on Polish Catholicism in the Communist Era

Start by asking the students what they know about the fate of religion in the communist world, most will say something about oppression and persecution. Then present them with this chart, and ask them how these figures might be used to support, refute, or qualify our preconceptions about religion and Communism. It can be productive to ask the students to interpret the last column, because some might suggest that this indicates a decline in overall religiosity. However, by comparing this with the overall increase in parishes (and with the information we gain from the other sources provided in the module), we see that it is more likely that the Church was indeed successfully improving its pastoral services. Once the students have discussed the meaning of these figures, they should be asked to explain how such an expansion might have been possible under communism? This can lead to two interesting conversations: 1) a discussion about the appeal of the forbidden, and an exploration of how people might be drawn to religious life (i.e., the priesthood) for distinctive reasons in communist Poland (a comparison with the students' own backgrounds might be valuable here); 2) a debate about how our picture of communism is qualified by these figures, and how the mode of "totalitarianism" might be undermined by the Church's success in building new houses of worship.