John Paul II is everywhere in Poland. His face smiles down from photographs. He stands in statue form. I have a little stone engraving of his face – I don’t know where it came from. If somebody came here and knew little of the Church they would think he, not Francis, was Pope.
This is unsurprising. John Paul II was not just Polish: he received the papacy as Poland struggled in the grip of communism. His tenure was a source of immense national pride. Millions of Poles are sincere practising Catholics, but faith blurs into patriotism and politics.
Poland burst into the headlines on November 11, when a march to celebrate the nation’s Independence Day featured chants of “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and an appearance by the Italian fascist Roberto Fiore. Analysts who are by no means favourable to nationalism have concluded that most of the marchers were not extremists, but the undeniable rightwards shift in Poland has attracted attention to its politics and religion.
In October, more than a million Poles gathered around their nation’s borders to hold rosaries and pray. This marked the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, which celebrates the triumph of the Holy League over the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto.
It would be foolish to deny that participants were inspired by their concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. Poles have been unnerved by images of terrorism in their Western neighbours’ cities, and Catholics have been appalled by the killing of Fr Jacques Hamel and the attacks on Notre-Dame Cathedral. Whatever one thinks of this, it would be unfair to believe that the border prayer was a political stunt. It coincided with several other anniversaries, significant for Catholics and Poles, such as the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. Participants revealed motivations such as thanking God for their children as well seeking protection against terrorists.
As the Law and Justice party (PiS) has come to dominate Polish politics there has been a shift towards social conservatism. Muslim refugees have been denied settlement in Poland; an absolute prohibition on abortion was considered; Sunday shopping looks as if it will be banned. Such rulings divide liberal and conservative Poles (though the latter two issues, it must be said, more starkly than the first).
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection