A Tale of Two Polands


Facade of the Warsaw cathedral

As we continue our pilgrimage through Poland, I am struck by the similarity of its situation to Canada, specifically to Quebec, circa 1960’s.  Poland is culturally, aesthetically, visually, geographically and demographically one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, perhaps the world, just like Quebec used to be (stretching the analogy that Quebec is a country).

Driving through the countryside over the past couple of days, in the brand-new coach, where I have had the leisure (in the true Aristotelian/Pieperian sense of the word!) To read, pray and watch out the window, one sees magnificent churches dotting each town through which we pass, roadside shrines and the cities, well, the cities are filled with Catholic statuary, monuments, and road signs. Images of Poland’s most famous son, Pope John Paul II, greet one at almost every turn.

Although the people are still by and large Catholic, there is a precipitous slide in practice as the sample age decreases, and as one gets nearer to the large cities, particularly Warsaw, where the young people are flocking in search of studies (the university has over 40,000 students), work and, of course, the social life.  A youngish-woman, perhaps in her thirties, with whom a few of us shared a pint of the local ale in a brewery near the hotel, admitted that she, and many of her friends, no longer practise their faith, as though such were a matter of course. Her excuse was that the Church was ‘too involved in politics’.  I took that to mean some form of ecclesial commentary on the moral stances of politicians, something I wished the Church in Canada did more often.  I think that perhaps her issues lie deeper, as they do with most of those who abandon the faith. 

Connected with the loss of faith is the diminution of family life, with the number of children per family, once at pre-60’s Quebec level a generation ago, now approaching the European ‘norm’, aka, demographic suicide.  I see many young couples in Poland, as in Canada, walking dogs instead of pushing prams.


20150517_093609On the contrary, in the rural areas, the faith has more life. On Sunday, we were in Kashuby, in the still largelly rural and pastoral northwest of Poland, attending an outdoor Mass with the local bishop.  Hundreds of locals, young and old, gathered, some making a pilgrimage of many miles on foot, processing in with full Kashubian regalia, accompanied by a brass band (the music was vibrant, if not exactly liturgically apt).  Their hearts were all in the right place, and the joy and devotion of the people palpable.

Yet, even here, the insidious spiritual virus of secularism is making inroads:  Not far from Kashuby, I was awoken at three in the morning in our hotel, by a group of juvenalia exiting the ‘disco’ located in the hotel basement, at closing time, fighting, yelling, and, apparenty, a bit past the point of hilarity.  I have seen many such restless youth, and the not-so-youthful, in my walks around the various cities to which we have journeyed. Just the other night, as I wandered the main square of Wraclaw saying a Rosary,  I was approached by a young woman inviting me to a strip-club, by which enterprise she was clearly hired.  I explained in what English she could grasp (my Polish is not yet up to explaining the Theology of the Body!) that such establishments were a sin, and degrading to women, and that there were far better ways to make a living.  I don’t think she had heard that response before, so I hope what few words I could speak are an, albeit imperfect, channel of God’s grace.  However, I am getting the sense that this agnostic hedonism is becoming the new normal for many of the youth of Poland, whose parents grew up in the halcyonic days of John Paul II.  

Now,  for many young people, the great saintly Pope, who held out such great hope for his native land (but also gave stern warnings), is but a statue and a street name.  


Pilgrims in the chapel of the convent at Treibnicza.

Then again, there are always signs of hope.  Just today was one of the highlights of our pilgrimage, a visit to the tomb of Saint Hedwig herself, after whom our parish is named. The body of the saintly wife, mother, patroness and mystic is found in the magnificent parish church of Treibnicza, which she and her husband, Henry the Bearded, helped to build.  Saint Hedwig was also the foundress of the Cistercian convent next to the church, where she spent her days after her husbsand’s death in 1238.  The convent is now staffed by the saintly Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo (after whom Karol Wojtyla was named), who care for the elderly and children in troubled families.  


There are such signs of hope all over Poland, a country at the crossroads.  Pope John Paul, for all his optimism, also sternly warned his own people of the choice before them: After the collapse of Communism, they should not fall into the consumerism and secularism of the West.  To paraphrase his message to families, Poland, become what you are!


Who knows? Perhaps these same youth who woke me up at the hotel all got up to make the trek to Kashuby the next day.    

Even if I could not sleep, I can always dream….

May 20, 2015