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This post might be called “Myth #666 – Polish people are religious”, but the myths are Island’s domain and I really couldn’t do them justice so you’ll have to put up with something else.
I’ve already nailed my flag to the mast on 20 east some time ago as regards my own position on the question of religion. Reading that post again, I did promise to come back with more about living in a strongly Catholic country, so here I am.
For some nations it is hard, for outsiders at the very least, to separate religion from state. Israel & Iran are perhaps two good examples, hard to think about either without Jewish and Muslim inserting themselves into the thought process. For other countries, my home country being a prime example, the spiritual undertone is weaker, more cosmopolitan, a mixed signal. I might include the USA in this category but in my opinion the US appears, superficially at least, to be considerably more “Christian” than the UK, which is actually quite surprising now I come to think of it. But where does Poland stand in all this? When people think of Poland do they immediately think of Catholicism, are state and religion inseparable? Is Poland a nation of Catholics, or a Catholic nation? Does it really matter anyway?
Here is what Wikipedia have as their opening passage on “Catholicism in Poland”;
Ever since Poland officially adopted Latin Christianity in 966, the Catholic Church has played an important religious, cultural and political role in the country.
For centuries, Poland has been a predominantly Catholic country, and for most Poles being Catholic is part of the Polish identity. It has historically been part of what separates Polish culture from neighbouring Germany, which is Lutheran, and the countries to the east which are Orthodox. During the times of foreign oppression, the Catholic Church remained for many Poles a cultural bulwark in the fight for independence and national survival. For instance, the Polish abbey in Częstochowa, which successfully resisted a siege in the Swedish invasion of Poland in the 17th century, became a symbol of national resistance to occupation. The establishment of a communist regime controlled by Soviet Russia following World War II allowed the church to continue fulfilling this role. The 1978 election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II strengthened this it even further, and the Polish Pope’s visits to his mother country became rallying points for both the faithful and for opposition to the regime.
Today, the Roman Catholic Church estimates that about 45.8% of Poles attend Mass weekly, with roughly 30-40 percent church attendance in urban areas and 70-80 percent in rural areas. This is a slight increase since 2005, after a few years of slight drops. Church attendance in Poland reached a record low in 1993, and since has increased and been stable or oscillated. Tarnow is the most religious city in Poland, and Lodz is the least. Generally, the southern and eastern parts of Poland are more religious than those of the West and North. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Poles continue to declare themselves Catholic and Poland remains one of the few nations in the European Union in which abortion is illegal and same-sex marriage does not exist.
This seems like a fair summing up from my viewpoint with the exception of church attendance in Warsaw, which I would estimate at less than 30%. Certainly amongst the very small sample of young (below 35) people I have recently talked to, regular attendance (outside of the key ceremonies) is less than 5%, but I’d be happy to hear other opinions on current attendance levels. I have noticed a massive difference between Warsaw and provincial towns though (e.g. Garwolin) and driving through the small villages on a Sunday you can see evidence of what must be close to 100% attendance.
Surely though, the question is not really one of attendance figures. I’m not religious but if I lived in a Polish village I’d be a regular attender myself, there’s bugger all else to do! There does seem to be a relation between the size and activity in the city/town/village and attendance at church, or am I just imagining it? It’s easy to have a dominant position if you’re the only act in town, how is the RCC going to perform when there is stronger competition for people’s time & interest?
If you can accept, therefore, that attendance levels might be exaggerated by the RCC’s monopolistic position in the arena of “things to do with my time that don’t cost too much”, outside of major cities, then you’re left with the RCC clinging on to the fact that “the overwhelming majority of Poles continue to declare themselves Catholic”.
I think the key to this aspect is in the middle paragraph from Wikipedia. It is undoubtedly a powerful argument and the area where church and state in Poland become very much intertwined. Even people who might otherwise be tempted to stray from the fold will be inclined to continue declaring themselves Catholic for the reasons given in this paragraph and I can understand that. Being a cynic, I can also believe that the RCC has taken advantage of the situations Poland found itself in to strengthen its own position. Natural enough behaviour for an expansionist organisation.
Whether fuelled by these ‘patriotic’ reasons or simply by tradition & habit, the real driving force behind continued adherence to the Catholic faith must be the number of Polish children that are “press-ganged” into the RCC each year through the process of baptism, communion and confirmation. To be honest, I don’t see this as much more than a sanitised version of how the Moonies and other cults recruit people although to be fair to the cults, they generally prey on people more likely to have reached the “age of reason”. No doubt if they started targeting 9 year olds it would be a criminal offence whereas for organised religions this is very much expected and encouraged behaviour, a cause for celebration, not outrage.
My problem here, is the whole question of when someone can be said to have “attained to years of discretion”. A Catholic Encyclopaedia has this to say:
The existing legislation with regard to the Communion of children has been definitely settled by the Fourth Lateran Council, which was afterwards confirmed by the authority of the Council of Trent. According to its provisions children may not be admitted to the Blessed Eucharist until they have attained to years of discretion, but when this period is reached then they are bound to receive this sacrament. When may they be said to have attained the age of discretion? In the best-supported view of theologians this phrase means, not the attainment of a definite number of years, but rather the arrival at a certain stage in mental development, when children become able to discern the Eucharistic from ordinary bread, to realize in some measure the dignity and excellence of the Sacrament of the altar to believe in the Real Presence, and adore Christ under the sacramental veils. De Lugo (De Euch., disp. xiii, n. 36, Ben. XIV, De Syn., vii) says that if children are observed to assist at Mass with devotion and attention it is a sign that they are come to this discretion.
Personally, I find the writing of guidelines on when someone is said to have reached an age of discretion by people with massive vested interests to be rather like asking tobacco companies to set the rules for cigarettes. Especially when there will be no further checks or balances thereafter. Parents will simply follow the rules as laid down by their spiritual leaders. I wonder when was the last time a parent in Poland, or anywhere for that matter, said to the priest “You know what? I’m not sure that little Franek quite understands what he’s getting himself into just yet. Perhaps we should should wait 10 years or so.”. Little Franek may well be able to understand that the Eucharist is not you’re average chleb, but does he understand the Catholic church, its history, its place in the modern world, the obligations he is about to place upon himself and his future family, the other options available to him, etc, etc, or is he just going through the motions because his parents told him this is something he should do? No need to answer that one.
I wonder how many parents put their children through this because it is expected of them, because they are Polish and this is what Polish people do versus because they really believe in everything that goes with being a Roman Catholic and they wish to, effectively, force their offspring in that direction as opposed to giving them any kind of free choice in spiritual matters? Or is it all just a sham because when the kids actually do reach the age of discretion the parents will be happy to let them do whatever they like?
If it is a sham, if they are doing it because it is expected, because that’s what Polish people do, what does that say about the true underlying strength of the Catholic faith in Poland?
Having said all that, will I be there with my daughter when comes the very premature time for her communion? I expect I will, because the thought of standing up to my wife and our entire Polish family and saying “No” is just not worth thinking about. In our case, that’s not because we are a deeply Catholic family , that’s because we are Polish and it is expected. Am I a hypocritical coward? I suppose I am. Will I be making sure my daughter understands my point of view anyway? You bet I will.