The land of St. John Paul II continues to be strongly Catholic, but signs of decline suggest that a boost from Pope Francis’ visit later this month will be welcome.
When Pope Francis travels to Poland to celebrate World Youth Day and visit the shrine at Jasna Góra, he will encounter one of the world’s most intact and vibrant Catholic cultures, up there with Mexico, the Philippines, Croatia, and Malta.
Like all these countries, however, the Church in Poland is dealing with the growing challenge of secularism. The country also faces some socioeconomic challenges, often addressed by the Pontiff, and his visit could have significant consequences for Polish society.
After the first semi-democratic elections in post-war Eastern Europe were held in Poland in 1989, the return to democracy and capitalism was bittersweet for many Polish Catholics. Sure, they were glad to have their liberties back and return to the West, a process that culminated in Poland’s joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
They were glad that they would never again have to wait in lines for miserable food rations.
However, having seen the twilight of the faith in such former Catholic bastions as Ireland, Spain, and Quebec, many feared the same would happen to Poland. Would their country become one of empty churches?
Fortunately, that has not happened. From the posh Wilanów region of Warsaw to villages in the Tatra Mountains, Polish churches overflow on Sundays. Encouragingly, not only old ladies fill the pews unlike in most of the West; there are plenty of young adults and families with children, too.
Poland continues to export priests; secularized Western countries, missionary territories in Africa and Asia, and especially post-communist countries where the Church for decades was in the catacombs heavily rely on Polish missionaries. Crosses and crucifixes are ubiquitous in public places, including the Parliament, and more than 90 percent of Polish schoolchildren attend catechesis.
Nonetheless, secularism is creeping in, although it is occurring at a much slower rate than in Spain or Ireland, or even in the Philippines, where Mass attendance plunged from 66 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 2013.
Each year on a given Sunday in October, all the faithful present in every one of Poland’s 1,050 parishes are counted. In 1980, 51 percent of Catholics attended; in 1995, the figure was 46.8 percent; at the most recent census, in 2014, it was 39.1 percent. In other words, the decline is there, but it’s not as dramatic as elsewhere.
There are visible regional differences: the lowest level of Mass attendance is in industrial Lodz, at 24.8 percent, and the highest is in Tarnow, at a whopping 70.1 percent, which probably makes it the most devout diocese in Europe (and possibly the world).
In general, secularism in Poland is a greater problem in the big cities and in the western and northern parts of the country than in rural areas and the south and east.
To the American reader, it might seem surprising that while 39.1 percent of Poles attend Mass, only 16.3 percent receive Communion.
By contrast, at parishes in North America and Western Europe, just about everyone stands in the Communion line. This is because the idea that one should be free of mortal sins that have not been absolved before receiving Communion secularism is still prevalent in Poland. According to a 2014 poll, 70 percent of Poles went to confession during Lent.
There are often long lines to confession in Poland; I myself once waited an hour and a half—in September, during Ordinary Time (during Lent, I’ve had to wait the better part of an afternoon).