May 22, 2006

Divided church awaits Benedict in Catholic Poland

By Natalia Reiter

KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - It is 7 a.m. on a weekday and
the 17th century church of St. Florian, where the late Pope
John Paul was once a parish priest, is brimming with worshipers

at the day's first mass.

Standing in the historical center of this southern Polish
city, the baroque church sees hundreds of Catholics pass
through during the day for mass, a prayer or just a quiet

Full churches in the middle of the week, a rare sight in
much of Europe, are common in a country where the Catholic
Church has long enjoyed special status and was given an extra
boost by having a native son running the Vatican for 26 years.

But when John Paul II died in April last year, the Polish
church was left something of an orphan. When Pope Benedict
visits this week, he will find a traditional church struggling
to find a place in an increasingly modern society.

"John Paul's death exposed the Polish church to challenges
such as how to accept Polish membership in the EU and how to
replace ceremony with the presence of Christian values in
everyday life," says Andrzej Rychard, a leading sociologist.

"It is the whole issue of how to modernize Poland -- a
question which the church has no answer to."

The tensions came to a head in a row over Radio Maryja
(Mary), a broadcaster popular with less educated Poles which
has been openly hostile to the European Union and often airs
nationalistic and xenophobic views.

Concerned it violated the church's neutrality, Polish
bishops established an oversight body in early May and barred
Radio Maryja from backing any political force. The radio seems
to have ignored an earlier warning from the Vatican ambassador.


These quarrels will probably seem far away starting
Thursday when Benedict for three days visits Warsaw and Krakow,
pilgrimage sites such as Jasna Gora and the former
concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Millions are due to attend his open masses in Warsaw and
Krakow and to line the streets to greet him.

"I cannot wait for this pilgrimage," said Julita Kozlowska,
63, who attends mass in St. Florian's every day. "I have had a
stroke but I will attend Benedict's mass even if the weather is
hot. He is to me like John Paul's son."

Polish clergymen say Benedict wants to tap this fervor and
get across his message that the Poles are a bastion against
what the church sees as western Europe's spreading atheism and

"Benedict wants to come to remember John Paul and weep with
the Poles, but that will close a certain chapter," said Father
Robert Necek, an aide to Krakow Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.

"The pilgrimage motto 'Persevere in Faith' means Benedict
wants the Polish church to maintain its special role."


About 95 percent of Poles say they are Catholics. Over half
attend mass weekly which, although declining slightly, is far
higher than the 10-20 percent seen in former Catholic
strongholds such as France, Italy and Spain.

The number of young men studying for the priesthood, a key
indicator of the vitality of a national church, is still

Poland has 22.5 seminarians per 100 ordained priests
whereas Italy has only 11.6, Spain has 9.5, France has 5.6 and
Ireland has 3.6. The United States has 10 seminarians per 100

What the Polish church does not have is a way to reconcile
its deep conservatism and nationalism with modern life and
Poland's newfound place among liberal Western nations.

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, a leading "modernizer," argues
Catholicism can maintain its special place only if it sheds its
historical role as the defender of Polish identity.

"In communist Poland, the church was the only significant
force defending freedom," he said. "This chapter is over. The
church must find its natural role as a guardian of values."

But many bishops and priests irk younger Catholics with
their devotion to ceremony and the ideal of a "Catholic Pole"
wary of modernity and "strangers."

Surveys show younger Poles go to church much less
frequently than their parents or grandparents and ignore much
of the church's teaching on contraception and pre-marital sex.

"I consider myself a believer but I do not accept what the
church says about sex," says Anna, a Warsaw University student.
"It's old-fashioned thinking, out of touch with reality."

The divorce rate is climbing and alcohol abuse is rife
despite decades of condemnation from the pulpit.


The dispute over Radio Maryja illustrates the strains. The
radio has defended a militantly traditional Catholicism and
supported the ruling euroskeptic conservatives.

The Redemptorist order running it ignored a harshly worded
letter from the Vatican's nuncio in Warsaw last month demanding
that it stop its political involvement. The bishops responded
meekly, reflecting deep divisions among themselves.

Church insiders say many conservative bishops are afraid
more decisive action could alienate believers like Kozlowska in
St. Florian's, who has no problem with Radio Maryja's message.

Some bishops argue the cost of inaction will be higher if
moderate Catholics, especially young ones, turn away from the

Surveys show a majority of Poles believe the station's
boss, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, is a negative influence and
disapprove of his militancy on behalf of the Law and Justice

"Radio Maryja is a real and growing problem I'm afraid,"
Pieronek said. "It offers a reduced view on Christianity and in
my view its attachment to a political party is extremely
compromising and shameful. It is sick and dangerous."