The Church – Poland’s Cultural Glue

It is impossible not to see paw prints marking each country residing alongside the great bear. As others in the region, Poland has been somewhat shaped by her relationship to Russia.

Poland has been Christian since its founding in 966 AD. And yet it has a history of being pushed around. The Swedes swept down in the seventeenth century. After World War 1, the Paris conference restored Poland as a Second Republic.  In 1919 Poland bested Lenin in the Soviet war named the “Miracle at the Vistula.” As noise of war intensified in the 1930s, on September 1, 1939 Hitler arrived to conquer, and seventeen days later the Soviets moved in. Poland, split between the two occupying armies, had to live with their overbearing presence. In 1944 it became a satellite state of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Wall fell and the Soviet Union ceased to exist as Gorbachev released its many territories.

During the occupations, Poland sought to define its national identity, refusing to give in to either of its occupiers. While a Marxist-Leninist ideology ruled during the Soviet influence, a pastor noted that as a university student he could find none who believed it. They called themselves “radishes” – red on the outside and white on the inside. He had to take a course in Communist ideology and, like his colleagues, simply held his nose to complete the course. He reasoned that Poles would let no one tell them what to believe. In his view, stubbornness is one of their supreme and self-saving characteristics.

Polish identity runs deep, roots strengthened as outsiders attempted to uproot them. And key to the retaining of identity has been the affirming presence of the Roman Catholic Church, for centuries its cultural fortress.

What marked Poland in the late twentieth century was the power and influence of its beloved son, Karol Jozef Wojtyla better known as Pope John Paul II. Of all the factors which cracked the Wall and undermined dictatorial powers, it is acknowledged that this priest from Wadowice was enormously influential in its demise.

As I visit Poland and hear of the push the Pope gave to the Wall, I’m reminded how much good the leader of some 1.2 billion Christians can do in exercising wisdom and statesmanship. He faced brutality and power with weapons of language, not guns. Writer Angelo M. Codevilla puts it best:

The Pope won that struggle by transcending politics. His was what Joseph Nye calls ‘soft power‘ — the power of attraction and repulsion. He began with an enormous advantage, and exploited it to the utmost: He headed the one institution that stood for the polar opposite of the Communist way of life that the Polish people hated. He was a Pole, but beyond the regime’s reach. By identifying with him, Poles would have the chance to cleanse themselves of the compromises they had to make to live under the regime. And so they came to him by the millions. They listened. He told them to be good, not to compromise themselves, to stick by one another, to be fearless, and that God is the only source of goodness, the only standard of conduct. ‘Be not afraid,’ he said. Millions shouted in response, ‘We want God! We want God! We want God!’ The regime cowered. Had the Pope chosen to turn his soft power into the hard variety, the regime might have been drowned in blood. Instead, the Pope simply led the Polish people to desert their rulers by affirming solidarity with one another. The Communists managed to hold on as despots a decade longer. But as political leaders, they were finished. . . . Pope John Paul II struck what turned out to be a mortal blow to its Communist regime, to the Soviet Empire, [and] ultimately to Communism.

Over a quarter of a century later, as Poland’s economy grows and modern schools and shopping centers develop, Christian faith as a natural constituent of life has dropped profoundly. When Germany and then Russia moved in, the cultural glue of Poland was the Church, providing identity, relationships, moral certitudes and hope. Not surprisingly, after John Paul II made his first visit to Poland as pontiff in 1979, the appropriately called Solidarity Movement was birthed. Aided by his presence and encouragement, and rightly naming what the Church had fostered, they stuck together.

Today that glue is coming unstuck. While 96 percent claim to be Roman Catholic, the numbers of regular church attenders has dropped from 80 percent in 1989 to 39 percent in 2014.

I understand, as do the Evangelical colleagues I was with, that the preponderance of Christian witness is within the Roman Catholic Church. Yet Evangelicals are passionate about bringing to the Polish people a life-transforming experience of faith, though they make up only about .1 percent of the population: churches are being planted and mission agencies are creative and outgoing in their ministries.

There is also a growing interest in finding understanding and places of cooperative action in public life. One can see plans to nurture love for study of the Scriptures. It doesn’t take long to hear of visions to launch social services in the name of Christ. There is a deep reservoir of spiritual vitality fueling hope and activity among its churches and people.

A recent Festival of Hope brought the many strands of Evangelical/Protestant churches and missions together, and in their wisdom, planners invited and received support from the bishop, a historic marker in their journey. In Poland, as in other Catholic-majority countries, Evangelicals wrestle with the role Christian faith plays. While it is important to make sense of the theological divide, even so most leaders are vocal in their desire to find cooperative platforms of common witness.

After some of us met with Pope Francis in June of 2014, there was a strong reaction by some Evangelicals in Catholic-majority countries, feeling that by meeting we were discarding our biblical convictions. I understand those reactions and have attempted to reassure them that meeting with others who too are named by Christ is not the same as riding a slippery slope.

In Poland we have an opportunity to test how a Christian minority can work with the majority. I found wise and courageous pastors and leaders who show no fear in moving outside of bunkers, which understandably had been protective enclaves during Communist years. They are candid about the majority/minority reality, one they don’t see substantially changing. However, there should be no misunderstanding of their zeal to see a wave of Spirit-caused revival. Pivoting around that aspiration are galaxies of church-planting activities, missions in camping, and media initiatives. I was caught by their desire to see their churches act in Christ’s love to enable Poland to be strengthened in her national identity and to penetrate the cultural and spiritual clouds that shadow her history.

Poland is a land and people that could model how churches rooted in disparate histories and theologies find places and means of common aspirations and witness, giving life to the Gospel witness and strength to the people of their land.

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador
The World Evangelical Alliance
November 2014

The Palace of Science and Culture – A “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people



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