With World Youth Day in Krakow just around the corner—a look at how the Catholic Church guarded Polish identity and culture throughout the centuries. This year is doubly important for the Catholic Church in Poland. In addition to hosting this year’s World Youth Day, Poland also celebrates the 1,050th anniversary of its Christian heritage in 2016. Since 966, Poland has often been Antemurale Christianitatis, the bulwark of Christianity against invasion, and has time and again defended our civilization. Now is the perfect opportunity to revisit the always dramatic, constantly inspiring, and often tragic history of the faith in this land that is the crossroads between East and West.
Europe is largely a manmade concept, and the border between Europe and Asia is more cultural than geographic. In the Middle Ages, becoming part of Europe involved accepting Christianity. This happened in Poland when the nation’s Duke Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty was baptized in 966. As a result, the Holy Roman Emperor and other European rulers recognized Poland as a part of the European family.
In his book Memory and Identity, Pope St. John Paul II noted that while religious wars and persecutions raged across Europe, his native Poland was an oasis of tolerance. The Kingdom of Poland, which eventually came into a dynastic union with Lithuania and became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth following the Union of Lublin in 1569, was a place to which persecuted religious groups flocked. Two-thirds of the world’s Jews trace their ancestry to Poland; while in the rest of Europe Jews were walled in ghettoes or expelled, they were given privileges by the Polish kings. Numerous Armenian merchants settled in Poland, as did radical Protestant sects. Following the Reformation, most Polish nobles (who constituted up to 10 percent of the nation’s population, the highest proportion anywhere in Europe) adopted Calvinism, although most reverted to Catholicism thanks to the efforts of the Jesuits. In 1596, a group of Ukrainian Orthodox bishops in Poland entered into a union with Rome, forming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern rite church today. Overall, only about 40 percent of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s population consisted of Roman Catholic Poles.
The ethnic Poles, however, strongly identified with the Roman Catholic Church, a bond that has often endured persecution, starting with St. Stanislaus (1030-1079), the bishop of Krakow and now one of Poland’s patron saints. St. Stanislaus had entered into a dispute with King Boleslaus II the Bold and excommunicated him. The causes of the excommunication are unknown, but they probably had to do with the king’s sexual promiscuity and cruelty. While Stanislaus was celebrating Mass at the church in Skałka, he was killed by the king and cut into many pieces. Each year, thousands of pilgrims, including the Polish president and other major secular and Church authorities, attend a procession with Stanislaus’ relics from the Wawel Cathedral to the nearby the Skałka church. Stanislaus’ martyrdom was similar to that of England’s St. Thomas Becket, who would be slain by order of King Henry II 91 years later.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was multiethnic, multi-religious, and large. It eventually became the largest state in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. However, Poland’s internal decline began in the 17th century. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, head of the Cossacks, led a 1648 rebellion aimed at gaining Ukrainian independence from Poland. Hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews were killed in the process. Seven years later, Poland’s neighbor to the north, Sweden, invaded the country. At the shrine at Jasna Góra in Czestochowa, the Poles were able to fend off the Swedish invaders; since then, the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna has often been credited with this victory.
After a period of recovery from these tragic events, the Poles saved Christian Europe at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. At that time, the Turks were at the gates of Vienna. While the Austrian emperor was indecisive, the Polish King John III Sobieski and his Polish army of hussars stormed into the city and decisively defeated the Turks, thus saving Europe from an Islamic onslaught. Impressed by Sobieski’s skill, Pope Innocent XI proposed that Sobieski head a Holy League to defend Europe against Islam.
After the spectacular victory at Vienna, Poland-Lithuania grew internally weak and fractured. In 1772, 1773, and 1795, Poland’s stronger neighbors Russia, Prussia, and Austria took advantage of this and partitioned the country among themselves. Poland, one of Europe’s oldest nations, had ceased to exist. Yet miraculously, Polish culture not only survived; it thrived. While Poland’s masters had banned the teaching of the Polish language in schools, the Poles continued to teach it. The Catholic Church was arguably the most important institution in preserving Polish culture. Polish composers like Frederic Chopin and poets like Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki gained international celebrity. The Poles continued to fight against their oppressors, although their insurrections were with one exception unsuccessful and led to brutal repressions.
Nonetheless, the Poles persisted in their fight for independence. After World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Treaty of Versailles had destroyed the empires that oppressed Poland, national independence was restored in 1918. Shortly thereafter, Bolshevik Russia tried to invade its neighbor to the West, using Poland a springboard for exporting communist revolution to all of Europe. Few had believed that the Poles could win the Polish-Bolshevik War, and during the 1920 Battle of Warsaw all the foreign diplomats in the Polish capital had fled, with the exceptions of the Turkish ambassador (following the Polish victory in 1683, the Turks had immense respect for the Poles and never recognized the partitions of Poland) and the papal nuncio Achille Ratti, who two years later would be elected Pope Pius XI. Yet the Poles nonetheless prayed hard for victory; special Masses and processions were held across the country. In what became known as the Miracle on the Vistula, the Poles defeated the Bolsheviks and caused them to retreat from Europe.
The Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) faced many internal problems. The Great Depression led to great poverty for the Polish population. After Poland’s authoritarian yet tolerant leader Marshal Piłsudski—the main architect of the Miracle on the Vistula—had died, anti-Semitism and anti-Ukrainian chauvinism grew. Meanwhile, the political situation in Europe became increasingly menacing. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union’s foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, signed a non-aggression pact that included a special protocol for divvying up between them Poland, Finland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. On September 1, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the West, and the Soviets followed suit 16 days later.
Despite lacking the manpower and equipment of its aggressors, the Poles bravely fought for five weeks. However, they never surrendered. Unlike most other European countries, the Poles never formed a Quisling-style collaborationist, pro-Nazi government (the Germans had invited Kazimierz Bartel, a former Polish prime minister, to do so; he declined and was subsequently shot). The Nazi-Soviet occupation was more brutal in Poland than anywhere else; six million Polish citizens (half of them ethnic Poles and the others Jews—nearly 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population) were murdered by the Nazis. After Varsovians had bravely fought during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the Polish capital was razed to the ground and most of its population was killed. Despite this, the Poles eventually formed the largest anti-Nazi resistance anywhere. Poland continued to fight on both fronts, eventually boasting of the fourth-largest Allied army.
The Second World War was an especially brutal time for Poland’s Catholic Church. Half of Poland’s Catholic clergy were sent to concentration camps; most of the inmates in Dachau’s infamous priest block were Polish. In some dioceses, almost all priests were murdered. Fascinated with St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, the future Pope St. John Paul II initially wanted to become a Carmelite, but his bishop discouraged him from doing so, saying that Poland desperately needed diocesan priests as so many were killed by the Nazis. A large number of Polish priests and nuns acted heroically during these wretched times, and quite a few have been beatified or canonized. The most famous is St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who gave his life for a fellow inmate at Auschwitz.
By 1945, Poland was overrun by the Red Army and sold to Stalin by its allies Roosevelt and Churchill. For nearly half a century, the Poles would be ruled by a communist regime. Stalin famously observed that imposing communism on Poland was like saddling a cow. How right he was. The Polish people’s inability to imbibe communism had largely to do with the strength of the Catholic Church. As a result of the Holocaust and border changes, the Polish population was for the first time in the nation’s history more than 90 percent Catholic. And Polish Catholicism became stronger than ever before.
Much of this is thanks to Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, primate of Poland from 1948 until his death in 1981. He was an uncompromising thorn in the communists’ side who made an effort to remind the Poles of their heritage. Their faith became stronger and stronger. Meanwhile, the Poles challenged the regime in a series of protests and riots, which took place in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976. However, during that time the opposition was fragmented and terrified of the bloody repressions that had followed each uprising.
All that changed when a true miracle occurred on October 16, 1978. The whole world was in shock when it was announced that Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Krakow—just 58 years young and the first non-Italian bishop of Rome since the Renaissance—was elected pope. Poland’s communist rulers were in a panic. However, the worst for them was yet to come. A year later, the recently elected pope went on a nine-day pilgrimage to his homeland. Millions of Poles attended Masses with him; millions more watched him on television or listened on the radio. Pope John Paul II’s message wasn’t political. He simply spoke of man’s God-given dignity. Yet such words had revolutionary potential.
In August 1980, the Solidarity union, led by the charismatic electrician Lech Wałęsa, was formed in Gdansk. Solidarity quickly became much more than a labor union—above all it was a non-violent movement fighting for the liberation of the Polish nation. Solidarity’s Catholic nature was unmistakable: striking workers said the Rosary and celebrated Mass. Catholic parishes became the primary place where Poles could live as if they were free. And Pope John Paul II was a strong supporter of Solidarity.
Poland’s dictator General Wojciech Jaruzelski (memorably dubbed a Soviet officer in a Polish uniform by President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger) declared martial law from 1981 to 1983 and interned 20,000 Solidarity activists. Yet Solidarity’s strength could not be crushed. By 1989, the communists sat down with the union and agreed on semi-free elections (of course, the regime expected to emerge victorious). On June 4, 1989, the Poles overwhelmingly voted for Solidarity, which formed a government. Later that year, dissident movements inspired by Solidarity toppled communist regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe. By 1991, the Soviet Union was on the ash heap of history. Before Pope John Paul II was elected, no sane person would have expected to see the Soviet Bloc crumble in his or her lifetime.
Naturally, today’s Poland faces many challenges: income inequality, the emigration of young people to the West, discouraging demographic prospects, and the growing threat of Western secularism. Yet the fact that Poland today is a free country and was able to preserve its culture despite such challenges is a true miracle. That the Poles saved European civilization from Islamic invaders in 1683 and Bolsheviks in 1920 and in the 1980s formed a mass movement that ultimately toppled the Soviet behemoth are equally miraculous. All these Polish miracles are strongly related to the Catholic Church, which guarded Polish identity throughout the centuries. It is difficult to find another nation whose dramatic fate and, at many times, very existence were so shaped by the Catholic faith.