“Really, there is nothing to talk about,” my mother said when I asked her about her conversion to Catholicism. When I did persuade her to tell her story, it had none of the tumult and drama of English nineteenth-century converts such as John Henry Newman or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who entered the Church in defiance of their roots and in the face of fierce disapproval.
My mother’s conversion was typically Polish: emotional, romantic and a little bit teary. It was both an intimate personal journey, and a barometer of shifting social moods. This is not surprising, since it is difficult to explain anything about Polish Catholicism without reference to the country’s complicated history and the enigmatic mentality of its people.
The story of a religious conversion in Poland always resembles the biblical story of the Prodigal Son. There is no leap of faith; one simply comes home. Becoming a Catholic in Poland is never a decision taken entirely in isolation; it is always embedded in an inescapable cultural hinterland.
Some say that the religiosity of its women reveals the real truth about the faith of any society. I think this is true, at least to some extent; the story of the women in my own family does indeed reflect some broader trends about how religious belief in Poland has changed in the past 50 or 60 years. In Poland, there is no one “feminine Catholicism”. If you imagine that Polish Catholicism can be characterised by pious babushkas praying with their rosaries and reproaching their faithless granddaughters for not sustaining the old traditions, you could not be more mistaken.
Neither of my grandmothers was devout. My paternal grandmother, in spite of her solid Catholic pedigree, with numerous uncles and cousins in the priesthood, was never particularly pious herself. She was never a passionate churchgoer and even now, in her nineties, she complains about the poor quality of the sermons in her local parish church.
My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, never talked about her faith at all. As a minor figure in the local Communist establishment, it is possible that she had none. She certainly did not practise. She attended church once or twice on important family occasions, but this was not a declaration of any kind. The reason for her rare visits was pragmatic: every nation has its own sense of decorum, and in Poland that decorum was – and remains – Catholic. For many, weddings and funerals simply seem more serious when they are celebrated in a church, and my grandmother accepted this state of things.
Brought up in an a-religious environment, her daughter, my mother, was not close to Catholicism. She converted at the beginning of the 1980s. She had been trying for many years to have a baby and, when she finally got pregnant, she found herself in a hospital trying to sustain the pregnancy. She was surrounded by other women, mostly Catholic, and was visited regularly by local monks.
The mood in the country was changing at that time, too. In 1978 Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, had been elected Pope. His historic pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 triggered the turbulent political, social and spiritual revolt of Solidarnosc. Suddenly people were gathering, plotting and praying. A turn to a church-blessed conspiracy is one of the most elemental Polish reflexes. Whenever there is distress in Poland, a chaplain appears to relieve the hardship – and so it happened again.
In my mother’s circumstances, at this time it was almost impossible not to convert. Although she had been baptised as an infant she made a private promise to the Black Virgin of Czestochowa that she would return to the practice of her faith – if and when she delivered a healthy baby. Here in Poland, it seems, one does not even have to be a believer in order to make a vow to the Holy Virgin.
A few months later, she held her child in her arms, but by now the political situation in the country had changed again. In December 1981, the Government introduced martial law and all the great optimistic surge of energy that had created the Solidarnosc movement appeared to have been smothered. Yet my mother had already joined both the Church and the political opposition. One day, she simply turned up at her nearest church and became involved in the life of the parish.
The child in question – that is, me – was baptised and brought up Catholic, following a traditional Polish formation – sometimes to the despair of my sceptical grandparents. And in truth, since then, apart from the obligatory teenage revolt, I have never had any doubts about my identity as a Catholic.
The history of my family is not unusual. There were many people of my grandparents’ generation who sympathised with the Communist regime and its ideology. Some of them, although not my grandparents, were openly anti-clerical and hostile to the Church. There was a rapprochement between the independent trade unions and anti-Communist dissidents and the Church in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many former agnostics found their way back to the Church on that wave of Wojtyla-inspired national euphoria.
Yet not every Polish family needed an injection of Catholic renewal. The silent majority of Poles have always been Catholic through and through, even during the Nazi occupation and under the Moscow-directed Communist regime. My husband’s family is a typical example. Traditional in the best sense of the word, the women have integrity and warmth; they devote themselves to their children and the well-being of the family. They are all practising Catholics, assiduous and solemn in the exercise of their faith but never exuberant. They have quietly borne the struggles of everyday life and sought to live in peace through all the political storms of the past 40 years.
The strong bond between Polish national identity and the Catholic Church is, of course, a mixed blessing. It has always caused tensions between the Church and modernisers, whether of the Catholic or the secular kind. Many claim that popular Catholicism in Poland is somewhat superficial and ritualistic, more a matter of processions and pilgrimages than interior conversion. They point to a lack of subtlety in Polish theology and apologetics.
We have produced few creative theologians or mavericks; instead, we have martyrs and visionaries such as St Stanislaus or Faustina Kowalska. Yet those who complain that our Catholicism is more reflex and custom than firmly-held conviction tend to forget that it was precisely its deep roots in the Polish psyche that has led to its stubborn survival.
Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked that particular nations have their mœurs, their habits of the heart, the unconscious prejudices that shape their way of thinking and acting. Catholicism has influenced not only the religious culture and morality of Poles. It provides the framework for our artistic imagination and shapes a substantial part of our civic life. The Church in Poland is something more than just a moral authority and a provider of the sacraments; it is an integral part of our mentality. For 1,000 years, there has been no significant version of “Polishness” other than the Catholic one.
This is why the wave of scandals to have hit the Church in recent years, including the revelations in the documentary film Tell No One, seen by more than 18 million people within a few days of its release on YouTube, shocking as they are, have had less impact on Polish society than you might expect.
The faithful are, of course, offended and hurt by the stories of abusive priests and how the Church has protected them, and they have demanded that the bishops take immediate action. Yet my impression is that those who go to church regularly (and many still do) know and respect the priests in their own parish, and it would be very difficult to persuade them of the corruption of the clergy in general. They are shocked and dismayed by these stories, but not yet lost to the Church. The spirit of “filial concern” for their priests still seems to prevail among the faithful.
In one respect, though, there has been a significant change. In the 1980s, the time of my mother’s conversion, the Church was an unquestioned source of moral authority. It was trusted. Persecuted but independent, it was able to create a safe space for the faithful and serve as a universally accepted moral compass. Now, after three decades of a continuous and not always successful struggle with liberal democracy and its own place in it, the Polish Church is waking up to discover that it is in a very different place. Not only has it lost some old privileges, but the old deference to the clergy and the bishops has gone.
Polish Catholics have suspected for at least two decades that the hierarchy has been trying to cover up the scandal of abusive priests. The outrage that followed the release of Tell No One provoked public confessions of shame by the bishops. Although the institutional corruption of the Church has been exposed, its leaders remain wedded to a largely defensive strategy. The bishops still have not grasped that the ground beneath their feet has shifted. This is why recent public surveys indicate that even faithful Polish churchgoers are starting to distrust the bishops.
There is a deeper problem. The level of Polish religiosity is decreasing anyway, slowly but steadily. Even in the most zealous Catholic families, one can observe some symptoms of secularisation. The new generation is not always keen to follow old habits. Many of my friends still raise their children as Catholic, but the times when you could assume that the majority of your colleagues or students would also be Catholic are gone for ever. My brothers and cousins no longer practise, or do so half-heartedly.
The world is changing. Some processes cannot be halted, and they will not be stopped by turning a blind eye to problems. We need new diagnoses and new habits of the heart. Above all, we need our Church as an institution to address the problem of clericalism, and to finally open up and come clean about abuse and corruption.
The ideological struggle in Poland does not concern only the Church. It is also a struggle for the Polish imagination and Polish identity. The sense of Polishness is changing. This is inevitable, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of resisting, the Church should play an active part in this process.
Many Poles still want the Mass and the sacraments, and hunger for a life that is not defined by materialism. But I am full of worries every time I see the hierarchy choosing stagnation over reform, and defensiveness over justice, repentance and conversion of heart. The Church risks being part of Poland’s past, rather of its future.
Marta Kwasnicka is an award-winning writer and critic based in Krakow.
31 July 2019, The Tablet