Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Proselytism in Poland [*]

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Proselytism in Poland [*]

Article excerpt

I. Historical and Sociopsychological Context

An understanding of proselytism in the Polish context requires an overview of historical facts that have shaped the contemporary role of religion in the country. The beginning of Poland's existence as a state was marked by the conversion of Polish Count Mieszko I and his court in 966 C.E. Since then, Polish culture has been permeated by the Christian religion, with the Roman Catholic Church playing an important role in the social and political life of the country.

A particularly important period that helped define the contemporary role of the church was the first partition of Poland in 1772. It lost its independence and was divided into three parts by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, which caused a fundamental change in the position of the church. The loss of statehood encouraged Polish national consciousness to focus primarily on religion and language as the main sources of national history and existence. The status of the church differed in each of the three sectors. Only Catholic Austria employed a policy of tolerance toward the Poles. The Poles believed that only the Catholic Austrian hierarchy was not threatened by the survival of Polish national identity. Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia were seen as fundamentally more threatening.

In comparison to the parts of the country under Russian and Prussian rule, the Austrian-ruled southern part of Poland, Galicia, enjoyed much greater autonomy and friendlier attitudes from the Habsburg regime, which expected the church to be subordinate to the state but at the same time encouraged the cultural revival of the country. For the most part, there was no state interference with the content of liturgy. Church services on the anniversaries of important events in Polish history (even the uprising against the partitioners) became venues for expressing a patriotic spirit. It was a time to wear traditional costumes of Polish nobility (kontusz) and to display Polish national emblems and banners.

Unlike the Austrians, the Prussian rulers took a harder line against the church. Especially in light of Bismarck's introduction of "cultural fight," the Prussian administration over Poland executed strong influence on the content of religious instruction in schools and theological seminaries. Priests and bishops who refused to accept the new regulations were imprisoned. A very popular religious and patriotic song, "God Save Poland" (Boze cos Polske...), was banned from the churches. Interestingly, under communism, the same song was banned once again in its original version with the words, "God, return our free homeland." Instead, priests were encouraged by political officials to promote singing the words "God bless our free homeland." This resulted in an amusing discord of voices with some singing the old words and others the new version. The priest and the organist usually stayed mute during this discord.

Finally, the Russian rulers viewed Catholicism as a tool of Polish nationalism and took several steps to limit the perceived danger. First, Polish clergy were forbidden to enter into direct communication with the pope and Roman curia. Second, they lost their estates, and the dioceses were reorganized. The Roman Catholic Church and its clergy were perceived as a threat to the power of the Russian monarchy. After the Polish uprisings of 1831 and 1863, tsarist administrators took other steps against the church. A description of the situation is provided by Davies:

As a result of the November [1830] Rising, almost half of the Latin convents of Russian Poland were closed, whilst payment of the stipends of the clergy was turned over to the state. Unauthorized correspondence with Rome was punishable with summary deportation. All sermons, pronouncements, and religious publications were to be approved by the Tsarist censorship. All seminaries were to be inspected by the Tsarist police. As a result of the January [1863] Rising, the great majority of Catholic orders were disbanded. …

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