The Church emerged stronger after years of communist oppression but it now grapples with a fast-changing society shaped by technology and social activism.

The building of the Shrine of Divine Mercy ascends into the crowns of old chestnut trees. The Shrine, surrounded by the quiet waters of Mysliborski Lake, is nestled in the southern parts of Poland’s Pomeranian province. It is home to a dozen Sisters of Merciful Jesus, a small religious congregation active since 1947.

The congregation has survived cruel communist-era persecutions unleashed in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.

“Before 1989, no catechism was included in school curricula. The communists wiped out religious education, placing atheism as the new guideline”, priest Krzysztof Maj at the Saint Krzyża Church in Mysliborz told TRT WORLD.

The communist party saw the Roman Catholic Church- being a part of national fibre - as a threat to its rule. 

After the former USSR occupied Poland, it hoped the Church would lose its influence over Polish people. 

In the early 1950s, the government began to persecute the clergy associated with the Roman Catholic Church through several state institutions after a secular constitution was introduced. 

The imprisonment of priests, expropriation of religious assets and extrajudicial killings of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, priests Stanislaw Suchowolec, Sylwester Zych, and Stefan Niedzielak are some of the pages from that dark history book. 

Unlike other priests, Maj felt the call to the priesthood only at a later stage of life. As a blue-collar worker, he never imagined becoming a priest. Throughout the communist era, he also served as a military chaplain in Szczecin, nowadays the capital of the Western Pomeranian region.

''I got my first job at a local railway station. It was a physical job. A lot of running around and no time to think about God. I cannot explain how it happened. But it just happened”.

In Mysliborz, almost 600 kilometres away from Warsaw, attending religious services is part of the vibrant, local culture. That’s in contrast to what’s happening in other countries where Controversies have shaken the catholic faith in recent years.

Events like the recent child abuse scandal, which has rocked the Catholic clergy in France, and reports of corruption by priests from various parts of the world, have had little impact on religious appetite in Poland. 

Locals in Pomeranian province are dismissive of any possibility of creeping secularism or atheism as they cheerfully talk about their Catholic faith. 

Today only 2.6 percent of Poles declare themselves as atheists.

Maj says places like Mysliborz have continued to remain a staunch bastion of the Catholic faith with the Church being “a repository of moral teachings and a heart of the national identity”. Clergymen still play an important role in the spiritual well being of the locals, even if they don’t have much to say about public matters.

Communist leaders looked down on the Church as a primitive institution that was bent upon promoting primitive notions and trying to grab power. 

But even amid the Communist propaganda, some members of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) would attend religious service, side by side with their more tradition-bound relatives. 

Despite state interference, this inclination towards religion was most pronounced in rural communities in southern and eastern regions where the Catholic Church still dominated daily life and local discourse.  

A study in 2017 revealed that 48 percent of Poles say they have a “negative” view of the relationship between the church and the ruling party.
A study in 2017 revealed that 48 percent of Poles say they have a “negative” view of the relationship between the church and the ruling party. (AP)

When 'God helped' communism

Despite the years-long onslaught of Marxism and forced promotion of atheism, the communist party fell back on deep-seated religious beliefs to protect its own survival. 

Under PZPR’s rule, Poland built more churches than any other country in Europe in an attempt to strengthen the socialist Polish state. 

''The socialist state thought allowing the building of ecclesiastical structures would prevent citizens from protesting”, writes Vladimir Gintoff of the Metropolis Magazine. 

The communists had control over the Church through the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and through Służba Bezpieczeństwa, the regime’s secret service whose agents persecuted the priests. 

But the communist adherence to secularism and plans to shape the Church according to political guidelines, has not impaired Catholic following. 

In the early 1980s, churches in Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk became the epicentres of political activism. Religiosity was at its peak, with over 93 percent of the population being practising Catholics. 

At the same time, participation in religious service turned into a patriotic expression.

''We have emerged victorious from the clash with communism and its influence”, says Mirek Krajewski of the Light-Life Movement. 

Krajewski, a native of Leszno, central Poland, spoke to TRT World at the Shrine of Divine Mercy where the members of the movement had gathered to spend the waning summer days. 

''This sanctuary offers a spiritual getaway for our community. We strive to build better mutual relations, talk about faith, family and God after this massive quarantine,” he says. 

The Light-Life, also known as the Oasis movement, was founded in Poland in the 1950s by a Polish priest Franciszek Blachnicki. 

Krajewski saw Oasis as a community effort to strengthen the Catholic Church in Poland at a time when people were deprived of the right to form Catholic associations or impart religious teachings to children. 

''Oasis is a living out-of-the-church contact with faith'', adds priest Marcin Skowron, who is also part of the movement. Or a revival of the spiritual experience through informal meetings, without the Catholic liturgy, yet under “the Church’s umbrella”. 

Both Skowron and Krajewski say that nowadays local communities desire more personal religiosity. “They deem Oasis as a more intense religious experience to traditional churchgoing”. 

Intense indeed yet not imposed.  

"Our community members are free to moderate the impact of religiosity during family gatherings, parties for teenagers, winter or summer camps".

A rather new phenomenon in small towns, Oasis is one of many Catholic movements aimed at reviving the spiritual life in Poland.  

Yet still ruled by the institutionalized Episcopate, the Church is also the most influential political actor, pivoting towards the most pressing social-political issues such as the right to abortion, in vitro, Euthanasia, clerical celibacy, homosexuality, economy or environment. 

Thus, the role of the Church remains in the populist and postliberal social-political discourse indubitable.  The collapse of communism in Poland which helped the priests grab the Polish vote has changed the domestic-foreign policy dynamics in the coming years. The Church-lobbied legislations such as the abortion ban or the 1993 Concordat agreement have stirred controversies among the Poles, dividing the nation ideologically albeit not culturally. 

Although a Pew Study conducted in 2018 revealed that more and more younger Poles are turning away from the Church, another survey carried out in the same year concluded that more than 90 percent of Poles still see redemption in religion as a ferociously national habit, a political guideline and a daily narrative that simply doesn't fade. No matter what.

Source: TRT World