For Now, a Refuge for the Catholic Church in Poland

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When I think back on Poland’s period of mourning after the plane crash that claimed the lives of the country’s president and 95 other people, what stands out are flickering votive candles by the thousands and murmured prayers in unison from as many mouths; the priests sprinkling holy water on the president’s coffin; and the high pointed hats of bishops that seemed to tower above the crowds at every event.

And from the Saturday of the crash until last Sunday, eight days later, when President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were interred in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, church services filled to capacity, with thousands more outside the doors listening quietly over loudspeakers.

“When something horrible happens, we always refer not to some cosmopolitan values but to God himself,” Maria Kret, a Krakow pensioner, told me. “This helps us live through the most terrible circumstances. God is able to survive.”

It was a funeral, and a state funeral, so it was no surprise that churches were filled to capacity.

But a trip from Germany to neighboring Poland is still like a whir through a time machine — to decades or even centuries past when the church occupied such a prominent position in society, or into an alternate universe. This is particular to Poland’s own history, of course, where the church is intertwined with not only the nation’s founding but resistance to foreign powers right up through the 1980s, when a Polish pope and the Solidarity movement, side by side, inspired the country. For Poland, the question now is whether the bond between church and state will loosen, making the recent outpouring of religious sentiment a last hurrah.

As Poland becomes more tied to the rest of Europe, its inevitable secularization has itself become an article of faith, at least for those who view progress as necessarily separate from piety. By that logic Poland will naturally evolve into a secular state like its neighbor, Germany, as it grows more prosperous.

To some extent, that is happening. In 1982, shortly after martial law was declared by the Communist government, 57 percent of church members celebrated Sunday Mass, according to the Catholic Church Statistics Institute based in Warsaw. That compares with 40 percent in 2008, the most recent figures available.

But there are also skeptics. “There is no need for this to happen,” said José Casanova, a sociologist at Georgetown University, and a leading expert on religion. “Poland could become modern and remain religious. Poland could prove the secular thesis wrong, by becoming both.”...

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