When Pope Francis arrives in Poland this week to attend World Youth Day, one of the major events on the Catholic calendar, he will face a politically powerful church closely tied to the country’s new right-wing government. The church here carries a deep strain of social conservatism that does not always align with the pope’s more open and welcoming views.
“Poland has more parishes than it has hospitals and schools,” said Tadeusz Bartos, a theologian at the Academy of Humanities in Pultusk. “It is everywhere. In small communities, the priest and the mayor are the two most important figures.”
Ninety-two percent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic. But equally striking is the degree to which many of them attend church on a weekly: about 40 percent, church officials estimate, far higher than in other nominally Catholic countries.
“Our religion is now alive in Poland in a way that it is not in Western Europe,” said Jaroslaw Sellin, the deputy minister of culture and national heritage from the governing party Law and Justice. “We organize our lives from birth to death with a series of religious ceremonies.”
Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, and canonized in 2014, remains among the most venerated and beloved figures in his country’s history. World Youth Day, which is being held in Krakow and which takes place every two or three years, was begun by him in 1985.
But the current pope’s more tolerant and inclusive language — preaching a welcoming message to gays and refugees, for instance, and opening a way for divorced Catholics to receive the sacraments — is sometimes at odds with the way the faith is taught and understood in Poland.