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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Changing times for Poland's Catholic Church
Polish church
Only about a quarter of young Poles worship regularly
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By Nick Walton
BBC correspondent in Warsaw
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The Catholic Church survived communism in Poland, and even helped to bring about its downfall - but the question now being asked is whether it can survive democracy, too.

"Despite censorship, Poles felt they had in the church somebody who was saying the truth", says Anna Jarmuszewicz, a correspondent with the newspaper Rzeczpospolita.

They're building churches like castles and the country is very poor

Warsaw student

It spoke for ordinary Poles by publicly supporting freedom and human rights, she says.

But Poland is a very different country to the one that emerged after the long years of communism, more than a decade ago.

Although more than 80% of Poles still say they are Catholic, among the young and in the cities, attendances at mass are falling.

Only a quarter of the young still worship regularly.

Political aspirations?

Krzysztof Dzieciolowski, a student in Warsaw, is one of those who stays away.

"I can understand that people believe in God", he says, "but clerics in Poland are big hypocrites".
Pope John Paul attending Easter service
The Pope, who is in failing health, is due to visit his homeland again in August

"They're building churches like castles and the country is very poor. People are freezing on the streets. And they're getting all their money from these poor people."

"Once the Catholic Church was a symbol of opportunity," explains Arthur Koraczynski, another student. "But now people of my age see it as trying to become a political power, rather than a religious institution."

The church's political involvement ranges from overtly political sermons by priests, to repeated calls for a referendum on abortion. The church also opposed the country's new constitution for many years on the grounds that it was too secular.

Tarnished image

The dissatisfaction of many has been heightened by the controversy surrounding the Archbishop of Poznan, Juliusz Paetz.

He resigned after a Vatican investigation into allegations that he abused young priests.

The Church is only understanding and redefining its position very slowly. It's a slow learner, because it doesn't recognise its own mistakes

Polish editor

The allegations had been known about within the church for a number of years, but action was only seen to be taken against him after they became headline news in the Polish papers.

Although much of the controversy surrounding Juliusz Paetz is the work of enemies of the church, there is a need for some sort of reform, says Mikolaj Gorszczyk-Kecik who has been training to be a priest.

"We needed a nationalistic church twenty years ago under communism, and throughout Polish history," he explains.

"We were surrounded by hostile Russians who were Orthodox Christians and Germans who were mainly Protestant.

"But now we need to concentrate on the religious side, rather than the Church as an institution at the heart of Poland."

Free of the threats from abroad that have plagued Polish history, many Poles no longer feel that Catholicism is a necessary part of their national identity.

Missed the boat

Jan Turnau, the head of the religion unit at the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, points to ultra-conservative radio stations and newspapers - such as the very popular Radio Maryja and the paper Nasz Dziennik - as evidence that some parts of the church are still pushing a very reactionary form of Catholicism.

"They understand the problems of some Polish people - especially the old, the poor and the uneducated. But it's old-fashioned populism, feeding off people's problems.

Polish church
Not all Poles still view Catholicism as an inherent part of their national identity
"They're the people who didn't catch their chance in a changing Poland", he says.

"The Poles still need the Catholic Church for its moral authority," he add. "But the Church is only understanding and redefining its position very slowly. It's a slow learner, because it doesn't recognise its own mistakes."

The Polish Pope, John Paul II, is due to return to his homeland in August.

But this visit will come at a time when Poland's traditionally powerful Catholic Church is coming under unaccustomed pressure to reform if it is to retain the influential position that it holds in society.

See also:

21 Feb 02 | Business
Polish unemployment hits record high
30 Jan 02 | Europe
Poland's farming woes
02 Apr 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
02 Apr 02 | Europe
Timeline: Poland
22 Apr 02 | Europe
Profile: Pope John Paul II
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