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Polish Church under growing pressure

By Adam Easton
BBC News, Warsaw

Polish priest and nun pray in Krakow (2005)
Polish priests play an important religious, cultural and political role

Twenty years have passed since the end of communism in Poland and there are signs that the institution that led the struggle against the regime, the Catholic Church, is under threat in the modern democratic consumerist society.

Under communism, becoming a priest was a step up the social ladder.

But now the number of young men entering seminaries is falling, and a survey suggests that more than half of the country's serving priests would like to do away with celibacy to have a wife and family.

According to the findings of Professor Jozef Baniak, a sociologist who specialises in religion at the department of theology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, more than 12% even admitted they were presently living in stable relationships with women.

POLISH PRIEST SURVEY
53.7% said they would like to have a wife and family
12% said they were living in stable relationships with a woman
More than 30% said they had had sexual relations with a woman
Source: Survey of 823 Polish priests by Professor Jozef Baniak

In the land that produced the late Pope John Paul II, most churches are still full on Sundays.

But Polish society has been changing rapidly, and according to Father Wieslaw Dawidowski, an Augustinian friar in Warsaw, that is reflected in the behaviour of its priests.

"What worries me is the number of priests who are living a second life that is working as a Catholic priest which presumes to be a celibate, and at the same time having an affair with a woman," he said.

'Double life'

Jozef Strezynski had served his Warsaw parish for 12 years when he met a woman and fell in love.

Jozef Strezynski
I decided that it would be pointless carrying on as an unhappy priest, and so after 16 years, I chose to give up the priesthood and start a family
Jozef Strezynski
Former Polish Catholic priest

"As a priest I was very happy and fulfilled. But there came a time when I began feeling lonely. When I met a woman whom I fell in love with I had to choose. I had to decide which path to follow," he says.

After struggling with his decision for four years, he says he could no longer lead a "double life".

"I decided that it would be pointless carrying on as an unhappy priest, and so after 16 years, I chose to give up the priesthood and start a family," he adds.

Father Wieslaw says the survey's findings on priests' attitudes to celibacy do not surprise him.

"It reflects the society of today," he says.

"More than 60 or 70% of people in the West or in Poland have committed adultery."

"Priests live in the world just as it is, so therefore taken from that world they bring into priesthood the heritage of the current culture. We are not water resistant," he adds.

'Strange'

At Warsaw's Dominican church in the capital's Old Town, dozens of people turn up to an evening Mass despite the winter cold.

Karol Cardinal Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) greets crowds from the ramparts of Wawel Cathedral in Krakow (1967)
The home of John Paul II is considered one of Europe's most devout

Afterwards, I ask a member of the congregation, Ela Machala, if she thinks priests should be allowed to marry.

"For me it would be strange. Catholic priests in Poland never had families," she says.

"I know that it's different for Protestant priests but it would be a big change which Polish society is definitely not ready for... I think I would have difficulty accepting it," she added.

But Slawbor, a student, disagrees.

"Personally, I think 'yes'," he says.

"They would serve better for society if they had families, really, because they would understand more things that they are preaching about."

Szymon Holownia
I think that we will face in 10, 15, maybe 20 years the problem of empty churches
Szymon Holownia, Religia.tv

Szymon Holownia, the young Catholic face of the country's Religia.tv television channel, believes celibacy is just one of many challenges now facing the Polish Catholic Church.

"As a Church we are facing the bend of the road and when you are facing the bend on the road when you are driving, you should reduce your speed, you should think what gear would be the best to pass this," he says.

"But we are doing nothing and probably we could end on the side of the road."

"I think that we will face in 10, 15, maybe 20 years the problem of empty churches," he adds.

The status and respect accorded to priests has diminished since the fall of communism.

This has left some priests feeling a sense of emptiness which more and more believe could be filled by having a family.



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