The Power and the Glory – Catholicism in Poland and the Cathedrals of Gdańsk

“Don’t be surprised at how religious the people are” was the line from the brochure. It was a Sunday and I decided to take a look for myself. The bells chimed as I walked past one of the many churches in town. So I  popped into the nearest church to see how many people would attend mass. This was a local church (not a touristy one) and the pews were full of old and young people.

I walked out after a few minutes of observing to carry on my day, filled with food for thought (and of to get physical food) – how had this faith made its way in this country, and why is it still sustained?

There are 6 directions on this sign, 4 point to churches

Religion in Western Europe is today more cultural than religious. Baptisms and Funerals are less frequently conducted condand service attendances are in freefall. As a more extreme example, in Sweden, there were 8000 baptisms and 90000 departures from the Church of Sweden in 2016 alone. A confluence of factors (sexual abuse scandals in the catholic church, decreased religious identification, immoral/unchristian example of religious leaders, increased secular beliefs, teachings out of step with society etc) have been pinned for the decrease in practicing adherents.

This situation is however not replicated (despite decreases due to the sex abuse scandal) to the same extent in Poland, where religion is at the core of national identity.

For the greater part of its history, this nation has been the forefront of Latin Christianity in the Western World. It was the bulwark of Catholicism against the Orthodox churches to the east, and (after the Reformation) the last Catholic outpost in Northern Europe surrounded by Lutheran Christians in Germanic and Scandanavian lands.

Catholicism became a badge to separate the Polish people from the German people. It was a part of the Polish national identity. The Church was heavily invovled in standing up to Nazism. And in its more recent history the church played an even greater role. The year 1978 was a big year for the Polish Church with the election of a son of the soil to the office of Pope.

Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow who would go on to be elected Pope John Paul II (the first and only Pole to become Pope) has been credited as giving moral impetus to the Solidarity movement.

Priests like Jerzy Popieluszko helped to lead the Solidarity movement and were later assassinated for their outspokenness.

Pope St John Paul II, is the pride of Catholicism in the country with almost every church having a bust or his papal coat of arms located somewhere, in his honour.

Bust to Pope John Paul II in St Mary’s Church

Church gate in Oliwa Cathedral with the papal coat of arms of Pope John Paul 2

Poland is the heartbeat of Catholicism in Europe. While the old continent was seeing its congregations fall and pew kneeling decrease, Polish workers spread all around Europe and brought their faith with them. In effect reenergising dying churches. In fact, you will find a Polish mass in practically every major European city today. These workers have done for European Catholicism, what Filipino foreign workers have done for global Catholicism.

While the faith of the Polish people sounds heroic now, the seeding of faith did not begin that grandly. The Polish people became Christian, de facto, after the personal conversion of the first king Mieszko I. His conversion meant that his realm would become Christian. The conversion was not of faith, it was political – 1) becoming Christian would remove a religioua argument for the German states to attack him, 2) the new Christian religion would undermine the power of pagan priests in his lands and 3) becoming Christian would enable the kingdom to become a proper European power.

Christianity was the slowest to spread in Pomerania and only did so after local princes forcibly built churches and invited priests from Germanic states to staff them, such as the Cistercian monastry in Oliwa.

The movement of traders eastwards led to Christianity becoming dominant in the land. The first church in Gdańsk was St Catherine’s Church (built in the 14th century).

A larger church, the tallest brick church in the world was later built in the centre of the Old Town, the St Mary’s Church.

The city was always part of a larger religious province until the end of World War 1, when the Free City of Danzig was carved out of the Treaty of Versailles. And a diocese was later created and elevated into larger district. Both the Oliwa Church and the St Mary’s were made into co-cathedrals for the new Archdiocese.

Catholicism has been in this country for more than a millennium

with its own unique traditions for days like Easter and Christmas,

special holy sites,

and devotions such as the Divine Mercy by St Faustina.

Faith built a country and faith sustained it. The catholic nature of Poland is part of the very soul of the nation. When you get that, the full pews explain themselves.



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