On Tuesday 26 July Pope Francis landed in Poland for the World Youth Day. The World Youth Day ‘is coming home’, a Catholic magazine commented. The Polish Cardinals Stanisław Dziwisz and Kazimierz Nycz invited Pope Francis for the event, seconded later by the Polish Episcopate and the Polish government, as the Pope could combine his participation at the World Youth Day, in Kraków, with Poland’s 1,050th Jubilee Year. Fifty years before, for the 1,000-year Jubilee, Pope Paul VI could not travel to Poland, upon invitation of the Polish Primate Stefan Wyszyński, the greatest Churchman of Poland, after Karol Wojtyła, blocked by the Communist regime, so the invitation sought to celebrate the renewal of the Baptist promises of the country and praise the Christian contribution to the history of Poland.
The main celebrations, in April this year, in Gniezno and Poznań, viewed the attendance and speech by the Polish president, Andrzej Duda and the participation of the Vatican Envoy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See. As reported by the Pope press centre, the address of the Polish president, Andrej Duda, in Poznań on April 16, with a Jubilee Oratorio, and the meeting of the National Assembly signalled an unprecedented situation outside Warsaw, the capital. On the following day, celebrations gathered at the Poznań Stadium for the evangelisation, under the message, ‘Where Baptism Is, Hope Is’. These celebrations develop as a reminder of the first Jubilee and the Great Novena, in 1956, a nine-year programme of preparation for the first Jubilee, launched by Cardinal Wyszyński – after he was released by a three-year confinement, as the staunchest foe of communism. Similarly, in the last four years, the Church of Poland has prepared this Jubilee on the promises of these days dedicated to the baptismal cradle of the history of the Polish nation, within a national programme and the motto: ‘Convert and Believe in the Gospel!’
This agenda and pro-life initiatives are likely to be supported by the government. When Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość: PiS) returned to win at the general elections in October last year, commentators could expect a turn towards more social conservative policies, attempts to control education, pro-life stances and more importance of religion in everyday life. During the parliamentary electoral campaign Jarosław Kaczyński, as leader of PiS, already indicated the way forward for the country, “The road ahead is clear … We aim higher; … Our ultimate goal is strong and successful Poland. … How can we gain the trust of the nation? … We need to keep our promises. The promises already made, such as 500 PLN per child, such as bringing the retirement age back down to what it used to be, increasing the tax-free income threshold, … We must unite as a nation….Major changes are required in the education – we need to raise our behavioral standards; we need to instil the essential sense of identity. We cannot succeed without our identity … we are planning already our actions that will lead us our goal – great, strong and successful Poland.”
Within these plans, just in April, when Poland was celebrating the Jubilee, the popular initiative, supported by two organizations, the Rights to Life Foundation and Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, met with the social conservative agenda, supporting a more restrictive abortion law. In Poland abortion on social grounds is illegal and in 1993 the Polish Parliament introduced the law called the Act on Family Planning. According to the law, abortion is legal, when pregnancy is a threat to life or to the health of the pregnant woman, when the embryo is irreversibly heavily damaged to threat the life; when there is justified suspicion, confirmed by a prosecutor, that pregnancy is the result of an illegal act. Doctors who perform illegal abortions are subject to punishment up to three years of prison. The law was slightly relaxed in 1996, but after a year, enforced in 1998, abortion returned to be considered as unconstitutional, with a statement of the Constitutional Tribunal, which refers to the Polish Constitution, including provisions of legal protection of life to every human being (Art.38). While widespread protests temporarily silenced the initiative, in the same days, the government launched its flagship programme to boost natality, the 500+ programme, with a monthly allowance of 500 złoty (112-114 Euros) for all second and subsequent child up to 18 years old age, with forecast of about 300 thousand children born in the next decade.
Despite there being no official cooperation between PiS and the Catholic Church, which remains apolitical, this alliance works at the local level, where priests can influence the social narrative. According to CBOS data at the end of 2015, still 44% of Polish citizens attend the religious service at least once a month. As I have examined in my research, ‘Eurosceptic Allies or Euroenthusiast Friends? The Political Discourse of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland’ and forthcoming monograph, Religion and Euroscepticism in Post-Communist Europe, the Church can seek to enter the social and political discourse, in order to influence policy choices, and can join an alliance with a party that needs to respect the Church’s privileges and promote explicit guarantees regarding a ‘Christian social’ programme. The ultimate auspicated target is the ‘hegemonic position’ on life and orientations of the collectivity. The Polish Church had concerns on the consequences of EU integration, linked to secularization and consumerism and the focus was and is on the position of Poland towards EU integration and Polish culture and values, as the Church can successfully become both provider and defender of these values. ‘Catholicism, the Nation and Patriotism’ belong to the message broadcasted by the ultra-conservative Radio Maryja, an ultra conservative Church, led by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, of the Redemptionist order, strongly opposing, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, and feminist movements.
However, Pope Francis’s positions seem at odds with the local Church. In his speech at Blonia Park, he called for merciful hearts, ‘A merciful heart can go out and meet others; it is ready to embrace everyone. A merciful heart is able to be a place of refuge for those who are without a home or have lost their home; it is able to build a home and a family for those forced to emigrate; it knows the meaning of tenderness and compassion. A merciful heart can share its bread with the hungry and welcome refugees and migrants. To say the word “mercy” along with you is to speak of opportunity, future, commitment, trust, openness, hospitality, compassion and dreams.’
This is not a shared position by Poland, where the government has maintained a rather strict position, in particular after the terrorist attacks in Europe, and where just a few months ago, in the Spring, about 64% of Poles wanted their country’s borders closed to refugees. While the European Commission stressed that it is important not to confuse the refugees’ crisis with security, Poland is currently again under the spotlight, after the January Constitutional crisis, as the Commission has given a three-month notice to take action to protect the rule of law in the country, before it may launch the unprecedented Article 7 procedure. Meanwhile Pope Francis’s appeals may remain unanswered, while he met with Polish bishops in private, and repeated his call for mercy before leaving on Sunday late afternoon.
Simona Guerra is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Leicester
This post originally appeared at: https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/think-leicester/politics-and-international-relations/2016-1/the-world-youth-day-is-coming-home