Life & Soul

Why Poland’s culture is healthier than Britain’s

A monument to St John Paul II is raised in Poland (CNS)

Until I arrived in Kraków, I don’t think I realised the extent to which I felt I needed to be reminded of the strength of John Paul II. I had been wondering where to go for a few days after Easter – to relax, but also to spend those octave days in an atmosphere which kept alive the joy of the Resurrection. I thought of Rome, but the coming of the euro has made Roman hotels ruinously expensive.

I knew I wanted to go where the bells called to prayer and the city was dominated by churches and shrines, where there was a sense of Easter as something more than another season for merchandise. I was subconsciously already following in the footsteps of St John Paul II, who understood perfectly that faith is incomplete if it does not find expression in culture, and culture is either an important support or a serious obstacle to faith.

John Paul’s biographer George Weigel gives a brilliant definition of what the word “culture” means. It is, he says, “what men and women honour, cherish and worship; what societies deem to be true and good and noble; the expression they give to those convictions in language, literature and the arts; what individuals are willing to stake their lives on.” Echoing the Polish pope, he insists it is culture that drives history over the long haul, not political or economic power.

John Paul’s own life and achievements demonstrate the truth of this, as does the city which bears his imprint. In the old quarter of Kraków you are never far from a beautiful medieval church. So what? The same might be said of Norwich or Rouen. But in Norwich most of them are concert halls or art centres. In Rouen, they pipe Gregorian chant muzak into them for atmosphere and occasionally use them for organ recitals. In Kraków, these beautiful churches have Mass on the hour or half-hour all morning and again in the evening, and the Masses are filled with men and women of all ages. During certain hours the tourists may visit the magnificent 15th-century Veit Stoss altarpiece of the Assumption in St Mary’s Basilica, but for most of the day it serves its original purpose, as an altarpiece before which Mass is celebrated.

From the tower of St Mary’s, which dominates the market square, a trumpeter hourly sounds a plaintive fanfare to commemorate an alarum sounded as the Mongol hordes attacked the city in the 13th century. It always breaks off abruptly – as the original signaler was shot in the throat by an arrow.

In the Easter Octave, at the end of Mass there are relics to be venerated in all the churches: St Dominic and St Anthony of Padua, and St John Paul II in many, of course. Attached to several of the churches are convents and monasteries. The sight of religious in the streets, readily identifiable in a variety of habits, is a normal feature of life.

On the Wawel Hill is the royal palace and the cathedral where Polish kings are interred. We have places in England which seem to be repositories of our nation’s history, but imagine what it would be like to go into Westminster Abbey and find Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament taking place, or into Winchester Cathedral and find the relic of a recently canonised English saint on display for veneration. What would that say about our nationhood and its values?

It is easy to think that culture means old, historical things for tourists to look at. But culture is not dressing up in silly costumes at Hampton Court and asking how the Tudors were like us. St John Paul described culture as that which determines the inter-human and social characteristics of existence, that which fulfils the human need to express oneself creatively in the world. Kraków gives one a very different experience of Europe – different, and more original and authentic. English Catholics can only wonder at it nostalgically, for it is the pattern of our own culture.

So strong was the link between religion and culture in Poland that, unlike in our own country, they were able to resist a state that claimed rights over people’s consciences. The same right is claimed by an aggressive secularism which not only seeks the removal of religion from the public sphere, but also the reshaping of the public realm to something entirely at the mercy of power, money and vested interest in which the flourishing of man is a secondary end.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London


This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/4/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!