Mesco dux Polonie baptizatur, (“Mieszko, the Prince of Poland, is baptised”) was the rather laconic phrase that hailed Poland’s adoption of Christianity in 966, the most crucial moment in Polish history. For, as it would subsequently turn out, there is perhaps no other country whose survival has been so bound up with the actions of the Catholic Church.
For Mieszko I, it was a political decision. He had observed the benefits which being allied to Rome brought his Czech neighbours of Bohemia. While he succeeded in getting for Poland security and status within the Christian world, not much attention was paid to actually converting the population over the course of the following 500 years. This led Melchior Giedroyć, Bishop of Samotigia, to remark, in the late 16th century, that he could barely find in his diocese “a single person who knows how to say a prayer or make the sign of the cross”.
At the time, Catholics made up a very small proportion of the population, which also consisted of Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, and even a significant number of Muslims, all of whom had lived together in harmony for centuries.
It is perhaps unsurprising therefore how little impact the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had on Poland compared to its neighbours. Calvinism, Lutheranism and other kinds of Protestantism infiltrated certain parts of Poland; but while they provoked some interest, there was no inquisition, no one was burnt at the stake and no one was barred from office for converting.
This unusually placid situation had many causes; one was that many Polish Catholics, not least the clergy – though they felt no need to convert – were committed to Church reform, attracted by the marriage of priests, the use of the vernacular in liturgy and Communion in both kinds. Furthermore, the ruling nobility, although they resented the power of the Church, believed unrest would weaken their rule and give more power to the king. Ultimately, though, what made the difference was the Polish commitment to political liberty. One exemplary figure here was Cardinal Stanislaw Hosius, a pacifist who warned in reference to Mary Tudor: “Let Poland never become like England.” It is thought that no more than 12 Protestants were executed in Poland compared with over 500 in England.
Hosius also brought the first Jesuits over: they opened schools which educated pupils of all backgrounds in the faith. One leading Jesuit, Piotr Skarga, hoped that the Polish gentry would be returned to Catholicism “not by force or with steel, but by virtuous example, teaching, discussion, gentle intercourse and persuasion”. They were right: Catholicism did eventually take hold, gradually and with almost no bloodshed.
There was also a significant event during the period of the Counter-Reformation which convinced individual Poles to move in the direction of Catholicism. In 1655, King Charles X Gustav of Sweden launched an invasion known as The Deluge, one of a number of Polish-Swedish wars to take place between 1563 and 1721. Protestant Swedish soldiers soon overran Catholic Poland, desecrating churches and plundering the countryside.
They approached the monastery of Jasna Góra in the medieval city of Częstochowa, the last remaining holdout and home to the prized icon of the Black Madonna. With only 70 religious, a handful of nobles and their servants, and 160 infantrymen, the prior, Augustyn Kordecki, led a heroic resistance against overwhelming odds, blessing the cannons, cannonballs, bullets and barrels of powder in advance. Kordecki was successful and the victory deemed one of the greatest interventions of Our Lady in history. On September 8, 1717, the Black Madonna was crowned Queen of Poland with 150,000 of the faithful in attendance, and the country has never looked back.
The role of the Church took an important turn during the partitions of Poland, which took place over 123 years during the 18th and 19th centuries. When Poland was divided variously between Austria, Russia and Prussia, the Church became the only organisation to cover the three partitions. It united the state, which had been wiped off the map by its oppressors, preserved the Polish language and culture, and gave people hope. Within the confines of the Church, Polish people could speak openly and be themselves.
For the first time in Poland’s history, the idea of resistance to unjust authority emerged among the faithful and clergy who became committed to preserving the Polish identity. This set a precedent for what was to come. During the 20th century, when Poland faced further trials during World War II and communism, the Church and the heroic acts of many clergy and religious saved Poland from certain destruction.
A great hero of World War II in Poland was Cardinal Adam Sapieha. Remembered still for his wit and bravery, he outwitted the German authorities: when they banned all higher education, he made sure that the activities of the Kraków theological seminary continued in the basement of the archbishop’s palace on Franciszkanska street.
Cardinal Sapieha provided underground offices and housing for clerics, one of whom happened to be Karol Wojtyla, the future pope. In one episode which shows his forthrightness as well as his subtle wit, Sapieha had Hans Frank, governor of Poland, over for breakfast at the governor’s request. When the archbishop served him black bread, beetroot marmalade and chicory coffee, Frank was reportedly stunned by the meagreness of the spread – not what he was used to at all. Sapieha told him: “I serve you what the people of occupied Poland have no choice but to dine on: as a bishop, the last thing I would want to do is to get my subordinates into trouble for acquiring illegal dishes.”
When Karol Wojtyla became pope on October 16 1978, Poland was a wreck.
It had been under communist rule since 1945 and had never recovered from the war. The Church was suffering, too, under a regime which persecuted priests and took down crucifixes from public display. Wojtyla’s appointment gave the Polish people pride and a new hope and confidence in themselves as a nation. When he visited, his open-air Masses were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. These added fuel to the fire of the Solidarity trade union movement, which would in 1989 free Poland from communist rule.
During the Church’s crusade to free Poland from dictatorship, many priests were killed. But the bravery of one particular young priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, during this period has never been forgotten. His sermons, which were broadcast on Radio Free Europe, were deeply critical of the regime and encouraged the people to protest. Attempts to silence him failed and he was eventually murdered in 1984 by three agents of the security service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who were actually convicted – a rare occurrence in Poland at the time. Popieluszko was beatified as a martyr in 2010.