Last Saturday hundreds of thousands of Poles headed towards the border. This was not a mass holiday getaway, but a different kind of ritual – one not seen for decades. At around 2pm, they gathered in 320 churches and 4,000 “prayer zones” along the 2,000-mile frontier. They fished rosary beads out of their pockets and began to pray, from the sandy shores of the Baltic Sea to the wooden churches of the southern borderlands. Up to a million are said to have taken part – both in Poland and “Polonia”, the worldwide Polish diaspora. It was, by one reckoning, the second-largest prayer gathering in Europe after the 2016 World Youth Day, also held in Poland.
What were they praying for? That was a matter of some dispute. According to the lay organisers, participants wanted to “not only change the course of events, but [also to] open the hearts of our compatriots to the grace of God”. But the Western media discerned a subtext: the “Rosary at the Borders” was held on October 7, the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In that sea skirmish a vastly outnumbered Christian fleet saw off the Ottoman navy. Were Poles praying that Christian Europe would once again repulse an Islamic invasion?
Reporters duly discovered pilgrims who expressed anxiety about the Islamist terrorist attacks that have peppered Europe (but notably not Poland) in recent years. Journalists also recalled that the Polish government had rejected an EU deal in 2015 to accept thousands of mainly Muslim refugees from the front-line states of Italy and Greece.
Poland’s prime minister had backed the rosary campaign. Therefore the event surely had an “anti-Muslim agenda”. The BBC website advised readers that this was a “controversial prayer day”. It would be naïve, it implied, to think this was anything other than a covert demonstration against Muslim immigration.
But if this had been a protest against the “Islamisation of Europe” it would have drawn far smaller crowds. The Poles who knelt on the shingle in Gdansk and on the banks of the Bug weren’t extremists; they were studious young couples, middle-aged men in tracksuits and grannies in mohair berets.
Only one thing could have attracted so many ordinary Poles: a belief that praying the rosary could change the course of history. This kind of supernatural claim baffles Western newsrooms, even though it has deep historical roots that can be checked in an instant on Wikipedia.
Catholics in England may face similar befuddlement when the country is rededicated as the Dowry of Mary in 2020.
We could see the same hunt for an ulterior motive to explain something that makes no sense from an atheistic point of view. No doubt it, too, will be branded “controversial”.
Major prayer events, after all, challenge the prevailing view that history is guided by technocratic elites untarnished by superstition. They assert that God, not Man, is in charge of history. They are an irritant for those who would reduce Christianity to niceness and shield themselves from its claims to historical truth.
The Pope’s net contribution
Pope Francis may not use a computer himself, but he is well informed about the dangers that the internet poses to children, as his recent address to a conference in Rome dedicated to the protection of minors from harm in the digital world makes clear.
His warnings about the dangers posed by the web are very welcome, given the relative silence of the Church on the matter. His comment that “The spread of ever more extreme pornography and other improper uses of the net not only causes disorders, dependencies and grave harm among adults, but also has a real impact on the way we view love and relations between the sexes” will be applauded by many. The way that such material has spread, and the way it has changed human behaviour, has, as the Pope is right to point out, made the protection of children that much harder.
While pornography has few defenders (though some of them had an outing recently, praising the late Hugh Hefner as an apostle of free speech), and while all deplore things like cyberbullying, there has yet to emerge a strong consensus about what needs to be done.
The primary guardians of children’s welfare are of course parents, but there is only so much that they can do. The Church can certainly encourage parents to be aware of the problems the internet poses, but there are important roles for government and companies that provide internet platforms. Governments need to police the internet more, and ensure the removal of abusive and illegal images of children, and at the very least do their best to disrupt the supply of such images. Internet providers and social media companies need to act promptly to remove such images and also to silence those who use social media to harass and bully others – especially children.
On this matter some progress has been made, but more needs to be done, and the Pope’s speech may raise awareness and prick consciences. The challenge is mighty, but given the scale of the problem, and the danger posed to both children and adults, a fightback against the improper use of the internet is vital.