Poland's past and future pope

About the author
Adam Szostkiewicz writes for Polityka weekly news magazine in Warsaw.

There were fewer flowers and candles to commemorate the first anniversary of the passing of Karol Wojtyla on 2 April 2005, the Pole who became Pope John Paul II. Yet his cult here is alive and well, with all major Polish media supporting it as a genuine and spontaneous expression of the nation's craving for a unifying bond.

Sure, there are uneasy things about it, too. While it is fine with many Polish people to watch papal statues being erected or state-sponsored schools being dedicated to him, one may wonder how the pope's cult helps a debate on Wojtyla' s true standing in the history of Poland.

Poland happens to have very few critics of Wojtyla' s pontificate. Indeed, if there is in Poland a national consensus on anything, it is that he was the greatest national figure throughout a thousand years of Polish history, as well as the greatest contribution of Poland itself to world history.

If I were to name just one achievement of Karol Wojtyla as pope, I would perhaps say that he had acted to open the eyes of his people, nation and church, as the deliverer of a wake-up call that invited them to share and enjoy the richness of Christian culture and of the worldwide Catholic church over the frontiers and divisions of race, ethnicity, and day-to-day politics.

Karol Wojtyla's was the message of a Catholic universalism that is in opposition to the idolatry of nations or ideologies. This is perhaps his most challenging legacy. It is therefore rather telling that one year after the pope's death a new attempt is being made to curb the media conglomerate owned by the Polish branch of the Roman Catholic congregation of Redemptorists.

Adam Szostkiewicz writes for Polityka weekly news magazine in Warsaw

Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy:

"The Polish lifeboat" (September 2005)

"The Polish autumn" (October 2005)

The lost and the lonely

This is an empire, consisting of the Radio Maryja station, the Trwam ("I last") television channel plus a media school and an affiliated newspaper Nasz Dziennik (Our Daily). These address a total of around 2-3 million listeners, viewers, and readers. From modest beginnings in the early 1990s as a phone-in radio programme talking about religion and politics (‘'the Catholic voice in your home"), Radio Maryja used a modern format to create a successful product that appealed to many of those who felt themselves losers in the trauma of Poland's rapid transformation from a communist autarky to a market democracy.

So far, so understandable. But what went terribly wrong with Radio Maryja was that over the years it became a voice of dissent, fury and anger - often with racist, antisemitic, xenophobic, and staunchly nationalist overtones. Its programmes, presenters and propaganda blamed all major problems resulting from the transition on a conspiracy of left-wingers, liberals, Jews, and cosmopolitan-minded corporate capitalists working together behind the scenes to the detriment of our beloved fatherland.

The founder of the radio station, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, and his team were able to use and abuse the unpopularity of the draconian economic reforms of the 1990s to promote their own political agenda. This was aimed at reversing the policies adopted by Poland's democratic governments.

Radio Maryja offered loud "no's" to Poland's joining Nato and the European Union. There were suggestions that a close cooperation with post-Soviet Russia would better serve Poland's national interests than a return to the democratic family of western nations.

Both campaigns were unsuccessful, but Rydzyk's people were undeterred. In the arena of lifestyle, they strongly support a conservative agenda; some time ago, Radio Maryja broadcast an appeal to its supporters that parliamentarians who supported a liberalisation of Poland's tough anti-abortion law should be humiliated in the manner of Polish women in wartime who had liasons with Nazi German occupiers.

When the parliamentary and presidential elections of September-October 2005 were won by the centre-right Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice/PiS) party, Father Rydzyk entered Polish politics with a new intensity and ardour. He abandoned his former political darlings of the Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families/LPR) to embrace the winners.

With this dramatic shift, Rydzyk's media joined the mainstream, their studios now being wide open to the PiS leaders. As the new government has been having PR problems with other – "secular" – media, this new opportunity was welcomed and seized upon by PiS politicians and their sympathisers.

At that point, the official church started to have its own problems with Father Rydzyk's rapid transfer to the PiS side. Enough is enough, said Archbishop Kowalczyk, the papal nuncio (the Vatican's ambassador to Poland) and a friend and collaborator of the late pope. Kowalczyk cited an urgent message he had received from his bosses at the Vatican curia (secretariat) which impelled him in turn to send a letter to Archbishop Michalik, the head of the Polish bishops' conference, and to the head of the Redemptorists in Poland. In an unprecedended move, he warned them that Rome is not happy with any media that uses the "Catholic" label to meddle with party politics:

“I ask and demand that the Bishops' Conference of Poland consolidate its efforts to ensure that Radio Maria and other media outlets linked to this station fulfill their pastoral obligations and the Church's principle of staying out of political battles."

The message is clear: do something about this, and do it now.

There had been some attempts to curb the political ambitions of Rydzyk's media before, but all had failed for one main reason: that in one way or another, many bishops and priests support the Redemptorists' policies. They dismissed the criticisms of Rydzyk wholesale, saying they were part of a concerted negative PR campaign by his (and Poland's) enemies without and within. As long as the establishment media has a monopoly of information and interpretation, we need Rydzyk, they argued - adding that they may or may not support his specific political commitments, but still see him as an outstanding patriot.

Also in openDemocracy on "democracy in the Catholic church" after Pope John Paul II:

Neal Ascherson, "Pope John Paul II and democracy"

Austen Ivereigh, "Through the Vatican white smoke"

Michael Walsh, "Cutting the Vatican down to size"

Lavinia Byrne, "The Vatican, the Kremlin, and the Feminine"

Andrew Brown, "Cardinal Chernenko? "

Michael Walsh, "From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI"

The changing of the guard

After the nuncio's intervention, this pro-Rydzyk position no longer holds. The Vatican's warning and call to action simply can't be ignored by the church authorities. The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Poland on 25-28 May 2006 is only six weeks away. The Polish bishops have no choice except to act now; it would be an act of open disobedience not to try to put things in order, and a confrontation over this issue between Warsaw and the Vatican is unthinkable.

The odds on Father Rydzyk being removed from his job as director of Radio Maryja by the end of the year seem high. Moreover, recent press stories report that Rydzyk's colleagues have lost big money in bad business transactions – even more shamefully, this money was donated by poor followers when Radio Maryja campaigned for the buy-out of the declining former Lenin shipyard, a cradle of the Solidarity movement. Rather than rescue the plant, the beneficiaries used part of the money to upgrade Radio Maryja and launch Trwam TV.

But before Rydzyk is gone, and his empire is safely returned to the non-partisan Catholic media fold, the reception in Poland of John Paul II' s German successor will be witnessed. Pope Benedict XVI's visit will reveal how well and how deeply Karol Wojtyla's "eye-opening" lesson is remembered by his compatriots. The trouble with Radio Maryja is that Rydzyk's media consciously play down, suppress or forget his breakthrough teachings. In this way they play up to the mantra of isolationists – in a way that (apart from its other deformities) is clearly anti-Christian.

I hope Benedict's visit in Poland will help to counteract this most unwelcome trend. Poles, I believe, will welcome him. It will be a great thing to see a German pope praying in Auschwitz-Birkenau for Hitler's victims.

The meaning of the spectacle, however, will relate not to matters of underlying ethnic origins or collective guilt, but rather to the danger of nationalism in the heart of Europe. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been witnesses to its evil. It will be good if the Polish pope's successor serves this reminder to the family of Radio Maryja.