Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Poland: The Nation and its Faith, by Jacek Szela - The Unz Review


Black Madonna of Częstochowa

“O Holy Maid, who Częstochowa’s shrine
Dost guard and on the Pointed Gateway shine!”

Though it is an obvious remark that not each and every Pole is Catholic, it nonetheless holds true that the equation Polish equals Catholic is as valid as the mental association that Russian means Orthodox Christian (with the same reservations that some Russians are not Orthodox Christians, some are atheists). Even non-Catholic Poles remain mentally Catholic just as atheist Russians remain mentally Christian Orthodox, which fact many of them admit. Russian sociologists, by the way, hold the opinion that though in the Soviet Union Christianity was officially banned, still society at large (including devoted and ardent members of the communist party) lived by the Christian moral code; the same could be observed among Polish communists in the post-war period, among members of the communist party (with many of them having their children covertly christened and religiously raised). Among other things: divorce among party members, be it in Poland, be it in Russia or in any Soviet-dominated country of central Europe was either unthinkable or frowned upon.

Poland emerged from prehistory into history through its christening. The year was 966, which has always been recognized by all political persuasions, beyond any doubt, as the beginning of the Polish state, as the beginning of Polish statehood; more: as the beginning of the Polish nation. In 1966, during the time of the existence of the People’s Republic of Poland, both the officially atheistic or at least a-religious state and the Catholic Church celebrated with pomp, even if separately, the Millennium of Polish statehood. Most citizens would participate both in the festive events held by the government or the party (which for all practical purposes was one and the same thing at that time) and by the Catholic Church.

Though religious matters were constantly suppressed by the authorities, by the party, and though numerous ideological assaults were mounted against the Church and priesthood as such, in films, literature, on the radio, on television and in the press, it was precisely at that time that Polish cinematography produced its greatest motion pictures where patriotism, nationalism and the Catholic faith were given pride of place: you need only to think about the 1960 “The Teutonic Knights/Krzyżacy”[1] (to this day the greatest box office success!) or the 1973 “Deluge/Potop”[2] (taking third place at the box office). They impress the viewer with the solemn performance of “Mother of God/Bogurodzica” — the very first battle hymn of the Polish chivalry (the former) — and the breath-taking kneeling homage of the nation, paid to the icon of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa,[3] the national shrine (the latter). The equally popular 1973 movie “Desert and Wilderness/W pustyni i w puszczy” shows a Polish teenager, adamantly refusing to give up on his Catholic faith under threat of having his head cut off by belligerent Muslims in Africa, while the 1974 “The Promised Land/Ziemia obiecana”[4] contains a dramatic scene in which a sinful Catholic perjures himself, laying his hand on the picture of the Mother of God: the Jewish character who manoeuvres the Pole into swearing the oath takes this act as an honest statement because it would have boggled his mind to think that a Pole could lie face to face with the greatest holiness of his nation.

All these motion pictures were shot during the time of state-sponsored atheism. Remarkably, Aleksander Ford, the director of “The Teutonic Knights” and Jerzy[5] Hoffman, the director of “The Deluge” were non-Catholic, not even Christian: they were Jewish.

The 966 Christianization of Poland predated that of Rus’ (988), but occurred after that of present-day Czechia (known in the Middle Ages as Bohemia). It is of some interest to see how the three related Slavic nations responded to Christianity and how roughly the same creed shaped their history. Poles adopted the new faith via Czechia/Bohemia, i.e., from Rome, while Rus’ (present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — at that time indistinguishable), from Byzantium. That fact marked the first great split between Poles and latter-day Russians/Ukrainians. Till this day Russians consider Poles traitors to the Slavic world, and it was no less a person than Austrian Chancellor Metternich (one of the architects of European continental peace settlement forged at the 1815 Vienna Congress), who famously said: Poland is a wedge that the Western world has driven into the Slavic world. The statement is warranted to a great degree: because of Catholicism Poles have always felt to be a part of the Western world and have always felt opposed to eastern Orthodox Rus’.

Catholicism has not always gone hand in hand with the nation or its rulers. Barely a hundred years had passed from the Christianization of Poland, when a severe conflict between a Polish monarch, King Boleslaus the Bold, and Bishop Stanislaus of Cracow (the then-capital of Poland) erupted: the bishop was killed, in a church (!) by the king’s henchmen, as a result of which the monarch was banished from the country and died in exile. This event (1089) is reminiscent of the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV (1077) or of Thomas Beckett’s death at the hands of King Henry II (1170).

The causes of the enmity between the king and bishop are open to a variety of interpretations. During the time of the People’s Republic of Poland, this historical event was a bone of contention as far as its interpretation was concerned: the Polish Catholic Church kept venerating the murdered bishop as a symbol of opposition to the secular (immoral) authorities, while the communist party tried to foist the interpretation of the conflict as an example of a church high-ranking cleric betraying the interests of the state, nay, of the nation.

It was at that post-war time that the communists sought to strip the Church of the influence that it exercised over the nation, so they restricted the clergy as much as they could, prompting the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński,[6] to stand up to the authorities with the by now famous vociferous protest addressed to the government, ending with the words: “We [the Church] must not sacrifice the divine sacrum on the profane altar of Caesar [the state]. Non possumus [we cannot]”

Rather than being killed like his spiritual predecessor Bishop Stanislaus, Cardinal Wyszyński was imprisoned for a few years. It was at that time that the Polish Catholic Church, absent the Polish nobility and gentry who had disappeared as a class and whose members had either fled the country in fear of communists or who been deprived of their economic and political leverage, assumed the role of the Polish nobility, the Polish aristocracy, the Polish gentry. And what an irony of history it was! The priests were for the most part recruited from the peasantry, i.e., the social class that according to Marxist tenets was to be liberated from the influence of the “opium of the people” and at the same time the social class that for centuries had been thought of by the nobility of not being capable of sustaining nationhood!

At that post-war time, irrespective of whether you were a believer or not, so long as you were anti-communist (and most were), you naturally supported the Church, identified with the Church, and used the Church in your resistance against Marxism-Leninism, against atheists in the positions of power, against the party comrades imposed by Moscow, many of whom were Jewish. Religious instruction was banned from schools but was carried out by parishes. The voluntary attendance was nearly 100%; not because all parents were ardent believers: it was a form of protest, a form of expressing national identity, a sign of resistance — a pronounced, if silent, statement of non possumus. (By comparison, in today’s Poland, attendance at religious instruction, which meanwhile has been reintroduced in schools, has significantly dropped and continues to drop.)

Imprisoned — or rather held under house arrest in various monasteries — Cardinal Wyszyński read (not for the first time in his life) Henryk Sienkiewicz’s[7] trilogy (historical novels about 17th-century Poland, whose cultural importance is comparable to those by Walter Scott in the English-speaking world), and while perusing The Deluge (a few years later made into the aforementioned successful film), he came upon the idea of preparing the nation for the millennium of Polish statehood. “The Deluge”, which heavily draws on historical fact, informs or reminds (as the case may be) the reader of the difficult times from Polish history when the country was inundated by a number of invaders while the nation was on the brink of extinction. It was at that time that Polish King John Casimir made a solemn and religious pledge to restore the greatness of Poland, including through a moral rebirth of the nation; it was in this novel that the reader was reminded of the role that the Częstochowa Monastery and especially of the role that the icon of the Black Madonna played at those difficult times (recall the kneeling homage paid to the icon as depicted in The Deluge. So, too, Cardinal Wyszyński came up with an idea of a moral crusade for the whole nation and the idea of making a moral pledge in the Częstochowa Monastery, which was duly performed with the attendance of a few hundred thousand people after Cardinal Wyszyński had been released from confinement due the post-Stalinist political thaw.

“The confessional and the altar of the nation” — that’s how the Częstochowa Monastery was once defined by him, which corresponds to fact. It occupies the same place in the collective psyche of the nation as Santiago de Compostela for the Spanish or Lourdes for the French. Go to the monastery and you will see a bit larger than real-life size monument of Cardinal Wyszyński, kneeling in front of the shrine where the image of the Holy Virgin has been venerated by generations of Poles since 1382. If you get a closer look at the image, you will spot two scars on her right cheek, scars that the image is commonly known for and commonly recognized by. No, they are not part of an artistic design (no less a person than St Luke the Evangelist is said to be the painter): those scars were inflicted during a Hussite raid on the monastery. The Hussites were Czech — let us say — heretics, but the swords that made the scars were wielded by Polish hands! That shows us the many-faceted relationship between the nation and its Catholic faith.

Black Madonna of Częstochowa
Black Madonna of Częstochowa

Cardinal Wyszyński initiated a programme of moral renewal which he read from the defensive walls of the monastery to a few hundred thousand people gathered there. He repeated what King John Casimir had done in 1657, which in turn was described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in the above-mentioned historical novel, The Deluge. The moral crusade began in 1956 and was designed to end in 1966, the year of the millennium of Polish statehood. As part of that moral renewal, a copy of the Black Madonna was to be moved from parish to parish, nationwide, gathering local communities for prayer, which exasperated the authorities. Helpless, feeling that they were losing the battle for the nation’s collective soul, the communists seized the image. They arrested the icon! How did Cardinal Wyszyński respond? He had the empty frame carried from parish to parish, nationwide. The presence of the Black Madonna was never perceived as more palpable. Do you remember why King Henry VIII wanted to have Thomas More executed even though his erstwhile chancellor kept silent about the king’s antics? Because his silence spoke louder than words. The same here: the empty frame enhanced the presence of the Mother of God and consolidated the nation, while making the communists look ridiculous.

The empty frame, with no image or rather icon inside, for the Black Madonna is an icon. It was brought to Poland from Rus’ (the part that is present-day Ukraine), which was Orthodox Christian. The northern territory between Poland and Rus’ was occupied by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a pagan political entity, that ruled over vast lands of otherwise Christian Rus’ after the latter had been partly destroyed, partly subjugated by many Tartar invasions. Lithuanian pagan dukes — mainly through dynastic marriages — managed to bring under their control what we know today as Belarus, almost all of Ukraine and huge chunks of today’s Russia. Lithuanian rulers were heathen almost till the end of the 14th century. As such, they were the target of religious-cum-ideological military raids carried out by the Teutonic Knights (a German military order), who had settled on a northern piece of Polish territory at the invitation of a Polish prince and had subjugated Old Baltic Prussians in the land that is today part of north-eastern Poland and makes up the whole of Russia’s Kaliningrad Region.

The Lithuanian rulers also got caught in the ideological-cum-religious cross-hairs of the Polish Kingdom. Since the Teutonic Knights threatened both Poland and Lithuania, it was a good idea to combine the forces of the two states (along with all those vast Rus’ territories under Lithuanian rule!) to fend off the German assaults. By mutual consent, the grand duke of Lithuania became king of Poland (1386) on condition, of course, that he and his heathen subjects let themselves be baptized. A new body politic emerged, powerful enough to defeat the Teutonic Knights in a series of wars, of which the Battle of Grunwald (1410) described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in the novel The Teutonic Knights/Krzyżacy and skilfully shown in the movie under the same title became part of the nation’s collective psyche as iconic.

The union between Poland and Lithuania (i.e., Lithuania and huge parts of Rus’ as mentioned above), which later consolidated in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, meant that Catholicism made a further dent in the east and encroached somewhat on the Orthodox Christianity. With time, Lithuania developed a similar, typically Catholic devotion to the Mother of God, which materialized in the cult of a Marian icon in Vilnius, in the Chapel of Pointed Gateway/Ostra Brama. The cult was almost a one-to-one spiritual copy of the cult surrounding the Black Madonna in Częstochowa. Though the Polish rulers and the nobility were generally tolerant of other Christian denominations, the drive to bring Orthodox Christians to the common Roman fold was strong. A union of the churches (1596) was designed and implemented, by virtue of which Orthodox Christians, while preserving their rites, were to sever their relationship with Eastern churches and recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome. The so called Unite Orthodox Church came to life, which was yet another religious split in the russkiy mir — the Russian world: most of present-day Ukrainian nationalism and national identity derive from that church union or from that split: the Orthodox Church of eastern Rus’ with Moscow as the nascent organising principle of the russkiy mir (Kiev was then a provincial city within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was confronted by the orthodox spin-off church, by Orthodox Russian Catholics. To compound the religious and ethnic tensions, constant Jesuit missions operating in eastern territories of the huge Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth along with the numerous Jews operating on behalf of the magnates in their capacity of tax farmers, owners of mills and inns, land-lease holders, etc. brought about many uprisings of the Russian-speaking, Orthodox Ukrainians (though they were not known by that name then) and resulted in bloodbaths, slaughters, massacres and many acts of ethnic cleansing of the Polish colonizers and their Jewish fellow-travellers.

The greatest “Ukrainian” rebellion broke out in 1648; soon, in 1655 Sweden invaded Poland from the north; that same year Russia attacked from the east; while Ukrainians came close to the town of Lublin, the Swedes occupied Cracow and Russians took Vilnius (capital of the Lithuanian part of the Commonwealth). As a result, the Polish state ceased to exist for all practical purposes (which was precisely the period described by Henryk Sienkiewicz and filmed by Jerzy Hofmann in The Deluge, as mentioned above). It was the Częstochowa Monastery that successfully militarily defied the Swedish siege and marked the beginning of, at first, the guerrilla and then regular war against the aggressors. This period strengthened Polish Catholicism enormously. Why?

  • Swedes as Lutherans found support among Lutheran, Calvinistic and other Protestant minorities in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. To put it bluntly: the religious minorities committed high treason. Some of them were expelled after the war.
  • Orthodox Christian “Ukrainians” became to be hated for their massacres;
  • Orthodox Christian Russians were disliked for their treacherous cooperation with the Swedes and support that they lent to “Ukrainians”; eventually huge chunks of eastern Polish territories (with Kiev) were surrendered by “Ukrainians” to Moscow;
  • Jews showed little to no loyalty to the Polish monarch: they enjoyed huge autonomy anyway, having their own parliament, and at any one time usually remained loyal to the current occupier.

Thus Polishness came to mean Catholicism; Catholicism served Polishness best while external enemies and internal traitors were predominantly non-Catholic.

In the following century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could barely recover from the “deluge,” which gradually made it possible for its neighbours, especially Orthodox Russia and Lutheran/Calvinist Prussia to use the religious minorities inside the Commonwealth against the Commonwealth itself. Religious freedom was yesterday’s political trump card comparable to today’s interventions in the name of democracy or human rights. Those interventions from the neighbours carried out in the name of defending the rights of religious dissenters, too, consolidated the Catholic majority which began to perceive Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Calvinists and Jews as alien and hostile bodies, always ready to cooperate with the external enemy.

In a historically unprecedented chain of three consecutive events occurring between 1772 and 1795 (roughly concurrently with the time of the wars for American independence, and the French Revolution), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was methodically annihilated by Protestant Prussia, Orthodox Russia and the Catholic Hapsburg Empire, something reminiscent of the three hits that eventually liquidated Carthage, with this exception, however, that Carthage was conquered basically by one foreign entity. National uprisings filled the whole of the 19th century, directed now against Russia, now against Prussia, now against the Hapsburg Empire: all unsuccessful. Yet, they all consolidated the nation around Catholicism. Catholic priests were among the insurrectionists, often without the blessing of the official church; Catholic priests frequently acted as commanders of guerrilla units, and they often got killed at battle or were executed in public, as the case might be. The re-emergence of Polish statehood on a smaller territory as a result of the defeat of the three powers that had held a tight grip on Poland at the end of the First World War saw a reborn Polish state with a very large Jewish and Ukrainian minorities. The majority of the former did not even speak good Polish or did not speak Polish at all; the majority of the latter were intensely hostile towards the Polish state. Many — too many — of the former were members of subversive political organizations, especially of the “Polish” Communist Party (‘Polish’ in scare quotes since in reality it was more Jewish); many — too many — of the latter participated in terrorist organizations that carried out terrorist attacks, of which the assassination of a minister of internal affairs in Warsaw in broad daylight (1935) was the most notorious. When the Second World War erupted, Ukrainians would shoot at the back of Polish soldiers; during the years of German occupation, Ukrainians revelled in annihilating whole towns and villages inhabited by Poles — especially in Volhynia — with their cruelty shocking the battle-hardened, death-inflicting German SS-troopers.

The end of the Second World War meant redrawing of state borders and ethnic resettlements, which rendered Poland to be almost a 100% Polish and 100% Catholic, ruled by a tiny minority of communists, partly Polish, partly Jewish, both groups atheistic, foisted on the nation by Stalinist Soviet Russia. With almost no religious minorities to speak of, with the lack of a national nobility, in the face of the Russian-cum-Jewish hostile takeover of the state, with no real legal political opposition, Catholicism found itself at its strongest. Let us say it again: it acted as the nation’s nobility, it acted as political opposition, it acted as a store of national values, it acted as a moral guide, it acted as a haven of spiritual comfort, it acted as a reminder of Poland’s glorious past. The election of the Polish pope and his first visit to Poland made people raise their heads; it also sparked a spiritual positive ferment. As it is said today, hundreds of thousands turned up at open-air holy masses in the few cities that the pope visited: people saw that they were the majority; individuals saw that they were not isolated; individuals saw that there were millions of like-minded people, that there were millions who were fed up with Marxism-Leninism. Naturally, the Solidarity Movement that broke out only a year later (1980, and eventually brought about the fall of communism) acted hand in hand with the Polish Catholic Church, with the clergy brokering many deals between the opposition and the government or the communist party. The top echelons of the Solidarity Movement contained many former communist Jewish activists and they, too, sought protection within the Church.

In the four decades after the Second World War Poland may have been communist, and despite that fact it did not lose its collective Catholic soul. Christmas and Easter were solemnly celebrated while the radio and television dared not broadcast frivolous programmes or music during the Easter Triduum (which is not to say that there was anything remotely religious on offer). “Pan Tadeusz”, the national epic poem by the premier national bard, Adam Mickiewicz, was always mandatory reading. Children in state-run schools were required to learn by heart the several introductory lines to this poem, two of which read like this:

“O Holy Maid, who Częstochowa’s shrine
Dost guard and on the Pointed Gateway shine!”
(translated by Kenneth Mackenzie)

One might say, in today’s Poland Catholicism is dwindling. Yes, it is. The most shocking events occurred quite recently when, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision leaving abortion legislation to the states, thousands of young rabidly angry women in an act of protest stormed into churches, disrupting Holy Mass, because they held the church responsible for the very restrictive anti-abortion legislation. Yet, it is not without a reason that I mentioned the killing of Bishop Stanislaus at the behest of the Polish monarch or the scarring of the face of the Black Madonna by Polish hands. Such things have happened, happen and will continue to happen. Polish Catholics have been big sinners, adulterers, fornicators, murderers, blasphemers, you name it. If you take a close look, you might run away with wild conclusions. The moment you take a broad picture, you see the trend. Growing up, I remember thinking that atheism in the Soviet Union was as eternal as eternal the Soviet Union seemed to be. All of a sudden the Soviet Union was gone while the Russian Orthodox Christianity is seeing its revival. So, the broad picture remains: just as Russia’s spirit is Orthodox Christian (even if at times religion is suppressed or rejected) so Poland’s spirit is Catholic (with the same reservations).

And Catholicism is not simply a Jewish plot to destroy the White race.


[1] DVD with English subtitles.

[2] DVD with English subtitles.

[3] Częstochowa /chen-staw-KHAW-vah/

[4] DVD with English subtitles.

[5] Jerzy /YEH-zhy/

[6] Wyszyński /vysh-IN-skee/

[7] Sienkiewicz /shyenk-YEH-veech/