In late July, the Polish Parliament created a new national holiday, “John Paul II Day,” to be celebrated every October 16, the anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s election as the 264th Bishop of Rome. According to the bill establishing the holiday, “John Paul II Day” is meant to “express the pride that a great humanist, a man of profound science and culture, was formed by the Polish tradition” — a man, the bill continued, who “taught how it is possible, keeping one’s own faith, to give respect and love to others.”
Just a month later, John Paul’s longtime secretary and confidant, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, was installed as the archbishop of Cracow. During the three-plus weeks I spent in Cracow this summer, I spoke with many of the new archbishop’s old friends, who were eager to welcome him home.
As indeed they should be. At the same time, Archbishop Dziwisz, his (and my) friends, and the entire Polish Church face a tremendous challenge. The parliament’s decision to create “John Paul II Day” is an admirable expression of a broadly felt national desire to honor a great son of Poland. The challenge for the Church in Poland will be to honor the memory of John Paul II by looking ahead, not by looking back.
Shortly after Archbishop Dziwisz’s appointment was announced, former Polish president Lech Walesa welcomed the news enthusiastically, saying, in so many words, that, just as John Paul II had told the Poles what to do with their hard-won freedom, Archbishop Dziwisz would now do the same. The former Solidarity hero was wrong on both counts: John Paul II didn’t give Poles political instructions (although he did talk President Walesa out of a hare-brained scheme to acquire nuclear weapons from rogue ex-Soviet operatives); and Archbishop Dziwisz shouldn’t (and won’t) issue political instructions to his people. The fact that Walesa seemed nostalgic for the days when the Polish hierarchy was a de facto political party does suggest, though, one measure of the challenge facing the new archbishop of Cracow.
Contrary to some expectations, Polish Catholicism hasn’t gone the way of Irish Catholicism, Spanish Catholicism, and Portuguese Catholicism in the sixteen years since the Revolution of 1989 — which is to say, Poland hasn’t abandoned its historic faith and the religious roots of its national culture. Quite the contrary. Poland today remains the most intensely Catholic culture this side of Guadalupe or Manila. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are strong in their own right, and astonishingly high by western standards. The Church remains the most respected institution in the country. As an American friend says every year in Cracow, “It’s amazing to be in a city where the principal civic activity on Sunday morning is going to Mass.”
Yet fervor, piety, and high rates of religious practice aren’t the whole story of Polish Catholicism. With rare exceptions, the Polish episcopate has yet to find a genuinely “public” voice in the debates over the life issues, biotechnology, and marriage in which all European and North American democracies are now embroiled. The Marxism of the bad old days in Polish high culture has frequently been replaced by the kind of post-modern skepticism and relativism that have eroded the civilizational morale of western Europe; and the Church has not, to date, effectively taught John Paul II’s conviction that we can, in fact, know the truth of things — even moral things — in ways that challenge the regnant intellectual cynicism. The intellectual and spiritual formation in diocesan seminaries must be strengthened, so that the priests of Poland’s 21st century are equipped to deal with the questions of Catholic faith and practice that inevitably arise in modern societies — and equipped to give more persuasive answers than “Because I told you so.”
John Paul the Great tried to help Poland prepare to be “the Church in the modern world” envisioned by Vatican II — a Church engaging the hardest question of contemporary life out of a deepened appreciation of the riches of its own tradition. Poland will best honor the memory of its noblest son by applying his teaching boldly and creatively, not nostalgically, to the future.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.