On World Youth Day, Pope Francis will encounter a changing Polish church.

The Polish church “should make a greater effort to understand Pope Francis in the context of South America, just as the people of Western Europe, after the election of John Paul II, tried to understand the specific reality of life in a communist state from which the pope then came.”

That is what Tomasz Dostatni, O.P., a writer and pastor in Poland who lives in Lublin and is actively engaged in ecumenical and social dialogue, told America on the eve of Pope Francis’ first visit to his homeland (July 27-31) on the occasion of World Youth Day.

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Father Dostatni sees a clear continuity between St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, as they both sought to bring down walls. The Polish pope sought to bring down the wall erected by communism between East and West, while the Argentinean pope is trying to bring down “the invisible wall” between the rich North and the poor South of the world, he said.

In this interview, conducted by phone, he spoke about the political situation in Poland today, the process of “de-Wojtyla-isation” that is under way and the negative reaction to immigrants. In particular, he expressed concern that the Polish church has aligned itself too closely to one political party, which is now governing the country, and says that it has not understood how to live and act as a free church in a free democratic state.

Father Dostatni was born in Poznan, Poland, on Sept. 17, 1964. After graduating with degrees in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, he was ordained a priest of the Dominican Order in 1990. He served as novice master for his order from 1990-95, and then as parish priest of the Polish Personal Parish and as a correspondent of Radio Vatican and the Catholic Information Agency in Prague. A writer, pastor to the intelligentsia, retreat giver and journalist, he is engaged in the ecumenical movement and social dialogue, and heads ‘Ponad granicami’ (‘Beyond the borders’), an arts festival in Lublin. He has given conferences in universities throughout the country and is a winner of the Angelus Prize in the “Man of Media Culture” category.

The following is the full text of the interview.

What has changed in Poland in social and political terms since 2005, when John Paul II died, and since Benedict XVI visited the country 10 years ago?

Poland finds itself today in a very peculiar situation, which can be characterized almost as a state of crisis involving the entire nation, as the first one-party government begins to question the very principles that made possible the transfer of power from the communists to the Solidarity movement 26 years ago. Poland has always been proud of the peaceful transition from communism to democracy initiated by the Round Table Talks, in which the Roman Catholic Church also played a major role. Today, the ruling Law and Justice party attempts to rewrite or reinterpret history, adjusting it to its present needs. My concern, shared by many others, is that such rewriting of history results from and strengthens the authoritarian tendencies exhibited by the present government.

What are the main causes of the present political tensions in Poland?

At the moment, the main cause of political tensions is the government’s attempts to control the Constitutional Tribunal, so as to prevent it from rejecting or amending any of the laws adopted by the present parliamentary majority. The government entered into direct conflict with the Constitutional Tribunal when a new law regulating its activities was passed that would eliminate or greatly reduce the tribunal’s power to declare a particular parliamentary act unconstitutional, thus undermining the principle of judicial independence.

What has changed in the Polish Catholic Church’s relations with the state and the Polish people over the past decade?

Speaking of the last decade, I think the question you ask touches upon the fundamental problem of the role of the church in the Polish society. We are talking here about the years after the death of John Paul II, and the pontificates of Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. Polish commentators often make use of the neologism of “de-Wojtyla-ization” of the Polish church. The pontificate of John Paul II was in continuity with the Second Vatican Council, having been based on dialogue as the only form of pastoral activity, the dialogue with contemporary Poland, with contemporary culture, with contemporary science, the ecumenical dialogue, the dialogue with other religions and, in the particular Polish situation, the dialogue with the Jews. And now all this seems to have been pushed aside, sidelined. This is how I would describe the last 10 years.

Do you mean that all those things regarding the various dialogues have been sidelined, marginalized, in the last 10 years?

Yes, all this has been pushed aside, being replaced by a largely defensive attitude rather than dialogue. There is no effort to continue the dialogue with non-Christians and their values, to see them as it were “from the inside.” All this has been abandoned, being replaced by a harsh critique, or even open hostility.

Is this happening, too, on the part of the church?

Unfortunately, yes, because the church doesn’t know how to act in this new situation, consequently it tends to adopt a defensive attitude rather than attempt to enter into dialogue and to share the values.

Has the church, have the Polish bishops aligned themselves too much with the present government?

Yes, most bishops tend to identify with the Law and Justice Party that is now in power, supporting its proposals of major changes in the functioning of the state that have significant social impact. In my judgment, all this results from the fact that those in power try to manipulate (“instrumentalize”) the church, whereas the bishops don’t know how to keep their distance from the government because they believe that it protects the values the church stands for.

It is a very dangerous game for the church. This “alliance between the altar and the state,” that occurs at various points in history, is something that fundamentally contradicts the social doctrine of the church and the Second Vatican Council. The social doctrine of the church refers to the autonomy of church and state, and it seems that this autonomy is now frequently violated.

Does this mean that the Polish bishops are breaking with the strategy of Wojtyla?

No, I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly. We must remember that the pontificate of John Paul II encompassed two different political “spaces,” the dividing line being the collapse of the communist system in 1989. The role played by the bishops during the communist period was very different from the role they play in liberal democracy. I think it is always very difficult to learn how to be a free church in a free democratic state.

Some reports say that many Poles, especially young people, have begun to distance themselves from the church in this decade. Is this true?

The Polish church is quite diversified. Apart from statistical and sociological data, one needs to take into account the fact that during the last 10 years Poland became part of the European Union, and so many young Poles have been able to study and work in different parts of Europe.

At this point, I would like to describe two different kinds of young people in the Polish church. There are many very active ecclesial movements in Poland, there are many young people who participate in voluntary activities of the so-called third sector. As a Dominican, during the last 20 years, I have participated in a very important annual event held in the ancient city of Gniezno, the place of Poland’s baptism, where over 100,000 young people gather at the time of the feast of Pentecost, which shows the church that is very much alive, active and dynamic.

On the other hand, you must bear in mind that about 80 percent of the students receive their religious instruction in public and private schools in Poland. So the question is how to teach religion in these schools, how to communicate with these young people? So, while an important part of the Polish church is very much alive, very dynamic, very rich and spiritually very intense, there are also many young people for whom religious instruction does not lead to any deeper personal religious experience.

I have visited Poland many times, and during the pontificate of John Paul II I noticed that there seemed to be a great religious sense, great religiosity in the country. Is the same true today?

You will see that this time, too, but it is only a manifestation, not necessarily superficial, of the holiday spirit of festive days. Some people say that when Pope Francis visits Poland, there will be great days of festivity, and then he will depart and we will be left alone with our problems, the ones I have mentioned earlier.

How do the Polish people, and especially the young people, view Pope Francis? What do they think of him?

It is an important question concerning both the Poles in general and the young people in particular. In Poland, we may say, there are two ways of seeing and welcoming Pope Francis. We can see this very well if we look at the question of immigrants. When the pope asked every parish, every sanctuary, every religious house to host one immigrant family, we saw that the bishops strongly supported his proposal, but, at the same time, one could hear many parish priests exclaim that “Pope Francis can say whatever he wants, but we have our own ideas.” On the other hand, the pope’s request found many supporters among the lay people.

As far as the state is concerned, the situation has changed as a result of the general election we had last year. Even though members of the present government openly declare themselves as Catholics, they say “no” to the immigrants. Why? Because public opinion polls reveal that 70 percent of Polish citizens are against welcoming the immigrants. It is somewhat paradoxical that among Polish Catholics, who constitute some 95 percent of the population, there is a growing fear of Arabs, Muslims and immigrants in general. This contradicts the teachings of the Gospels, and here I wish to point to continuity between the teaching of John Paul II and Pope Francis.

John Paul II was one of the key figures who helped bring down the Berlin Wall dividing Eastern Europe from Western Europe. Pope Francis is now trying to bring down the wall between the North and the South. At the time of John Paul II, it was a political wall; today, it is an invisible wall dividing the rich Northern Europe from the impoverished South, just as North America is separated by an invisible wall from the much poorer South America.

In this respect, I am somewhat critical of the Polish church. We should make a greater effort to understand Pope Francis in the context of South America, just as the people of Western Europe, after the election of John Paul II, tried to understand the specific reality of life in a communist state from which the pope then came.

To conclude, I would like to quote the words of John Paul II when he addressed the leaders of Central Europe in Gniezno in 1999. I quote from memory, “After the fall of the Berlin Wall we began to build again new walls of aggression, intolerance and wrongdoing in our hearts, but we must go beyond those walls that are beginning to rise.” These words provide a perfect commentary on the walls that John Paul II then and Pope Francis now want to bring down.

I’ve heard that some of the Polish bishops and priests are unhappy with the direction in which Pope Francis is leading the church, especially with his focus on poverty, migration (which you mentioned already) and, more recently, his post-synod exhortation on the family,  “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”).

I do not think that there has been a proper discussion of these things; all the discussion that there has been revolved around the results of the synod on the family and the words of Pope Francis uttered on that occasion. I am afraid that this was due to the fact that Pope Francis is not very well understood in Poland. From time to time I give a lecture entitled “Why is Pope Francis not well understood in Poland?” It’s something that I have said earlier but can summarize here in one sentence: The church in Poland, the Christians in Poland, and perhaps not only in Poland, but also in many other European countries, do not understand the whole context from which Pope Francis has come; people don’t understand the great changes that have taken place in the environment in which Pope Francis lived and worked, which by far exceed the changes that have taken place, for example, here in Poland.

Pope Francis wants to be close to the people and their problems. And seeing these problems, he wants to be close to the people as a man of the Gospels, to stay close to them and not let them alone. For me the best definition that I have heard of Pope Francis is that expression of “the field hospital.” When during the war they brought wounded people that needed to be treated to a field hospital, no one asked them whether they were believers or not, no one asked them if they were Jews, Muslims or Christians, no one asked them whether they were living in a sacramental marriage or not. First and foremost, one must try to save the person’s life and then, afterwards, one can begin to talk with him/her about other things. Pope Francis sees the great need to be close to the people, their everyday life, the problems of everyday life, and to talk to them about those problems.

What do you think this visit of Pope Francis, on the occasion of World Youth Day, will mean to the Polish church and the Polish people?

For my generation, it seems that during the past 30 years, the church, the Christians and the people as a whole took very seriously the words coming from Rome, both from the Polish pope and Pope Benedict, so I am sure that Pope Francis will leave us with words and reflections that will have a profound effect on the people. I think that the faithful will always look to the future with hope because they are certain that God will continue to be with them in the future. This is a very different way of thinking from that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who feared the future because they did not know what it would bring; they only saw chaos ahead. The Jews, the Christians and the Muslims see the presence of God both in the present and in the future.

Some people fear Pope Francis’ visit could be manipulated by the present government, but most people are sure that he knows how to keep the politicians and politics at a distance. And as a Christian I believe that the pope will leave us words that will stay with us long after he returns from his visit in Poland. 

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