The Polish Catholic Church and the People
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more than 90 percent of Polish children were baptized in the Catholic Church, showing that the younger generation shared loyalty to traditional religion. Surveys of young people in the 1980s showed an increase in professed religious belief over the decade, from 74 percent to 96 percent. Also, the number of men preparing for the priesthood rose from 6,285 to 8,835 between 1980 and 1986. The church's influence extended far beyond the limits of a traditional predominant religion, however. Especially in rural areas and among the less-educated urban population, religion permeated everyday life, and church attendance was higher in the communist era than it had been before World War II. As other forms of social affiliation were repressed or reorganized, churches continued as the de facto arbiters of a wide range of moral and ethical problems in their communities, a role they had assumed initially during the war. Although church affiliation was less prevalent among the educated elite, over 60 percent of that group (which included most of the nominally atheistic communist ruling class) professed belief in Catholicism in 1978.
Experts point to certain characteristics of Polish Catholicism to explain its unique resilience in a population bombarded for decades with state-sponsored atheistic propaganda. Polish Catholic religiosity focuses more strongly on the Virgin Mary and the saints than on the direct relationship of the individual to God or on abstract religious doctrine. The most important pilgrimage destination for Polish Roman Catholics is the image of the Virgin (called the Black Madonna) at Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa. The image is believed to have rescued Poland miraculously from invasions by the Tatars and the Swedes, and some Solidarity leaders wore replicas of the icon.
Especially for less-educated Poles, Mary represents a tangible yet mystical connection with God much preferable to contemplation of abstract theological doctrine. During the communist era, this more immediate and anthropocentric religiosity seemed uniquely resistant to replacement by the intellectual doctrine of atheism. On the other hand, in the early 1990s, once the specter of state-sponsored atheism had disappeared, this immediacy promoted individual expression of beliefs in ways that questioned the church's authority over secular social ethics. Thus, the official church that had protected the spiritual interests of all Poles under communism risked separation from the everyday religious practice that retained great meaning for the average Polish Catholic.
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