The Papal Visit and Protestants in Poland, 1983

Bill Yoder (Mennonite), born in Ohio in 1950, is a free-lance church journalist and political science major studying in West Berlin. Yoder, who is a U. S. citizen and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite College, has lived in Europe since 1974. From 1977 until 1982 he was active as a Mennonite church representative relating to Protestant churches in the German Democratic Republic and Poland. From 1978 to 1980 he resided in Poland.


Polish Protestants make a disarmingly positive impression these days. During recent years Polish Baptists have averaged 100 baptisms annually. But during the crisis year of 1982 that number suddenly jumped to 207. This is the highest number ever in the 60-odd-year history of the Polish-speaking Baptist church. That record should be broken anew this year; Polish Baptists tentatively have 2,750 baptized members.


Warsaw pastor and Baptist vice-president Adam Piasecki describes present relations with the state as "very positive". "All recent changes have been for the better," he states categorically. The amount of printed matter is up, censorship is down, and building permits are readily granted. What Baptists most lack now is paper for their many publications.


At the beginning of this year, Protestant broadcasts were introduced to Polish radio for the very first time. Four Baptists services have been broadcast this year. This past March, it finally became possible to delegate Aleksander Kircun, Jr., the former Baptist pastor of Wroclaw, to full-time work with Radio Monte Carlo in Monaco. Adam Piasecki had produced Polish sermons on a part-time basis in recent years; it has long been possible for these foreign broadcasts to direct their listeners to addresses within Poland. Even the breakthrough to television has been made: On June 3, Billy Graham's film on the Polish evangelistic campaign of 1978 was shown on local television; it was followed a week later by an informative program on Polish Baptists.


The same phenomenon is evident in other Protestant churches. Andrzej Bajenski, the pastor of a United Evangelical Congregation in Warsaw, has similar news: Two years ago his congregation numbered 98 members; today it boasts 50 additional ones. He reports that virtually all of these new members come from non-evangelical circles. The United Evangelical Church is a loosely-knit grouping of four differing denominations, two of which are Pentecostal. The remaining two are the Russian-background "Evangelical Christians" as well as the "Church of Christ". Present membership has reached 12,000. The influx of new members unversed in the mores and customs of a once-exclusive evangelical subculture is cracking the hard shell of traditionalism. A new openness to wider Polish society results. Both Baptists and United Evangelicals announce the creation of new structures to cope with the challenge: Warsaw Baptists now offer weekly classes for interested outsiders. Joint Catholic-Baptist discussion groups formed in 1978 in Katowice, following Billy Graham's visit there, are still functioning. Both evangelical groups note increasing openness within grass-roots Catholic circles. In contrast to the past, Warsaw Baptists now enjoy a hearty relationship with a neighboring Catholic congregation.


The Methodist general-secretary, Witold Benedyktowicz, mentions an increase in Warsaw membership from 200 to 240 in the past two years with contributions up 400 percent. National membership has increased during the same period by 400 to approximately 6,000.


June 17, 1983, was a big day for Polish Protestantism. In Cardinal Josef Glemp's Warsaw residence, a Pope met with Polish Protestants for the first time in history. Unfortunately, the feelings of gratification were short-lived. During the ensuing mass in Warsaw 's soccer stadium, the Pope's extended words of greeting avoided any mention of his invited non-Catholic guests. This was assuredly no accident, for the Polish episcopate has no interest in marring its portrayal of Poland as a monolithic Catholic nation. Yet Protestants have played a visible role in Poland ever since the 16th century. Reformed bishop Zdzislaw Tranda bemoaned the Pope's silence, for papal recognition of Protestant existence within Poland before the watching eyes of the entire nation would have had "an enormous psychological--others spoke of an 'educa­tional' effect."


The over-extended initial conversation between Pope John Paul II and General Jaruzelski left only a half hour remaining for dialogue with the 30 delegates of the Polish Ecumenical Council. (Delegates from the minute Jewish and Muslim communities were also present.) The session therefore needed to be restricted to two short addresses delivered by the Pope and the Methodist professor Witold Benedyktowicz, honorary president of the Ecumenical Council. No time remained for an open discussion on the outstanding issues. Protestant satisfaction was therefore essentially limited to the fact that this historic meeting did take place at all.


The Pope's second visit to Poland occurred against a backdrop of continuing ecumenical tensions. During the late 1970s and until 1981, more than ten Lutheran-owned churches had been confiscated by zealous, space-hungry Catholics. Recently, a Lutheran graveyard in the vicinity of Lodz was seized. Barbara Engholc-Narzynska, the director of the Warsaw branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society, contends that this latest incursion was motivated by financial interests. The sale of graveyard plots is a lucrative business in present-day Poland. Andrzej Wojtowicz, the Lutheran official responsible for the foreign relations of the Ecumenical Council, described his very recent visit to the village of Szestno. The Lutheran church of Szestno had been taken over by Catholic squatters on October 9, 1981. In the meantime, a large cross with the inscription "Holy Missions 1982" has been placed before the church, which according to Wojtowicz refers to the "expulsion of Protestants". A new stone plaque on the history of the church makes no reference to its century-long existence as a Protestant one. Today, Szestno's 160 Lutheran communicants must travel to the neighboring town of Mragowo for services.


Contracts resulting in the sale or rental of eight expropriated churches were signed by Lutheran offices in 1981, negotiations on six further cases are now underway. Yet Szestno had to be excluded from these talks. Wojtowicz labels these Catholic actions as "attempts to forego negotiations". "One could also reason with us in an ecumenical spirit," he contends. Because of these incidents, Lutheran participation in joint Catholic-Protestant commissions was dropped two years ago. Yet, if present plans hold, their participation will be resumed in the near future.


Professor Benedyktowicz warns against hasty condemnation: As heirs of the Polish Counter-Reformation, Catholics "have a difficult time understanding us small churches". They can therefore only react by attempting to bring Protestants back into the fold. Several Protestant leaders have admitted that some Lutheran pastors are not above anti-Catholic sentiment on their own part. Most of the confiscated churches were little-used by the dwindling number of Lutherans; all chapel expropriations in recent years have taken place in the once-German northeastern region of the country


Obviously, the sharp increase in the veneration of Mary by the Pope during his most recent visit can only have a negative effect on ecumenical relations. A recent article in the Reformed periodical "Jednota" [Unity] questioning the theological justification for the adulation of Mary resulted in a flurry of letters from irate Catholics. Since the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is deeply interwoven into the strains of Polish nationalism, her few local critics have no easy lot proving their Polishness. The emotional allure emanating from the "Lady of Jasna Góra" [Bright Mountain] may appear puzzling to the outsider, yet she most deeply personifies Polish love for the Motherland.


Andrzej Wojtowicz has pointed out that the waves of Catholic nationalism reach a peak during papal visits to Poland. Since even party members are often Catholic in their hearts, it is probably Polish Protestantism which experiences the least joy when a Polish Pope returns to home turf.


Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth

The election of Barbara Engholc-Narzynska into the presidium of the state-supported "Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth" (PRON) has raised eyebrows. In April, her husband, the Lutheran bishop Janusz Narzynski, became the new president of the Ecumenical Council . (Lutheran membership in Poland may be as high as 100,000.) PRON, a "movement" brought into being by the state in May 1982, attempts to form a platform for all "persons of good will" concerned about the moral and social regeneration of the nation. Mrs. Narzynska' s PRON career began September 15, 1982, when, during meeting of the Ecumenical Council with General Jaruzelski, he suggested Council participation within PRON as a means of strengthening its ·intended pluralistic thrust. Since Mrs. Narzynska was the only non-cleric member of the Council's presidium, she was delegated to attend a meeting of PRON yet that same evening. On May 9, at PRON’s first national congress, she was elected into its 40-member presidium. Strangely enough, the somewhat unwieldy Ecumenical Council-­it represents eight Protestant, Old-Catholic and Orthodox churches--has no uniform-understanding of its own official status within PRON. Mrs. Narzynska contends that the Ecumenical Council enjoys formal membership in the same fashion as do numerous Catholic lay organizations; other Council spokesmen disagree. Crystal clear is the fact that no church belongs to PRON as a church.


Andrzej Wojtowicz contends that all gaps cropping up within the government's weak ruling structures have been quickly filled by the Catholic Church. He protests against the "increasing clericalism" of public life. He reacts sharply to the accusation that Protestants are attempting to curry state favor at Catholic expense through PRON involvement, and states "Catholics would be happiest if we stayed at ­home and did not even attempt to articulate ourselves in public life". Each papal visit demands extensive contacts between Catholic and government authorities, yet as soon as the Lutheran bishop meets once with Jaruzelski, "we're accused of 'collaboration'." Protestant coopera­tion with the PRON movement can be understood as a simple attempt to stay afloat within the rising waters of Polish Catholicism.


Although the Episcopate refuses to send official delegates to any PRON events, Mrs. Narzynska still remains the only Protestant within the predominantly Catholic PRON presidium. Even Mrs. Narzynska's supporters are disheartened by the selection of Jan Dobraczynski as chairman of PRON. Dobraczynski is a widely-read but "arch-conservative" Catholic author. Wojtowicz portrays him as "hostile towards Protestants" and adds that "he would eagerly expel all Protestants from PRON." The director of the Warsaw Bible Society concedes that Dobraczynski "sees everything through a confining Catholic prism". For non-Catholics, his election runs counter to the movement's express desire for pluralistic broadness.


PRON's Protestant detractors are even less favorable regarding Dobraczynski. As a leader of the very Catholic and erstwhile Falangist Pax movement, he has nevertheless remained in the good graces of every Polish government since the early 1950s. In short, he hardly sports an unspotted past. These same Protestants view cooperation with PRON as assent to martial law. They were hardly elated by a TV appearance of Mrs. Narzynska , in which she supposedly defended the introduction of martial law. During the Reformed Synod in May - the Reformed Church boasts only 4,000 members in Poland - Bishop Tranda is said to have discouraged any involvement within PRON.


Barbara Engholc-Narzynska nevertheless remains undaunted in her claim that something had to be done to "get us out of this social rut". According to her, PRON's openness for all those "of good will" may offer a real opportunity to break down the existing walls of hatred and mistrust. Within this movement, even "common, every-day people" can voice their complaints directly to the highest government officials. The honesty and openness of answers proffered by state ministers has made a lasting impression on her. A Protestant pastor has expressed surprise concerning the government initiative to found PRON: On public television, a PRON spokesman had minced no words in lambasting the state authorities. He felt PRON could form the seed of a new movement similar to the "Solidarity" of yore.


United Evangelical pastor Andrzej Bajenski states categorically that he "would be afraid to live in a country governed by Solidarity". Wojtowicz accuses Solidarity leaders of "having forgotten their geography"; today descriptions of the labor union are peppered with adjectives such as "immature" and "radical". The much-vaunted demonstra­tions during the papal visit could hardly be described as impassioned. Some Americans claim to have observed the "Iranian phenomenon" outside Warsaw stadium on June 17: The chants and V-signs appeared largely restricted to those moments when the crowds knew themselves to be before Western TV cameras. When the lights turned green, the crowds surged across the thoroughfare, consistently leaving the protesting in .the hands of those who remained further back.


On May 27, the first official reception of a strictly Lutheran delegation by General Jaruzelski took place. Polish Lutherans readily point out that state president Henryk Jablonski makes no secret of his own Lutheran ancestry. However, government openness to the non-Catholic churches places it in a considerable bind. It hopes to counter Catholic supremacy through increased recognition of Protestant existence; yet in doing so, it engenders the working relationship necessary between itself and the Episcopate.


The Protestant minority fears a return to the status of pre-War church-state relations. For obvious reasons they prefer a secular state. Frightening as well as encouraging clouds are approaching on the horizon; Professor Benedyktowicz notes that the government is increas­ingly taking on the shape of a coalition. Deputy Prime Minister Zenon Komender is also chairman of Pax; at least two government ministers - ­including the press speaker Jerzy Urban - are partyless. It still remains an open issue as to whether the government is moving towards true coalition, or whether the coalitioning will be restricted to Catholic organizations.


Obviously, Cardinal Glemp and General Jaruzelski are the primary benefactors of this papal visit. Both have been struggling with radicals in their ranks; both of these moderates have been strengthened through the successful completion of the papal pilgrimage. The unimaginable seems to be occurring: Despite multitudes of unsolved issues, Polish life does seem to be returning to its former state of mildly chaotic "normalcy." Pastor Bajenski states that "we no longer have any fear of the government". Apparently, the events of 1981 have proven the government's mortality to many. Bajenski considers it his calling as a Christian to soothe those who still harbor aggressive feelings towards the government.


Mrs. Narzynska is assuredly not alone in her regret for the imple­mentation of U.S. government sanctions. She fears that they "may destroy the traditional bonds of friendship between our peoples". Many feel that they have been abandoned during their time of greatest need. "This should have a negative effect on the people of our nation," she warns.


A Warsaw friend perhaps came close to the truth in his description of the present situation in Poland. He stated: "As usual, it's not that bad, and it's not that good. But it's always interesting.''


Spiritual Revival

Bible sales are way up. The Bible Society's sales during 1982 were up 100 percent over the normal annual distribution of 100,000 copies. This year promises to be even better. The Bible Society has now become the principal customer of a state-owned printing firm in Warsaw. As a recipient of Western paper, the Bible Society enjoys the rare fortune of possessing a sufficient supply of paper. Most Bibles are purchased by Catholics, yet Catholic publishing houses have shown little interest in the production of Bibles. According to Mrs. Narzynska, Catholic firms view Bible production from a strictly "mercantile" perspective. They realize that much higher profits can be attained through the printing of high-gloss material on the Cracovian Karol Wojtyla. During Luther festivities in the south Polish town of Cieszyn in early May, the first Lutheran bookstore in Poland was opened. This bookstore, as well as the state's elimination of a sales tax on Bibles, should help the sale of Bibles in the future. The United Evangelical Church states that all 5,000 Catholic-edition Bibles imported last year were swept from the shelves within three weeks.


Professor Benedyktowicz points out that in the weeks following the proclamation of martial law on December 13, 1981, churches were the sole leisure-time institutions open to the public. Yet a deeper source of spiritual awakening is to be found in the political uncertainties of that period. In addition, since the small Protestant denominations received far more aid per capita than the Catholic ones, they were forced to become deeply involved in aid distribution to the general populace. Protestant leaders all report that this service led to innumerable new and meaningful contacts with Catholic and state representatives. The present spiritual renewal is attributed to these new contacts as well as the political uncertainties of the recent past. Today, Polish food and consumer supplies are greatly improved. Andrzej Wojtowicz notes that "shipments were accepted with great thankfulness, yet in the long run, they lead to moral crises."


Incidentally, the issue of women pastors is presently a live one among Polish Lutheran and Reformed. Due to local ecumenical considerations, the sole fully-ordained female pastor in Poland is an elderly, retired Methodist. Lutherans presently have approximately eighteen young women theologians waiting in the wings.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, 25 June 1983


Published in this form with the above intro in November 1983 by the “Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe”, 2,741 words. An abbreviated version appeared in "Christianity Today" on 5 August 1983.


Note from June 2021: PRON, a type of national front, only existed from 1982 until 1989. Other living dates: the Methodist Witold Benedyktowicz (1921-97), the Lutheran Janusz Narzynski (1928-2020) and his spouse Barbara Engholc-Narzynska (1931-2019).


Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) lived from 1920 until 2005, Józef Cardinal Glemp (1929-2013) General Wojciech Jaruzelski (1923-2014), the Catholic writer Jan Dobraczyński (1910-94) and the evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018).


Andrzej Bajeński (1954), Zdzislaw Tranda (1925), Andrzej Wótowicz (1946) and very likely also Aleksander Kircun Jr. are still living