Thursday, June 01, 2006

Poland and the Vatican


Jun 1st 2006 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition

A papal visit pleased many Poles, but not everybody

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GERMAN visitors tend to get a chilly welcome in Poland, particularly under this prickly conservative government. But on the surface, the visit by the Bavarian-born Pope Benedict XVI last week could hardly have been more harmonious. More than 2m believers turned out to greet the pontiff—both in big cities and famous shrines, and in the small town of Wadowice, the birthplace of the first Polish pope, his much-mourned predecessor, John Paul II.


Hard to get through

The new pope's halting Polish makes it hard for him to reach the faithful in Europe's most Catholic country. But he could not wholly avoid the skein of hard historical and political issues facing the church there. One concerns priests who collaborated with the communist secret police, both in Poland, and, it seems, in the Vatican too. That dents the church's image as a bastion of anti-communist resistance. Benedict XVI urged the clergy not to sit in judgment on brethren who had misbehaved in “different times and different circumstances”.

The pope also made a delicate but clear intervention in the church's deepest division. Poland's more liberal-minded clerics, like the late John Paul II, advocate ecumenism and an open-minded attitude to science and the outside world. But another wing uses the paranoid rhetoric of ultra-conservatism.

Benedict followed in his predecessor's footsteps, taking part in an ecumenical meeting with Poland's small non-Catholic churches. He also told a meeting of Catholic clergy that “the faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God.” Priests were not asked to be experts in “economics, construction or politics”. That was a warning to politicised priests around Radio Maryja, a reactionary station much patronised by the current government but under pressure from church hierarchs.

Some felt that Benedict XVI's address in Auschwitz, in which he called the Nazis as “a ring of criminals [who] rose to power by false promises of future greatness” was inadequate. The pope was a brief and involuntary member of the Hitler Youth and a conscript in the Wehrmacht. But for many Poles, whose historical relations with Jews are barely less troubled than with Germans (though for quite different reasons), he epitomised a longed-for reconciliation.

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