In God we trust
After Malta, Poland is probably the second most strictly religious country in the European Union. Many of Poland`s historical national heroes associated themselves with the Catholic Church and many still do so today. It was again the Catholic Church who equipped people with inspiration to bear the oppression of communism. Religion, combined with the concept of family, is one of the major cornerstones in Polish society.
`Going to church is what the old ladies do`, is what I heard in many countries before Poland. The Poles have some of these old ladies as well. The most fanatic ones are called `devoty`, and they don`t just go to church on Sunday. Instead, they spend entire days in church, praying for whoever submits a request to the priest. They stereotypically spend their days listening to Catholic Radio and following its advices. Whenever national elections are held, some young people support the slogan `Steal your grandmother`s identity card`, which refers to the fact that she will vote for whoever the Church prescribes her to vote for. The `devoty` are also known for facing youngsters with their responsibilities, for example by discouraging them to buy cigarettes in supermarkets whenever they witness such `sins`.
`I agree with many ideas of the church, but definitely not all of them. Some elements are just too ambiguous to be summarised into one single truth`
Poles will be introduced to religious life at a young age. Within a few months after birth, Polish children are baptised. Unlike the Greeks kids, they already have a first name at birth, but they will be given a second one when they are baptised. A third name is even added when they pass their Confirmation at the age of 15. Receiving this ritual Sacrament turns people into religious adults, even though they are legally still minors. One of the promises that candidates for Confirmation have to make is that they will not drink alcohol before reaching the age of 18. Fortunately, the Catholic Church also provides for an institution that serves to free people off their sins: Confession.
A good Christian is supposed to confess his sins to a priest at least in the week before Easter, but preferably more often than that. Not confessing sins is considered one of the greatest sins of all. Monika (27) would like to do that, but she is not allowed at the moment. `I am living together with my boyfriend, which is not allowed by religious standards. We know that we will get married soon, we have already selected a date, and we are only living together for practical reasons. I am from another city and it started to become too tiring to travel back and forth all the time.`
The church plays an important role in the lives of many Poles. It has its own media channels and its opinion may even decide the outcome of elections. Robert (21, photo) tells me about Radio Maria, a strongly religious radio station that reaches into many Polish households and instructs them about what is right and what is wrong. `Radio Maria has its largest audience among old people. Young people from cities usually start laughing when they even hear the name of the station, even though the station also has plenty of young listeners. The owner of the radio station is quite a controversial man. Religion in Poland also means big money and a lot of power, no matter how much that goes against the standards set by that very same church.`
Robert continues by telling that the `opinion of the church` will be consulted for almost each major political decision in Poland. `TV station TRWM broadcasts interviews with priests, and most of them focus on how they think one or another decision should be taken. Ordinary talkshows or news programs on regular stations are equally likely to include a priest to represent the opinion of the church. Many people put a lot of trust in these opinions, although young people tend to be more critical towards the general doctrines imposed by the church. More and more people are becoming selective about what they agree with and what not.`
`Polish schools pay a lot of attention to religious education. Priests and sisters are sent in to teach pupils about John Paul II, about the Bible, about right and wrong, about praying and about how to maintain a proper relation with God and with other humans. School classes all have Christian crosses somewhere in the room. In much the same way, it is common for all sorts of authorities to have crosses in their offices, for people at home as well, and even shops openly express their religious affection. We are not very used to hearing about other religions, probably because priests do not want to answer complicated questions about which religion is right and how one God is different from the other.`
`I personally believe in something but not exactly in the concept that is prescribed by the Catholic Church. I am still finding out what I believe in. I don`t like priests who talk in absolute truths. Most of the times when I go to church ? which is about once a month ? it is when one specific priest is leading the ceremony. This man is not simply preaching and instructing, he is talking about ethics and philosophy in a way that allows for people to create their own opinions.`
Compared to other countries in Europe, the Catholic Church in Poland has conservative ideas about ethics. It could only be Poland that started a debate about whether or not BBC`s Teletubbies should be banned from TV because one of the characters could possibly (!) represent a gay person. That would make the program unsuitable and immoral for young children to watch. `I think many people in Poland smiled when they hear about this`, Robert says. `It`s quite an extreme example of the influence of religion on the way people think.`
Whenever a conversation changes to the topic of homosexuality, Poles are likely to start laughing before saying that people are allowed to be gay as long as they don`t show it to anybody. Gay marriages are not allowed in Poland and it would be hard to find any majority voting in favour of legal adjustments in this direction. Daniel (25) can`t help feeling very upset when he sees two men publicly showing affection for each other. `It makes me feel angry`, he says, explaining that it is unnatural and immoral for people to behave that way. I don`t get as upset when it`s two women, but even that is quite a disgusting site to me.`
Right and wrong
`Polish couples tend to get married at young age, usually during their studies or shortly after`, says Natalia (19). `Just like people who do not study, they will often be between 20 and 25 years old by the time the wedding takes place`, says Natalia. `The family is important in Poland and it is a popular subject, also for people who do not know each other. Once strangers are introduced to each other, they may well inquire whether the other is married, has children, brothers and sisters.. Talking about divorces used to be a bit of a taboo, but in some higher social circles, it is now even considered a quite popular subject.`
Although many girls pledge to stay virgin until they marry, only very few manage to withstand temptation. Natalia has so far managed and is quite proud of that. `I think it`s not so much about staying virgin until you marry. It`s more of a question of who you offer your virginity to and I haven`t found the right person for that yet. All of my classmates have, which is good for them. I don`t think it`s much of a sin. I find it more annoying when priests claim that they don`t have a wife and don`t have children, even if they do. Those things are only normal, why would a priest not be allowed to have a wife and children if everybody else is. They just shouldn`t lie about it.`
When the subject turns to abortion and euthanasia, Natalia replies that she does not consider either of them ethical. `I don`t think people should have the right to kill their children or parents. How can you decide for a child that it doesn`t have the right to live? Abortion is illegal in Poland and if I was to decide about it, I would keep it that way. There are now only four exceptions that allow people to abort their pregnancy: if the woman`s physical health is at risk, if she has been raped or if the child has no chance of being born healthy. I don`t remember the fourth excuse. For euthanasia, it`s a little less clear. It should not serve as a way for people to get rid of their parents and to take all their possessions. I think it`s a very delicate issue and I don`t know how to apply it in such a way that it doesn`t put anybody at risk.`
The reason for Natalia`s rejection of abortion and euthanasia has little to do with fear for God`s anger. `I think God is a good, old man who lives in heaven. Most Poles believe in life after death which gives them the strength to cope with losses in their lives, and also with their own mortality.`
Laura (19) tells me that, beside educating people to become decent Christians, the church also provides an infrastructure for all sorts of charity movements and big cultural events. `Many churches organise trips to the Vatican on an almost monthly basis. Some people go to Lourdes in France, but the most common way for Poles to celebrate their faith is by joining the Czestochowa ? Jasna G?ra procession. This event is taking place in July, when people from all over Poland walk to Czestochowa, many of them in groups. They sleep at people`s places on the way if they promise to pray for their hosts while walking, they sing and pray together. It`s a huge event in which almost every single Pole joins once during their lifetime, although many people take a bus or car instead of walking all the way.`
A recently adopted law gives the Poles even more reasons to praise the church. The number of religious holidays has officially been set at 11 while other initiatives aim to bring back the habit of closed shops on Sundays. As a nice illustration, the Polish word for Sunday, Niedziela or `no working` already implies that it is a day on which people should not work. In many cases, including time tables of public transportation, Sunday - along with public holidays - is described as Swieta which means `holy`. These are just a few examples of how deep religion is embedded in Polish life. For the better, as many Poles claim.
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