by Tom Piatak
An energetic and engaging evangelical church publishes a prayer calendar describing the missionaries from the church, other missions supported by the church, and the world mission field, as seen from the perspective of the church, all for the purpose of soliciting prayers for those mission efforts. Unfortunately, I find that calendar rather less engaging than some of the church’s other activities.
That calendar describes a European country in these terms:
Population: 37,496,737 Believers: 0.3%. There is a great need for witness in X, with 90% of municipalities having no [functioning] church.
Most [citizens of X] are resistant to the gospel due to either their cultural faith or their spiritual apathy. There is certainly a need and an open door for missionaries to come and serve alongside the national church. Pray for evangelicals to rise to this great challenge.
Although listing the number of believers in Jesus Christ as 0.3 percent of the population is far too low for any European country, other parts of the description come far closer to describing the religious atmosphere in some of the more secularized parts of the continent. But this is not the church’s description of Walloonia, Thuringia, or Stockholm. Rather, it is that evangelical church’s description of Poland, one of the most religiously observant nations in all of Europe, and one of the most socially conservative. The number of abortions allowed under Polish law each year numbers around 1,000.
Indeed, the description highlights what regrettably seems to be a tenet of this particular church’s beliefs: Catholics do not deserve to be numbered among the followers of Jesus Christ, and not one of us deserves to be called a Christian. It is hard to draw any other conclusion from a piece claiming that “believers” constitute a mere 0.3 percent of Poland’s population, a population that is, as a whole, “in great need of witness” and “resistant to the gospel.”
Kolbe and Biernacka, Nazis and Communists
What, I wondered, could Maksymilian Kolbe or Marianna Biernacka have learned about being Christians from such American evangelicals? Both of these Poles — one a Franciscan friar, the other a simple, peasant grandmother — quickly made the same heroic Christian choice when faced with the same dreadful opportunity.
Kolbe was in Auschwitz when he volunteered to take the place of a young Polish father who had been sentenced to die in reprisal for Germans killed by Polish guerrillas. Biernacka was in her peasant village when she volunteered to take the place of her pregnant daughter-in-law, who also had been sentenced to die for the same reason. Both Kolbe and Biernacka did as their Master wanted them to do: Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Some members of this particular evangelical church would likely be put off because Biernacka asked to take her rosary with her, a rosary she prayed regularly her whole life, including the two weeks in Nazi captivity before her execution. Some also would likely be discomfited by Kolbe’s Marian devotion, which was as deep as Biernacka’s but more far-reaching. He founded a religious order to spread devotion to the Mother of God.
But failing to understand why Biernacka treasured her rosary and Kolbe spent his life fostering Marian devotion cannot obscure the central point that, at the critical juncture of their lives, both Biernacka and Kolbe imitated our Blessed Lord.
Rather than regard rosaries and Marian devotion as “idolatrous,” the members of this church might want to view them, more charitably, as distractions unable to obscure a person’s central focus on Christ. Or even to contemplate the possibility that Kolbe and Biernacka did what they did because they shared Christ’s love for the woman who, in Chesterton’s phrase, “God kissed in Galilee.” After all, we have it on good authority that, with respect to Mary, all generations shall call me blessed.
Kolbe and Biernacka were far from alone in their martyrdom. The Nazis killed one fifth of all Polish priests. But even when the sentence for studying for the priesthood was death, as it was in Nazi-occupied Poland, Polish men risked their lives studying to be priests. One of those seminarians was, of course, Karol Jozef Wojtyla.
It was Poland’s fate to be subjected to a brutal Soviet occupation after a genocidal Nazi occupation. Neither of the 20th century’s great totalitarian dictatorships had any regard for the Poles or their Faith, but neither could shake them of it.
A pertinent example is that of the Communist-designed town of Nowa Huta, built just outside of Krakow. Nowa Huta was intended to transform Polish Catholic peasants into model Communist proletarians, and it was purposely built without a church. Much to the Communists’ consternation, though, the residents of Nowa Huta kept demanding a church. To mark the location of the church they had been requesting for over a decade, the citizens of Nowa Huta erected a large cross in 1960.
The Communist authorities attempted to take down the cross. But when housewives in the nearby apartments saw what was happening, they rushed to defend the cross. Workers from the nearby steel mill, the place the Communists had planned to be the heart of Nowa Huta, soon joined the phalanx of housewives. But the ordinary people of Nowa Huta wanted a church of Jesus Christ to be at the heart of their city, and soon 5,000 or so Polish Catholics ringed “the wood upon which hung the Savior of the world,” risking their livelihoods and their very lives to try to prevent its removal.
The defenders of the cross put up a good fight, but they were finally dispersed after the Communists killed dozens and arrested hundreds more.
Still, the Catholics of Nowa Huta did not give up. For nearly a decade after the clash, the people of Nowa Huta put up one new cross after another. Each time the Communists took down one cross, a new one appeared. In rural areas of Poland, when the Communists turned down requests to build new churches, people sometimes even clandestinely built simple wooden churches in sections that could be assembled in one night, presenting the Communists with a fait accompli.
In their long struggle to build a church in Nowa Huta, the people had a strong ally in Karol Wojtyla, who became an Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow in 1958, Archbishop in 1964, and Cardinal Archbishop in 1967. Wojtyla not only spoke out on their behalf but also offered the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass at the cross they had erected. He made a particular point of saying Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at that cross, the special Mass the Poles call the Pasterka. Thousands regularly endured the bitter cold of a December night in Poland to attend Cardinal Wojtyla’s Pasterkas in Nowa Huta, to celebrate the Incarnation, and sing some of the numerous Polish carols that tell the story of Christ’s birth. In 1967, the Communists finally relented and allowed the people of Nowa Huta to have their church.
What, I wondered, could the people of Nowa Huta have learned from American evangelicals about “church planting?” Or about how to defend Christianity in a hostile public square?
Then we come to the amazing events of June 1979, when Karol Wojtyla, elected as Pope John Paul II in October 1978, visited Communist Poland. It is universally acknowledged that this was the event that lit the long fuse that eventually detonated Soviet Communism. Up to one third of all Poles saw John Paul II in person and came away realizing that “we” were many and “they” were few.
From that realization sprang the Solidarity trade union the following year, and the world watched with amazement as Poland’s Communist government was forced to end its monopoly of political power. To make unmistakably clear who was responsible for this remarkable development, Lech Walesa signed the agreement recognizing Solidarity with a giant souvenir pen bearing the likeness of John Paul II.
Again, I wondered, what could American evangelicals have taught the Poles who founded Solidarity about how to apply Christian principles in the political realm?
Of particular note, given this evangelical church’s view that Poles are in “great need” of “witness” from American evangelicals and “resistant to the gospel” to boot, is John Paul’s homily of June 2, 1979, given at Victory Square in Warsaw, the capital of an officially atheist state that held, as dogma, that belief in Christ obscured the reality of man.
On the contrary, insisted John Paul II:
Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. … The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.
In response, more than a million Poles chanted, “We want God!”
Not even the great Billy Graham ever received such a reception.
Christians Of The World Unite
Of course, 1979 is a long time ago. Religious practice is not as ubiquitous in Poland now as it was then. Sunday Mass attendance hovers around 40 percent or less, although the most recent number I found is 43 percent. The youngest generation — too young to remember John Paul as a dynamic Pope or even at all — is particularly disaffected, with one poll finding that only 9 percent of the youngest Poles had a positive view of the Church.
Still, nearly 25 percent of young Poles regularly attend Mass, and 85 percent of Poles send their kids to the Catholic catechetical course that is offered, but not required, in every Polish school. And despite dissatisfaction with the Church, nearly 90 percent of the population still professes to be Catholic and to believe in God, and nearly 70 percent say religion plays an important part in their lives.
Poles and Polish priests working in other EU countries also play an important part in sustaining the Catholic Church throughout Europe. Interesting fact: The number of Poles in England is one reason more Catholics there attend Sunday Mass, than Anglicans in England or Presbyterians in Scotland attend their services.
To put it bluntly, no one would ever confuse Poland with such bastions of the regnant agnosticism as Edinburgh, Geneva, Saxony, or Amsterdam. Nor woud anyone reasonably mistake the Catholic Church in Poland for such moribund institutions as the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Dutch Reformed Church, or the Swiss Reformed Church, all of which mix empty pews with belief in the gods of our age: sex unencumbered with progeny, marriage until inconvenient, homosexuality seen as the equal in every respect of heteresexuality, and a fervent belief in the insanity that is transgenderism.
Yet, judging by its calendar, this particular evangelical church seems more alarmed that Poland remains Catholic than that the faith spawned by the Reformation has, in large measure, simply collapsed in the places where it began, with the exception of such enclaves as the Dutch Bible Belt and the northern part of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. The calendar at least generally credits those nations with a glorious past, despite the current prevalence of unbelief, without suggesting resistance to the gospel as a national characteristic.
But Poland recently reminded the world just how deeply it has been permeated by Christianity. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, millions of Ukrainian refugees — mostly women, children, and the elderly — fled to Poland.
Across Poland, people spontaneously organized to help their displaced Ukrainian neighbors. Many Polish families took Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Numerous rectories, seminaries, convents, and monasteries did likewise. The people who did that were indeed Christians, even if they don’t believe in salvation through grace alone by faith alone, even if they still venerate Mary and the Saints, even if they adorn their homes and churches with religious imagery, and even if they believe that Jesus Christ is present Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Blessed Sacrament.
After all, recall how the best authority we have exhorted his followers: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. … I was a stranger and you took me in. (Note that Jesus is speaking of how we deal with those we encounter in our daily lives, not political ideology).
None of this is to deny the many problems that plague the Catholic Church today, even in Poland. Nor is it meant to diminish the powerful force for good evangelical Protestantism has been for many people, in many places, including the particular evangelical church in question.
This is a time when Christians around the world are facing increasing persecution. That persecution is coming from secularist progressives in the West, anti-Western nationalists in places like India and China, and by Muslims in countries too numerous to mention. These persecutors do not care if their victims are Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, or Catholic. They are all Christians, as far as they’re concerned.
Maybe that’s how we Christians should start viewing each other, at least during a dark time that seems likely to grow darker. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if we Christians do not hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.
I am quite content to stand with Protestants and Eastern Orthodox to defend Christian morality and to oppose anti-Christian persecution. Despite differences in what we believe, I certainly regard Protestants and Orthodox as fellow Christians. Indeed, I believe Catholics have much to learn from committed Christians in both traditions. I even believe we have much to learn from this particular evangelical church in the quality of its preaching and its emphasis on sharing Christ with unbelievers.
I wonder, though, about evangelicals who view Poland as one of the nations most in need of conversion and that spend considerable effort trying to convince churchgoing Catholics that they need to go to church someplace else. At the very least, such an attitude shows a very strange sense of priorities. These are people who already believe in Christ and in Christian morality. They will be the persecuted, not the persecutors. Many parts of Europe, both formerly Catholic and formerly Protestant, must be re-evangelized because belief in even a diluted version of God has all but disappeared. Focus your European evangelizing there. Poland can wait.