Friday May 19,  2006


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KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - It is 7 a.m. on a weekday and the 17th century church of St. Florian, where the late Pope John Paul was once a parish priest, is brimming with worshippers at the day's first mass.

Standing in the historical centre of this southern Polish city, the baroque church sees hundreds of Catholics pass through during the day for mass, a prayer or just a quiet moment.

Full churches in the middle of the week, a rare sight in much of Europe, are common in a country where the Catholic Church has long enjoyed special status and was given an extra boost by having a native son running the Vatican for 26 years.

But when John Paul died in April last year, the Polish church was left something of an orphan. When Pope Benedict visits next week, he will find a traditional church struggling to find a place in an increasingly modern society.

"John Paul's death exposed the Polish church to challenges such as how to accept Polish membership in the EU and how to replace ceremony with the presence of Christian values in everyday life," says Andrzej Rychard, a leading sociologist.

"It is the whole issue of how to modernise Poland -- a question which the church has no answer to."
The tensions came to a head in a row over Radio Maryja (Mary), a broadcaster popular with less educated Poles which has been openly hostile to the European Union and often airs nationalistic and xenophobic views.
Concerned it violated the church's neutrality, Polish bishops established an oversight body in early May and barred Radio Maryja from backing any political force. The radio seems to have ignored an earlier warning from the Vatican ambassador.


These quarrels will probably seem far away on May 25-28, when Benedict visits Warsaw and Krakow, pilgrimage sites such as Jasna Gora and the former concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Millions are due to attend his open masses in Warsaw and Krakow and to line the streets to greet him.
"I cannot wait for this pilgrimage," said Julita Kozlowska, 63, who attends mass in St. Florian's every day. "I have had a stroke but I will attend Benedict's mass even if the weather is hot. He is to me like John Paul's son."

Polish clergymen say Benedict wants to tap this fervour and get across his message that the Poles are a bastion against what the Church sees as western Europe's spreading atheism and relativism.

"Benedict wants to come to remember John Paul and weep with the Poles, but that will close a certain chapter," said Father Robert Necek, an aide to Krakow Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.

"The pilgrimage motto 'Persevere in Faith' means Benedict wants the Polish church to maintain its special role."


About 95 percent of Poles say they are Catholics. Over half attend mass weekly which, although declining slightly, is far higher than the 10-20 percent seen in former Catholic strongholds such as France, Italy and Spain.

The number of young men studying for the priesthood, a key indicator of the vitality of a national church, is still strong.

Poland has 22.5 seminarians per 100 ordained priests whereas Italy has only 11.6, Spain has 9.5, France has 5.6 and Ireland has 3.6. The United States has 10 seminarians per 100 priests.
What the Polish church does not have is a way to reconcile its deep conservatism and nationalism with modern life and Poland's newfound place among liberal Western nations.

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, a leading "moderniser", argues Catholicism can maintain its special place only if it sheds its historical role as the defender of Polish identity.

"In communist Poland, the church was the only significant force defending freedom," he said. "This chapter is over. The church must find its natural role as a guardian of values."

But many bishops and priests irk younger Catholics with their devotion to ceremony and the ideal of a "Catholic Pole" wary of modernity and "strangers".

Surveys show younger Poles go to church much less frequently than their parents or grandparents and ignore much of the church's teaching on contraception and pre-marital sex.

"I consider myself a believer but I do not accept what the church says about sex," says Anna, a Warsaw University student. "It's old-fashioned thinking, out of touch with reality."

The divorce rate is climbing and alcohol abuse is rife despite decades of condemnation from the pulpit.



The dispute over Radio Maryja illustrates the strains. The radio has defended a militantly traditional Catholicism and supported the ruling eurosceptic conservatives.
The Redemptorist order running it ignored a harshly worded letter from the Vatican's nuncio in Warsaw last month demanding that it stop its political involvement. The bishops responded meekly, reflecting deep divisions among themselves.

Church insiders say many conservative bishops are afraid more decisive action could alienate believers like Kozlowska in St. Florian's, who has no problem with Radio Maryja's message.
Some bishops argue the cost of inaction will be higher if moderate Catholics, especially young ones, turn away from the church.

Surveys show a majority of Poles believe the station's boss, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, is a negative influence and disapprove of his militancy on behalf of the Law and Justice party.

"Radio Maryja is a real and growing problem I'm afraid," Pieronek said. "It offers a reduced view on Christianity and in my view its attachment to a political party is extremely compromising and shameful. It is sick and dangerous."