history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  



By Eve Dmochowska

In the post World War II era, the Eastern European countries found themselves in a dilemma none had faced before: not only did they have to begin the painful process of reconstruction from a disastrous war, but they had to subject themselves to a new political actor, the USSR, that imposed restriction on people's liberties. However, no matter how strict these limitations proved to be, they were never fully capable of extinguishing the people's spirit. Certainly, communism never succeeded (and not for lack of trying) the vigor of the Polish Catholic Church. The assaults on church and religion in general, were most muted in this country. Even at the height of communist regime, the percentage of Polish believers never fell below 95%. 


Religion was the one constant in Poles' lives: in past centuries they fought hard for the survival of the RCC, and successfully kept other variations of Christianity at bay. In the 1950's the state took harsh actions to undermine the Church's position - no new places of worship were allowed to be built, believers were not offered key positions in government, land was taken away from Churches, and they lost their right to educate. And yet, despite all this, I still remember my weekly visits to Catechism class at a nearby church, and how packed the church was every Sunday. Religious holidays were particularly important and traditions were strictly observed. No matter how strict the rations were or how long one had to wait in line for bread, there was always extra food and an additional place setting on the Christmas table "in case a stranger came in from the cold". And indeed, the church did its uttermost to unite people.


Despite the restrictions placed on it in the early 1950s, by 1956 it was playing a major role as a protector of the nation. During the difficult time of Martial Law in the 80's, the Roman Catholic Church provided food and clothing for the needy, aided opposition groups, and tried to negotiate with the government. And how proud the nation was when Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, then archbishop of Krakow, was appointed as Pope John Paul II. My entire family sat glued to the TV screen watching the momentous occasion.


When he paid a visit to Poland, he received a reception worthy of a state dignitary, despite the fact that Poland had no ties with the Vatican at that time. Even the strict prohibitions for telecasting religious services were bent during his visit. Religion was also a powerful tool of Solidarity. They regularly displayed religious symbols, continuously demanded the broadcast of religious masses and the distribution of religious literature. And the Pope's second visit to Poland in 1983 definitely had a major role in Poland's politics. During his stay, the Pope urged for rapprochement with Lech Walesa and the legalization of Solidarity. He stressed the importance of liberty and emphasized nationalism. Although he was individually unsuccessful in his attempts to change the state's attitude, he played an incredible role in coercing the people into a unit, and inspiring them into the revolution of 1989.


Source: Encyklopedia Staropolska, Z. Gloger. 1972, Wiedza Powszechna, Warsaw.






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