Choreography has always been one of the strong suits of the Catholic Church, from the elaborate rituals of a papal election to the simple symbols of the daily Mass, and a World Youth Day certainly continues that long tradition.
Despite its name, World Youth “Day” is a week-long series of events full of lush visual pageantry, culminating in a Saturday evening vigil and Sunday morning Mass, both with the pope, which rival Broadway productions of “Cats” and “Evita.”
All this lends a certain irony to the fact that as Pope Francis arrives in Poland today to take part in the World Youth Day festival, the greatest drama of day one will take place off-stage and out of public view.
After he arrives at Krakow’s St. John Paul II Airport at roughly 4:00 p.m., Francis will head directly to the city’s storied Wawel Castle to deliver a speech to diplomats and civil authorities and then to meet President Andrzej Duda in private.
Duda, by all accounts, is a personally devout Catholic, routinely taking part in religious ceremonies such as Corpus Christi processions in the streets of Krakow. Duda has cited his faith as the cornerstone of his politics, and his first presidential veto was of a bill strongly opposed by the Church that would have allowed Poles to change their gender officially by filling out a form.
Famously, a brief video went viral of Duda at an outdoor Mass in Warsaw spotting a consecrated host that had blown off the altar, rescuing it and then reverently returning it to Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz. Duda’s Law and Justice Party is basically permeated with strong Catholic faith; the country’s Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has a son who’s a seminarian in Krakow.
All that augurs that Pope Francis will be given a warm welcome by his Polish hosts.
However, there are also real flash points between Francis’ social agenda and the positions and comportment of the Law and Justice government, beginning with the obvious potential rift on refugees.
Francis has already effectively declared 2016 his “Year of the Immigrant,” pushing a policy of welcome at every turn, while Poland in tandem with Hungary are perceived as the European governments most skeptical of an open-door policy.
Poland’s bishops obviously have seen the potential for political fireworks on that score, persuading the Vatican to release a statement last Saturday featuring a line from Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznan, president of the bishops’ conference, insisting the pope’s position is not aligned with the political left on “multiculturalism.”
That may have been in part a reference to calls by some leading government officials to give preference in the admission of migrants to Christians, on the grounds of their greater ability to integrate into Polish life and culture.
Beyond that, it’s well known that many Polish leaders, including influential members of the Law and Justice Party, were not wild about Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, especially its calls for strong limits on fossil fuels, given how dependent the Polish economy is on coal.
(Poland is the ninth largest coal producer in the world, and relies on coal for the lion’s share of its domestic power consumption.)
“The new encyclical is already being interpreted as an ‘anti-coal’ document,” one conservative Polish newspaper wrote a year ago. “In the Vatican, one can also hear voices that this encyclical is ‘anti-Polish.’”
Francis will arrive for a World Youth Day ceremony on Thursday riding an “ecological tram,” another sign of his keen environmental interest.
There have also been charges from critics of Law and Justice and its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, of a drift towards authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies, including efforts to control the judiciary and muzzle the media.
Those charges have been hotly denied by Kaczyński and his allies, but one could understand if they provoke just a bit of ambivalence in a pope from Argentina, given his own personal experience of right-wing security states and their travails.
All of this may not be the sort of thing Francis wants to engage terribly overtly in his public address to politicians, especially given the Herculean efforts the government is making to ensure the success of World Youth Day.
Behind closed doors, however, it’s entirely possible that Francis and Duda will have a couple of tense moments.
The other off-stage moment in which drama is possible comes immediately afterwards, when Francis meets the bishops of Poland in the cathedral of Wawel.
Once again, the externals of the encounter are likely to be warm. Loyalty to popes, after all, is a national virtue among Polish clergy, and the country’s bishops also know that Francis arrives at a time when some big decisions are on the horizon.
It’s widely expected that the Krakow World Youth Day will be the swan song for Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former priest-secretary to St. John Paul II, meaning that the country’s second city will soon need a new archbishop.
Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, who was the Vatican’s top official for health care, recently died at the age of 67, and at the moment Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, who succeeded John Paul II in Krakow, is in declining health. (There are concerns that Macharski could actually pass away while Francis is in town, adding something of a sad footnote to World Youth Day.)
In other words, some of the lions of the Polish episcopacy are moving on, meaning change is in the air, and the bishops will undoubtedly be eager to hear what Francis has to say about the future direction of their Church.
On the other hand, here too there are also potential tensions that might surface behind closed doors, since the back-and-forth between Francis and at least some elements of the Polish hierarchy has not always been smooth.
During the pope’s two Synods of Bishops on the family, in October 2014 and October 2015, conventional handicapping had it that the more progressive faction favored by the pontiff was centered in Western Europe, especially German-speaking Europe, while the primary opposition came from Africa, portions of the Anglo-Saxon world (including the United States) and Eastern Europe.
When people said “Eastern Europe” during the synods, what they often meant was Poland, since the Polish bishops were among the most visible and outspoken.
In a position paper the Polish bishops approved in their June 2015 meeting, ahead of the second synod, they voted in favor of a ringing defense of traditional Catholic positions on matters such as marriage, divorce and the reception of Communion.
“Polish church delegates will certainly stick to the understanding of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II,” said Monsignor Jozef Kloch, spokesman for the Polish bishops’ conference. “There’s no support for change in Poland.”
After the pope’s document concluding the two synods appeared, Amoris Laetitia, the Polish bishops appeared to signal that whatever cautious opening on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried it might contain wouldn’t be applied in a liberal fashion among the Poles.
“Some things are not feasible in every country,” Gądecki said. “There are countries and bishops, for instance, who stress that all the divorced and remarried should be allowed to be catechists.”
“But in Poland this isn’t possible,” he said, “because a person in such a situation is deemed a weak witness as he stands unfaithfully in truth.”
Allowing a divorced and civilly remarried person to receive Communion “would be contrary to the teaching of our Lord Jesus himself,” Gądecki said, in which case “we would be back in the days of Moses.”
One way of handicapping the situation is this: For many among the Polish bishops, Amoris Laetitia must be read through the lens of Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II’s 1981 document on the family, which affirmed a ban on the divorced and civilly remarried receiving Communion unless they agree to refrain from sexual intimacy.
On the other hand, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn recently insisted in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, that Amoris Laetitia is an “act of the magisterium” representing a legitimate “development of doctrine.”
Assuming that Pope Francis has a somewhat different pastoral understanding from the Polish bishops – and that, of course, remains a somewhat debated point – it could make for some interesting conversation between the boss and his mid-level managers here in Poland.
Yet neither his private session with Duda nor his encounter with the bishops will be among the highly produced, arresting visual moments this week in Poland is certain to bring.