ROME – Media outlets all over the world turned their magnifying glasses toward Poland this weekend, when about one million Catholics gathered to pray the rosary at the nation’s borders, an act that many interpreted as representing a strong statement against European immigration policies and the threat of radical Islam.
While organizers stressed that the initiative should be seen only through the eyes of “religion and faith, not politics,” the event sheds light on how the immigration crisis might be creating a rift between the Church and the government in one of Europe’s Catholic strongholds.
On Oct. 7, a lay Catholic organization in Poland, Soli Deo Basta, organized a gathering called ‘Rosary to the Borders’ to pray on the 100th anniversary of Fatima and the 300th anniversary since the coronation of the highly venerated Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
Parishes all over the country organized buses and transportation toward the meeting points. More than 330 churches on the over 2,000 mile long border welcomed participants from all over the country, with nearly 60 thousand faithful alone gathering at the beaches of the northern Gdansk diocese.
Thousands of others lined the borders near Belarus, Germany and the Czech Republic, grasping their rosaries from the Bug River to the eastern Bieszczady mountains.
The official prayer intentions were for peace, for families and youth, and for the conversion of the world.
“The only battle we wanted to show by this event is a battle with sin,” Maciej Bodasiński, one of the organizers of the event, told Crux in an interview. “The world that wants to make the rosary political is harming the initiative – we prayed for faith, and not against anyone, this event should be seen only in the eyes of religion and faith, not politics.”
Yet despite the best intentions, the optics of the event gathered around the borders has largely been interpreted to symbolize the country’s growing malcontent toward the influx of immigrants especially from the Middle East and Africa.
October 7 also marks the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a fleet of Christian nations rallied and eventually won the fight against the Ottoman Empire, which effectively put an end to the Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean.
The pope at the time, Saint Pius V, called on the whole of Christian Europe to pray the rosary to the Virgin Mary in anticipation of the battle, and after the victory he established the Feast of the Holy Rosary to ‘Our Lady of Victory.’
Poland, though not a member of the original ‘Holy League’ that defeated the Turks at Lepanto, has historically been the first frontier against the Ottoman Empire and its history features a seesaw of conflict, appeasement and domination with its expansionistic neighbor.
Ironically, starting in the 1800s the Turkish empire was a preferred destination for Poles seeking refuge, employment and asylum.
The Polish diaspora is also one of the largest of the world, with more than 20 million people of Polish ancestry dispersed all over the globe.
Today the tables have turned, and as natural disasters and war ravage many parts of the Middle East and Africa a massive flux of immigrants has come knocking on the doors of Europe in search of a better life.
Poland, a country where nine people out of ten identify as Catholic, has been extraordinarily impervious to the creeping secularism in Europe. While Church participation and vocations in the rest of Europe wanes, Poles flock abundantly to Mass and wait in line for hours to go to confession during feast days.
It comes as no surprise then, that many in the country view the influx of Muslim immigrants as a threat to Poland’s faith and culture. Polls show that the majority of the Polish population is opposed to welcoming immigrants. Some participants at the ‘Rosary to the Borders’ event told reporters that their prayers were against what they perceive as the dangers posed by the secularization and Islamization of Europe.
“Polish citizens are frightened by the presence of immigrants,” Dawid Lasek, a Polish government official, said at a conference in Italy on European identity on Oct. 11. “We are a very homogenous nation, with one religion and one culture. We don’t have minorities.”
Lasek added that the feeling of the country is expressed by the current right-wing government.
Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have staunchly opposed the European Union’s 2015 plan that would distribute immigrants evenly among member states, taking the weight off of countries of first asylum, such as Italy and Greece.
The Polish government, while refusing to welcome the number of immigrants and refugees called for by the EU, has promised to counterbalance it with an increase of donations and charitable work in the countries of origin.
At the same time, the vastly influential Catholic Church in the country has embraced Pope Francis’s ‘open-arms’ approach – albeit more cautiously – and has called the government to welcome refugees and immigrants without fear.
The Polish Episcopal Conference encouraged the Oct. 7 event and mobilized parishes to help in the planning and to offer liturgies for the participants, and its liturgical commission officially approved the program of the weekend rosary prayer.
The episcopal conference has since then made it clear that the event had no political implications.
“It’s a manipulation of a purely religious act,” Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, spokesperson for the bishops’ conference told Vatican Insider. “No one was against anybody else, especially during the entire preparation leading up to the event, no criticism was ever expressed against the Holy Father regarding the issue of welcoming immigrants. The goal was to pray for peace.”
The Church in Poland recently concluded a week of prayers for refugees, and has launched the ‘Family to Family’ program that allows faithful to adopt families in Syria and Iraq. It has also launched several initiatives through Caritas Poland and Aid to the Church in Need aimed at helping persecuted Christians and refugees in the Middle East.
Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Krakow told participants that the event at the nation’s borders is a message “to other European nations so that they understand that it’s necessary to return to Christian roots so that Europe may remain Europe,” adding that it represents the only way to “save its culture.”
What emerges from this complex puzzle is a dissonance between the Church’s call to welcome immigrants, and Poland’s determination to stick to its roots and restrict entry to those who threaten its history and culture.
Notably, despite the strong Catholic sentiment in the country compared to most Western nations, surveys in Poland have started to show a slow but consistent decline in vocations and Mass participation, especially among youth. How the Polish Church will tackle the current political situation will likely determine the country’s religious disposition in the future.
More importantly, it raises a red flag on the danger of allowing politicians or the media to instrumentalize religion to serve its own agenda.
“The rosary is a beautiful prayer, but the bishops did not foresee nor understand in time that it could be used as an ideological weapon by the government’s propaganda,” Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, former secretary of the Polish episcopal conference, told Italian news outlet Famiglia Cristiana. “The Church not noticing this was at the very least a very serious naivety.”
Reporting on this article was also contributed by Paulina Guzik, PhD, adjuct at Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, journalist and host of the Sunday catholic show at TVP – Polish Television, Director of International Media during World Youth Day 2016.