An island of religion in a sea of secularism
By Kacper Pempel
When Pope Benedict XVI announced last week that he was stepping down, the mood in my country, Poland, was overwhelming. This is one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Europe, which still proudly identifies itself as the birthplace of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. On the day of the announcement my colleagues went to the church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. The worshipers coming out of the church were in a state of shock. “It’s so sad. It’s such a shame. But what can we do? I can’t believe it,” said one woman as she left the Holy Cross church in the Polish capital, who gave her name as Maria. “I am very sorry because I really like the Pope. He is continuing the teachings of our Pope (John Paul II).” Janusz, another worshiper, said: “I don’t think it’s true. In my opinion it would not be a good solution. It would definitely be a huge pity for Poles and Catholics.”
I spent the last few months traveling around Poland taking photographs of Polish people demonstrating their Catholic faith: going on pilgrimages, attending mass, children having religious lessons in schools. I photographed the statue of Jesus in Swiebodzin, near the Polish-German border, which stands 33 meters tall. I visited a huge church built since the fall of Communism in farmland in Lichen, in central Poland. As I drove towards the church, its gold-colored dome, 98 meters high, looked incongruous surrounded by cows grazing in a pasture.
The building was so vast that it dwarfed the worshipers and the village around it. I went to another new church in the Warsaw suburb of Wilanow. Filled with young, middle-class families, it stands in stark contrast to the image many people have of Catholicism in Poland, a religion for the old and the poor.
But one incident sticks in my mind from my time trying to capture Catholicism in Poland. It happened while I was at an open-air mass in Jasna Gora, the holiest site in Polish Catholicism, which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. I was trying to photograph a group of worshippers on the grass. As I always do on occasions like this, I was trying to be discreet. But one man, in his 40s and wearing a leather jacket, asked me to stop taking his picture. “Get out of here,” he said. “You’re from UB.” That was the acronym for the Communist-era secret police, which used to spy on worshipers because they were considered potential subversives. I moved away and started taking pictures of another group nearby.
It is a reaction I often get. There is a divide in Polish society between devout Catholics and the increasingly popular secular movement. Secularism is growing in influence, especially among young Poles. They consider themselves Catholics, but don’t go to church every week and do not follow the church’s teachings on issues like contraception or in-vitro fertilization. Because of this change, the more devout Poles feel that they are under threat, they feel persecuted. That, I think, is why they are so suspicious of having their picture taken.
But others are friendly and open. On a pilgrimage last summer from Warsaw to Jasna Gora, I received an extremely warm welcome. The pilgrims, who were mostly students, were traveling hundreds of kilometers (miles) on foot. They shared their food with us when they stopped for lunch, and were more than happy to pose for the camera. They have no worries about the ongoing criticism of the Church, and are not as incensed by the increasingly liberal sentiment in Polish politics.
I got the chance to become a pilgrim myself on a train journey to Rome. Thousands of people crammed the train from Warsaw for the two-day trip in order to attend the beatification mass of John Paul II. As we traveled, the attitude on board was a mix of both devotion and obligation; Poles felt that they owed the late Pope their presence in St Peter’s Square for all he had done for their country. Even after the journey, the pilgrims suffered ten hours of lining up without sleep or complaint to attend the mass, and I stood alongside them. Their pain and sacrifice still astonishes me today.
Looking back on the months I spent recording Poland’s Catholics, I’m struck by their devotion, and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to show that devotion to God. At the same time, I’m also struck by how wary they are, an island of religion in a sea of secularism.