Pope Francis will be received by the usual ecstatic crowds when he touches down in Krakow, Poland, this week for a four-day Catholic youth celebration. But look closely at the faces of government officials and bishops in the crowd, and you might see something other than joy in their expressions: wariness, suspicion, anxiety — and in some cases even hostility.
The Catholic Church is good at unity: Polish Catholics are loyal to the successor of St. Peter, whoever he is. But they have a very particular world view that seems to clash with Pope Francis’ reformist streak.
When I went to Warsaw in late 2015 to promote the Polish translation of my Francis biography, “The Great Reformer,” I was stunned by the level of suspicion and criticism leveled against him. Much of it was expressed in the kind of language Polish Catholics in the era of John Paul II would have been quick to describe as “disrespectful.” Francis, many told me, was in the process of undoing what the charismatic, authoritarian St. John Paul II had achieved — firm adhesion to traditional doctrine, faithful congregations, and evangelizing fervor.
Francis, I was told, was “causing confusion” with his statements, giving succor to the church’s critics and in general letting down the church. They could not understand why he appeared determined to chip away at the walls they had built with such effort, and at such cost.
Polish Catholics suffer from a superiority complex, an assumption that their fervent faith (and their magnificent pope) saved the church.
Concerned that the English title of my biography would feed already widespread suspicion of Francis, my Krakow-based publisher decided to call the book Prórok, meaning “Prophet.” But the Polish audience wasn’t fooled by the change.
Not only is John Paul II many Poles’ model for what a pope should be, but it has become increasingly obvious that a majority of Polish Catholics see their church — and their culture, because the two are indistinguishable — as beleaguered. Theirs is a mentality forged during long years of resistance to Communism, a legacy now deployed in resistance to secularism, pluralism and modernity in general.
It is a mentality geared toward struggle and defensiveness and one that values unity, conformity and certainty, and that is nervous of contamination.
This kind of thinking may have its strengths — there are legitimate reasons to be proud of the traditions of Polish Catholicism — but its darker side is obvious too. Polish Catholics suffer from a superiority complex, an assumption that their fervent faith (and their magnificent pope) saved the church, and that everything the church has done since, culminating in Francis, is evidence of dangerous backsliding.
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