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Last updated: 8 May 2010
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The Pastoral Review

Feature Article

Poland's shame

John Cornwell

 Both bishops and religious orders are failing to condemn an avowedly anti-Semitic Redemptorist priest, whose radio station is bolstering political support for the extreme nationalism of the 58-year-old identical twins inhabiting the offices of Polish President and Prime Minister

Nearly two decades on from events that led, under John Paul II, to the downfall of Communism, the Catholic Church in Poland is again set to play a significant role in the politics of Europe. This time, however, it is not a Pope, nor even the Polish bishops, but a clerical media mogul who is the leading player in this drama, and in ways that appear potentially damaging to the Church's reputation.

Father Tadeusz Rydzyk is a Redemptorist priest who runs the highly influential broadcasting organisation, Radio Maryja, and its associated media empire. He is a man whose influence has spread way beyond religious confines to the world of politics. Last week saw the break-up of the fragile ruling coalition of three right-wing parties in Poland, led by the identical twin Premier and President Kaczynski brothers, whom, together with their Law and Justice Party, Fr Rydzyk helped bring to power in 2005. The break-up means new elections in the country before Christmas, and will no doubt see Maryja playing a significant role.

Founded in 1991, the station broadcasts throughout the day and evening seven days a week to an audience of mainly middle-aged and elderly listeners, in both cities and rural districts. It is the only major national station that can be heard in the road tunnels of the country as it uses the same powerful wavebands as travel news. The numbers of listeners is disputed, ranging from 1.2 million, according to advertising audits, to "many millions", according to the station itself, out of a national population of 39 million. Content includes prayers, hymns and daily Mass but it also has eight newscasts a day, regular current affairs programmes, phone-ins, and commentaries by individuals friendly to its causes.

Fr Rydzyk, aged 62, is no stranger to controversy, either in his personal remarks or in comments broadcast on his radio station. He has been embroiled at the centre of a political storm over comments he allegedly made last month to a group of journalism students about President Lech Kaczynksi‘s wife, Maria, whom the priest accused of being pro-abortion because she supported termination in the case of rape victims. Despite Radio Maryja's support for the Kaczynskis' politics, those comments have not been repudiated by him, although Fr Rydzyk claims they were taken out of context. According to the popular weekly Polish magazine Vprost, the priest called her a "witch" and said she should be "put down"; and was heard to describe the President as a "crook" for supporting reparation claims from Jewish families. "You know that it's about giving $65 billion to the Jews," the priest said. "They will come to you and say, ‘Give me your coat. Take off your trousers. Give me your shoes.'"

This is not the first time that Fr Rydzyk and his radio station have been subject to allegations of anti-Semitism, as well as homophobia and xenophobia. The station is also vehemently anti-European and a supporter of the ongoing witch-hunt initiated by the Kaczynski leadership, which seeks to identify those who were linked with Communism.

Back in 2002 the then Primate of Poland, Cardinal Józef Glemp, responding to allegations that the station aired anti-Semitic views, said he intended curbing Radio Maryja's fund-raising. But attempts to control Fr Rydzyk have never prospered and the station is as influential as ever. Nor has the Redemptorist order shown any signs of investigating the priest, let alone disciplining him.

Two weeks ago the congregation's Polish provincial, Fr Zdzislaw Klafka, accompanied Fr Rydzyk to an audience with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo. Photographs of the event were widely used by Fr Rydzyk to impress on his Polish following that the Holy Father blessed and approved his media work. The Vatican has since announced that the meeting, which was not private, "does not imply any change in the Holy See's well-known position on relations between Catholics and Jews". Meanwhile the Redemptorist headquarters in Rome is silent. A spokesman for the order in Britain informed me at the weekend that "the UK Redemptorists do not have any stated view on the subject".

The former President of Poland and hero of the Solidarity days, Lech Walesa, has proclaimed the station "liars" for calling themselves Catholics. More than 600 Polish Catholic academics, clergy and writers signed a letter condemning Fr Rydzk for his anti-Semitism. The papal nuncio, Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk, has written to the Polish hierarchy requesting their help to combat the problems posed by Radio Maryja, but criticism from the bishops is only patchy, as some of their number continues actively to support Fr Rydzyk.

The involvement of the large Polish religious orders in the media has a long track record. Fr Maximilian Kolbe (canonised in 1982), whose congregation of Conventual Franciscans operates to this day in strength at Niepokalanow, 30 miles west of Warsaw, ran newspapers before the Second World War. Allegations of anti-Semitism in those newspapers rumble on, although it is clear that Fr Kolbe, who gave up his life for a fellow inmate at Auschwitz, was no anti-Semite.

Numbering some 1,200 in Poland, the Conventuals have two radio stations, TV and satellite operations, and six newspapers. When I visited their house and church there earlier this month I was impressed by their exclusive focus on pastoral work, catechetics and spirituality as opposed to politics. Yet I could not elicit criticism against Fr Rydzyk.

With extensive offices at Torun, 70 miles miles from Warsaw, the station is officially owned by Redemptorists, although Fr Rydzyk appears to control his media empire as if he were an untouchable entrepreneur. Thanks to a Concordat between Poland and the Holy See the income of his enterprises is neither declared nor liable to tax, although the station does admit to being bankrolled by Jan Kobylanski, a millionaire who lives in Uruguay.

Listeners are asked for donations, and an interactive media community, known as the Radio Maryja Family, has been formed on the station's official websites. Among group activities are regular pilgrimages to the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa. The Marjya Family has 600 clubs and offices across the country, and it boasts a thriving journalism school at Torun directed by Fr Rydzyk.

Although John Paul II strongly disapproved of clerical involvement in politics, Fr Rdyzyk has developed a distinctive religious and political platform, which has pretensions to reflecting the late Holy Father's viewpoints on Polish politics. It is incontestable that John Paul lamented what had happened to his native country following the collapse of Communism. Instead of Poland becoming, as he had hoped, a Christian exemplar to Europe, it quickly became apparent that freedom had brought pornography, legal abortion (in the first Parliament), materialism, and a decline in religious practice. John Paul characterised this as "licence not freedom", which he associated with American-style capitalism.

The Kaczynksi brothers owe a great deal of their political fortunes to Radio Maryja. The pair, aged 58 and born 45 minutes apart, are trade union lawyers with impeccable credentials as Solidarity activists. Their father was an engineer, their mother a philologist. They began their public lives, aged 13, as child actors in a film called The Two Who Stole the Moon, a fable about identical-twin tricksters who attempt to sell the moon to some stupid investors. They came to power in 2005 along with their Catholic coalition partner, the Polish Families, supported by Radio Maryja.

While they appeared to share many of the late Pope's anxieties about Poland, there was a decided twist in their diagnosis of the nation's woes. They insisted that the tide of privations, foreign ownership, asset-stripping, factory closures and mass unemployment lay in the failure of Poland's fledging democratic governments (under the presidency of Lech Walesa) to root out and punish the Communist old guard. The Communists, according to this analysis, had stayed in positions of power and had benefited, along with foreigners, while the workers who had created the bloodless revolution were jobless and poverty stricken.

There was, and remains, a degree of truth in all of this; the consequent unemployment (reckoned to be as high as 40 per cent among the young) accounts for the latest diaspora to Ireland and the United Kingdom - calculated by the Financial Times bureau in Warsaw to be some 700,000. But the twins' leadership, in partnership with Radio Maryja, has tended to whip up an atmosphere of paranoia, conspiracy and intolerance, while the margin between religion and hard-line politics has become increasingly blurred.

While Poland has much to profit from its membership of the European Union, Fr Rydzyk has come out against Europe, seizing upon the EU's failure to endorse a Christian dimension in its constitution as indicative of the continent's godlessness. And the Kaczynkis' belief that Poland has lessons to teach Europe, rather than the other way about, gave impetus to the recent rumpus in Brussels over population size and voting power. The Premier, Jaroslaw Kaczynksi, told the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Poland would have had a population of 66 million (current estimates put it at just over 38.5m) had it not been for all the Poles murdered by Germans during the Second World War.

But the harshest criticisms of the Kaczynskis' ally, Fr Rydzyk, involve allegations of anti-Semitism. Complaints include Holocaust denial, and slurs against Jews as detrimental to the Polish economy by making unfair claims for wartime compensation. Jews have also been accused on Radio Maryja of knowing about 9/11 in advance, and of planning to rule the world alongside Freemasons.

The challenge that Radio Maryja, and the Kaczynki leadership (whether the Government falls or not, President Lech stays until 2009) poses for the Church in Poland is how religion relates to the nation state. The European ideal supports a situation where secular governments preside over pluralist societies in which religion is a matter of private conscience. Ireland and Spain have clearly acquiesced to this model while religious orders and clergy have gone into steep decline in both countries.

Although Poland's constitution provides for a secular government and freedom of religious conscience for all, the Kaczynski-Rydzyk ideal is for a seamless marriage between Catholicism and nationhood, with religious leadership being exerted not by the country's bishops but by its powerful religious orders. Most young Poles reject this marriage: some even say it is proto-fascism, Franco-style.

Fr Rydzyk, unless he is tamed and controlled by the Polish hierarchy, or Europe's bishops, or his order, or the Vatican, seems set to continue swaying public opinion in the name of the Church with an unpleasant mix of religion and extreme right-wing politics. If the last election is anything to go by, Radio Maryja is set to play a crucial part in the forthcoming elections. Poland seems set for a rough ride, with far-reaching consequences for its people and the future of Europe.