The pope and Poland's identity crisis.

The pope and Poland's identity crisis.

The pope and Poland's identity crisis.

Events beyond our borders.
Aug. 21 2002 12:53 PM

Papal Bull Session

The pope's final visit sparks an identity crisis in Poland.

The pope flew away from Poland Tuesday, probably for the last time. Before leaving, he stood at the entrance to his airplane and waved to the tens of thousands of people who had come to the airport to bid him farewell. He listened as one of Poland's best-known pop bands sang "Come Back to Your Homeland," a catchy if severely repetitive tune, no doubt now destined for the Polish Top 10. He sighed and (according to every single Polish newspaper headline this morning) said, "It's a pity to be leaving." Then he disappeared onto the plane. Below him, the crowd kept singing. Polish TV, which has shown almost nothing—on several channels—except the pope for the past week, kept all cameras glued on the plane until it took off.

Writing as someone who is neither Polish nor Catholic, I always find it slightly hard to explain the weird hold that Pope John Paul II has over his countrymen. It isn't entirely religious, and it isn't entirely patriotic, although there are large doses of both: When he comes, people hang red-and-white Polish flags and yellow-and-white papal flags from their windows, even in cities he doesn't visit. The vast crowds who come to see him aren't there merely because he is a celebrity either, although there is a bit of that, too: He is, after all, the most famous Pole in the world.

Or perhaps it's the combination of all these things that keeps people glued to TV screens when he is in Poland and attracts the faithful—2.5 million people in Krakow last Sunday—to his sermons. He's a celebrity—but he's our celebrity. He's the Holy Father—but he's our Holy Father. The combination of familiarity and fame is probably what contributes to the surprisingly irreverent atmosphere of an outdoor papal mass in Poland, which resembles nothing so much as an enormous sporting event, albeit with everyone cheering for the same side. The crowds chant "Long live the pope! Long live the pope" when he appears and "Stay with us! Stay with us!" when he prepares to leave, as if he were a pop star who might be cajoled into singing one more hit. When he was last in Poland, in 1999, I heard him celebrate Mass in an enormous field outside the city of Bydgoszcz. During his sermon, he told the crowd of 600,000 that as a young man, he and some friends had sailed past the city in a boat but had not stopped to visit. "Now I've sailed into Bydgoszcz at last," he concluded. The crowd immediately began to chant: "Don't sail away! Don't sail away!"

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But this is now the third time I have been in Poland at the same time as the pope, and I have to say that each trip has been different. The reasons have less to do with the pope, who ages but doesn't really change, and more to do with Poland, which is changing with unbelievable speed. Perhaps as a result, each papal visit has triggered a bout of national soul-searching, much as presidential elections do in the United States. Each time he comes, people compare the current state of the country to the state of the country on his last visit—or to the state of the country on his first visit, in 1979, when Poland was still a Communist country, secret police infiltrated the crowds of faithful, and state TV contrived not to show how many people really were listening to his sermons.

And of the three visits I can remember, this one has been by far the saddest. In 1999, the country was at the peak of a 10-year explosion of economic growth, the political system seemed reliably democratic and stable, and Poland had recently been accepted into NATO. The pope gave a speech to the Polish parliament and talked about the importance of democracy and rule of law. Parliamentarians spontaneously began singing the national anthem, whose words celebrate the march of a Polish 19th-century hero "from Italy to Poland." Afterward the pope quipped, "I guess no one expected him to arrive in these clothes."

This time around, the frail, 82-year-old pope has set a different tone, visiting the graves of his parents among other things, presumably for the last time. When he spoke, it was to talk about "European values," but in somewhat overenigmatic tones. Le Monde claimed that the pope had advocated Polish membership in the European Union. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, by contrast, was spooked by what appeared to be the pope's critique of economic liberalism and interpreted his statements as opposition to Polish membership in the European Union. The Polish press satisfied itself with quoting the two: French or German, take your pick.

Yet the real change is not in the pope but in Poland itself. Only three years have passed since the last papal visit, and Poland is suffering its worst economic downturn since 1989. Unemployment has reached record levels. The current government, composed of former Communists—among them some known for their bitter opposition to democracy and capitalism—has begun to harass the press in a low-key sort of way, to harass businessmen, to make use of the secret services for their private interests, even to scare away foreign investors, almost out of force of habit. Polls show that support for an anti-establishment, anti-European, anti-democratic populist named Andrzej Lepper has been rising to startling heights—although trust in politicians is so low that even he can't persuade anyone to come to his rallies. Intended to shut down the government, his "blockades" rarely even block traffic.

Mistakes, some economic and some political, are partly responsible for the low spirits. Poland's unprivatized, unprofitable state industries remain a major drag on the economy; the lack of an open and honest public debate about the Communist past has taken its toll. Still, I don't think that the current ill-humor can be laid at the feet of any one person or policy. The lesson is rather more general: Once instilled, the habits of totalitarianism—popular passivity, government corruption, an economic culture that punishes entrepreneurship—are very, very difficult to erase. It is certainly not illegal, now, to start a small business in Poland. But it is nearly impossible to get financing to expand that business, unless one has a friend who works at a bank. Culture, not straight economics, lies behind the abrupt halt in Poland's hitherto rapid economic growth.

In few other countries would a papal visit serve as an occasion to dwell upon such things, but here it does. "Does Poland Need Conversion?" That was the headline that Polityka, a Polish weekly newsmagazine, chose to run in advance of the current papal visit. The theme of the accompanying article—just like the theme of so many of discussions in the media this week—was the sins of the Poles. Not religious sins but political and economic sins: Where have we gone wrong? Here John Paul II's visits serve as a kind of barometer. They are used to measure the present against the past, the current mood against previous moods. Perhaps it is only temporary, but this time around the present falls severely short.

None of which stopped the people living in villages below the pope's flight path from holding up mirrors as his plane passed overhead, hoping he would see the reflected sunlight: No doubt if they thought he would see their cigarette lighters, they'd have held those up, too.