WARSAW — “Do not be afraid” is one phrase Pope John Paul II has used over and over in his 25 years as the successor of St. Peter. It was certainly the message he gave his fellow Poles as they were set to vote on membership in the European Union in June.
His exhortation might have made the difference. In spite of concerns that Poland would be swallowed up by an increasingly secularized Europe, turnout for the vote was heavy, and approval for joining the bloc approached the 75% mark.
The Pope, learning of the results while visiting Croatia on June 9, expressed his hope that Poland's entry into the European Union (EU) will enable it to contribute its spiritual, moral and religious values to the continent, according to Zenit news service.
In the weeks following the June 7-8 plebiscite, Polish delegates to the European Convention did contribute their homeland's values — by continuing the fight to have Europe's Christian roots mentioned in the nascent EU Constitution.
The debate over whether to mention Christianity — or merely Europe's Greek and Roman roots and Enlightenment history — had fueled EU opponents, such as the Polish Catholic radio station Radio Maryja, before the vote.
Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno, Poland, does not dismiss other fears those groups had expressed. He admits there is pressure from secularism, a trend that could “come from outside” Poland.
But Archbishop Muszynski, who represents the Polish Episcopal Commission on the European Council of Bishops, is optimistic.
“We have made a very important step,” Archbishop Muszynski said after the vote.
Secularism is a charge often directed at the European Union, with its directives and emphasis on “rights.” It leads Archbishop Muszynski to insist that his country “will defend [our Christian heritage] here inside Poland. We will try to give testimony to our Christian and Catholic faith in the new reality of a free Europe and the EU.”
His use of the word “free” might perplex some in the Church who believe the European Union's emphasis on rights does not constitute freedoms or equality but claims by one party on another and a general decline in Christian values upheld by established structures. Of particular concern is the European Union's willingness to enforce legislation allowing such practices as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
But the threat does not seem to lessen Archbishop Muszynski's optimism to any large degree, nor does he believe it jeopardizes Poland's sense of nationhood, which is strongly based on Christian principles. “Article 37 of the EU,” he said, “accepts the priority of the rights of nations so we believe the important thing is to have national rights with respect to life.”
This is in contrast to Radio Maryja. The station and other anti- European Union campaigners have long argued that the European Union is against nationhood as it cannot be consistent with its supranational agenda. The European Union, it says, therefore attacks what makes for a strong nation, namely traditional morals as espoused by Christianity.
But for Father Mark Muszynski, a secretary of the Polish bishops' conference, there is “really no fear about joining the European Union because most people believe Poland's stable moral principles will withstand any outside pressure.” He says there is some concern that youth will grow up in a nation with a weakened moral framework, but he is confident the European Union offers no real danger to the nation's population, 90% of whom are Catholics.
Dominican Father Stanislaw Tasiemski sought to qualify that statistic.
“Ninety percent are baptized Catholics,” said Father Tasiemski, who works in the Polish section of Vatican Radio. Secularism, which has been steadily increasing year by year, is a “challenge” to Poland, he said, but “there are also visible attempts to live our traditions and to live our faith.”
The Church in Poland is vibrant, according to Archbishop Muszynski, with many vocations to the priesthood.
“Many young people are trying to live a very holy personal life in small groups in the Catholic Church, and it's very dynamic,” he said. “For example, in my diocese, we had a meeting of young people, mostly students. More than 100,000 people came and we had a vigil for Pentecost — the whole night we prayed together and it was very impressive.”
The Church also still holds considerable influence in matters of state. So could Poland, with its strong Catholic tradition, act as a possible counterweight to secularism in the European Union?
“I don't know how great will be the influence of Poland,” Archbishop Muszynski said, “but the important thing is that we, as Poles, and also the Polish government, are ready to defend Christian values in Europe.”
For Father Tasiemski, a major factor in Polish life the country could offer Europe is its heritage and traditions, particularly those related to agriculture.
“People in Poland used to work close to the earth in a certain way,” he explains, referring in particular to Poland's strong agricultural base. “The Church was closely linked to this old pattern. When the Pope was in Croatia, he spoke about the loss of the link between the earth and patrimony, where people were born into a whole tradition.”
“Traditions help one to live one's faith,” he continued. He believes those traditions will be threatened by joining the European Union, but he hopes Poland can positively influence Europe in this area, “thanks to the patrimony of Poles.”
Both Archbishop Muszynski and Father Muszynski, who are not related, believe the bloc also has much to offer Poland.
“Some people fear the EU will represent a new form of communism, but it will bring new possibilities to develop, especially in the economic sphere, and for young people,” Father Muszynski said. He said for the last 20 years Polish industry has not developed.
To many Poles, the economic benefits of joining the European Union are very much to the fore, and the possible dilution of the nation state takes second place.
Archbishop Muszynski remains both wary and hopeful.
“We are hopeful because it's a great chance and a great challenge at the same time,” he said. “It depends on how we deal with the new challenges that face us.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.