WASOSZ, Poland—It's 6:30 a.m. As a lone cock crows hoarsely in a nearby farmyard, Father Zygmunt Pilarczyk closes his presbytery door, turns up his collar, and hurries across to the vestry of St. Andrew the Apostle's church.
In the distance, the heavy spring mist hangs like a gray blanket over sodden fields and pine woods. The country lanes have been churned to mud by slow-moving farm carts, their edges cut into crevices by rainwater and filled with frozen sticks and leaves.
Below the church wall, the swollen River Warta washes up against a few remaining battered sandbags, stacked in panic at the height of last summer's flood alerts. In the square outside, a couple of white-haired farmers, faces reddened by vodka, amble sleepily toward the church gate for the first of the three Sunday Masses.
Father Pilarczyk admits nothing much happens in Wasosz these days. When he became probosz, or rector, 20 years ago, the village had just three TVs and telephones. Now, virtually every household has them, and there are even a few computers in the village. The parish population has fallen by 20% to 2,000, however, and is steadily aging, according to the priest, who is in his 60s.
Poland's communist regime planned to route a highway through Wasosz and persuaded local farmers to hand over their land for pensions. So most of the young have gone south in search of work in industrial Silesia.
Though one in three villagers attends Mass on Sundays and 75% made Easter confessions this year, interest in the Church is ebbing. There are still two primary schools in the parish, but not enough children for the parish's youth group. Older people, nurtured on a life-time's passivity, don't support the local Catholic Action group.
Meanwhile, though a bus passes through Wasosz twice daily en route to Czestochowa, 20 miles south, the villagers who take it are more likely to be heading for the city's supermarket than its fabled Jasna Gora shrine.
Father Pilarczyk moved to Wasosz during the World War II German occupation when the priest at nearby Makowice was deported to the Dachau concentration camp. At seminary in Krakow, he attended lectures by a gifted young priest named Karol Wojtyla, whose picture, now clad in a papal miter, sits on top of his desk on the hard stone floor.
Those days of glory are long past, though. Today, he can't afford a wikariusz, or curate, and since nuns only work in pairs, no order will agree to lend them. With as many funerals as baptisms, Church life is in a state of pat, the Polish word for stasis.
“The truth is our parish is dying,” Father Pilarczyk shrugs. “It's a peaceful place, where the priest is known and trusted, and takes part in every event. But we have to start rebuilding with young people, and there simply aren't enough of them.”
It wasn't always like that. As with other central Polish villages, Wasosz has its heroic tales to tell—of drunken brawls over local women, barricades against greedy landlords, and protests against local authority diktats.
One event in particular imprinted the village briefly but firmly in the annals of national patriotism. It happened April 23, 1863. As Poland's January uprising collapsed, a detachment of insurgents passed through Wasosz on their retreat from Czestochowa to Wielun, and were ambushed and massacred by a Russian cavalry unit while they rested in a tree-lined gully on the village's perimeter.
A contemporary chronicle tells of grief-stricken weeping as the 34 dead rebels, all aged 18-32, were laid to rest on the adjacent hillside. The Russian rulers didn't allow a cross on the burial mound. Today, however, the cross is there, on top of a wind-beaten monument emblazoned with the message, Gloria Victis.
The gully where the bloody skirmish happened is marked by ornate stations of the cross. After six decades of work, three stations still remain to be built. The archbishop of Czestochowa dedicated the site in 1993 and still returns on the first Sunday of each July. The scent of incense and candle wax lingers in the frosty air.
TRADITIONAL BONDS TESTED
With most Polish priests and bishops coming from peasant origins, it's in rural parishes like this, some say, far from the Church-state disputes of Warsaw, 120 miles north, that Church life is at its most distinctive.
Yet the intervening years have brought tensions to the surface too, widening the gap between rich and poor, and stepping up the pressure on traditional community bonds.
On March 31, negotiations opened on Poland's integration into the European Union (EU). If they succeed, a place like Wasosz will have moved in little more than 50 years from the terror of Stalinist state planning to a competitive Western market economy. For that to happen, though, the pressures of change and adjustment look set to intensify.
In the early communist period, the Communist Party tried to force small-scale farmers into vast state collectives. The farmers resisted and the regime backed down, but it ensured they stayed poor and were denied resources.
In the 1970s, the policy changed. The Party tried to stimulate output by offering cheap credits and requisitioning all goods automatically at low but stable prices. Today, many farmers look back on the period as the best they ever had.
When communist rule ended, market mechanisms were hurriedly introduced, throwing Poland open to cheap foreign imports. Inefficiencies in the state-run distribution system ensured a third of produce never reached the shops. Many farmers were unable to compete and went out of business with heavy debts.
In several messages, the Pope has recognized the hardships accompanying market reforms, and urged rural communities to defend their interests together.
That's been the aim of the Polish Church as well. A special commission, chaired by Bishop Roman Andrzejewski, sponsors local economic foundations that have funded irrigation schemes and other village projects.
Meanwhile, more than 100 Church-run “folk universities” are also training young farmers in languages, law, and banking skills, and a Catholic Association of Village-Dwellers has coordinated lay parish initiatives nationwide.
“Love of the land is a precious value,” the Polish bishops said in a 1995 pastoral letter. “The world is moving on, and no one is going to wait till our agriculture reaches West European levels. What we need is spiritual strength and unity, since we must above all help ourselves.”
With EU membership now in the cards for Poland by the year 2005, most Church leaders have bowed to the inevitable and urged a tougher modernizing approach.
Last November, a delegation of bishops went to Brussels to have EU intricacies explained to them. Since then, most have come out grudgingly but clearly for integration.
“A united Europe must be accepted as a wonderful chance, a difficult calling, and a great challenge for the Church …” said Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, secretary of the bishops’ conference. “We've no claim to govern the whole world in a Catholic way, but we will fight for our principles, and the EU recognizes our right to do so.”
Polish priests have followed their bishops’ lead. In the first survey this March, 84% said they supported Poland's Westernization, while two-thirds were confident it wouldn't affect the Church's position.
However, a large proportion also believed the EU's technocratic institutions lacked a sense of values. They said they wanted a “Europe of homelands,” which wouldn't pursue economic prosperity at the cost of national identities.
On the road into Pajeczno, 10 miles west of Wasosz, the traditional wayside crosses are now crowded out with U.S.-style advertisements, offering everything from shoes and furniture to cement and satellite dishes.
The Church looks richer here. A large, modish parish building sits stylishly opposite the spacious priest's house, overlooking a row of newly furbished town boutiques.
Pajeczno has reached its limits, though. Joblessness has been driven up by the closure of a local cement factory and cutbacks at the nearby Belchatow coking plant—and since there's no water purification plant, new industries can't gain a foothold.
The local mall sells the latest fashions from Czestochowa at 30% of city prices, but most of the town's 6,000 inhabitants can't afford even that. Those who got rich under communism tend to be rich now too.
Pajeczno's most successful entrepreneur is actually the local undertaker, who displays his magnificent coffins proudly in a shop window on the main square, but even the undertaker is short of business. He makes his biggest profits nowadays from export orders to Germany.
In early April, Poland's Solidarity-led government unveiled a strategic program for depressed rural areas like this, to give them a better chance of coping with competition from the West. It'll include efforts to modernize and restructure the farming economy, as well as improvements in product quality, profitability, social mobility, and living standards.
It will be an uphill task. Most farmers still work in uncompetitive units of less than 12 acres. Only a third of people in rural areas have expressed confidence in the government's programs.
In a recent report, the Polish Church's Agriculture Committee explained why: Though farming still employs a quarter of working-age Polish adults, it fails to meet the economic needs of 80% of rural families. Poverty levels in the countryside are twice those of the city, and nearly half of all households depend on state pensions and benefits.
MINGLING PAST & FUTURE
The Committee blamed the slow pace of change and a lack of understanding of market reforms, but it also urged improved education and training to allow people in rural areas to seek opportunities elsewhere.
In Wasosz, St. Andrew the Apostle's church is crowded for the main Sunday Mass as teenagers in jeans and leather jackets stand restlessly by old toothless peasant women in threadbare coats and colored head scarves.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away,” Father Pilarczyk reads from the Magnificat.
Above the high altar behind him, a giant copy of the Black Madonna icon hangs beneath a panoramic mural of the heavenly Jerusalem.
The church was constructed in the 1840s and reshaped into a cross a century later. Today, the windows are still bare and the building is still unheated. The priest's voice crackles slowly through a pair of battered speakers.
In Christian mythology, mountains are important, Father Pilarczyk begins his homily. Abraham climbed a mountain to speak with God, Moses did the same to find the Ten Commandments. Jesus climbed mountains to pray, preach the Beatitudes, and be crucified on Golgotha.
So that's what Wasosz people have to do now—climb a mountain. But it's a mountain with a clear path, marked out by Christ's teachings. If they become lost along the way, they've only to find that path again.
Back in his presbytery, Father Pilarczyk recites his parish's demographic breakdown from an official handbook: 18% workers, 30% farmers, 50% farm-laborers, 2% intelligentsia. It's close to the national average, he insists, for rural areas like this, where more than half the population gets at most only primary education.
The richest people in Wasosz today, Father Pilarczyk adds, are a petty businessman with contacts in Czestochowa, and the warden of a nearby prison service recreation center that now takes in commercial guests.
“There were never any real communists here, nor Solidarity supporters for that matter,” the priest explains, “but after being promised paradise under communism, most people have lost their respect for work. What's worse still is they associate the Church with success. A lot of them won't come to Mass at all if they have to cycle while their neighbor drives by car.”
Out on the Warsaw highway a few miles east, new German and Korean cars speed past, hooting and flashing impatiently whenever slow-moving local traffic gets in their way.
Under the pale, empty sky of the village, life continues with little change, though. Now and again, a fleet of ducks and chickens wanders across the potholed road, past the rickety iron gates of wood-and-cement houses and reeking, moss-covered farm sheds set amid piles of sand and stones.
Outside the village shop on the square, where alcohol can be bought on credit, a few young toughs stand lazily around a battered motorcycle. Near the crossroads, a makeshift shrine contains a faded snapshot of the Pope and a cracked vase of plastic flowers.
Occasionally, a big car strays from the highway and disgorges a well-fed family to a chorus of barking village dogs, but there's nothing to buy here, and they soon climb back in with a look on their faces that seems to say, “What a God-forsaken place!”
As night falls over Wasosz, the road runs on through the distant pine forest, illuminated in the moonlight like a silken thread toward the promised dawn. Through the distant shadows, the mist closes in again. No one knows if the landscape ahead will be beautiful or ugly.
The people of Wasosz slumber on in a fitful, chilly sleep of hopes and memories, perhaps dreaming of the day when Col. Kowalski's long-dead Polish rebels will come marching over the hilltop again, to lead their once-proud countrymen to new feats of heroism in a free Poland.
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.