A new film about corruption and abuse within the Catholic Church has drawn record-breaking crowds to cinemas across Poland, evidence of an increased willingness among Poles to countenance criticism of the Church. Yet this comes at a time when the Church and government maintain close relations and have promoted Catholicism as central to Polish identity. Here, Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer places this film and its success within the wider context of a slowly-changing Polish society.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Licheń. By Czechu81, Creative Commons, from Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, you can make a blockbuster on the topic of paedophilia and corruption in the Polish Catholic Church in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland. Watched by over four million people in the first two weeks since its opening, Wojtek Smarzowski’s Clergy (Polish title Kler) has become one of the biggest hits in the history of Polish cinema, rivalling Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Quo Vadis, based on the Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel, and James Cameron’s Avatar.

The question many are now asking is whether Clergy will change the Polish Church, and if so, how? It is accidental but perversely perfect timing that less than two weeks ago the Church lost a court case and was forced to pay one million zlotys (more than 200 thousand pounds) to a woman who had been repeatedly raped by a priest as a child. It is not a good time for the Church in Poland, and people appear to be more than happy to see its hierarchs suddenly looking ever so frightened after decades of arrogance, greed and hypocrisy.

At the same time, 92% of Poles declare themselves as Catholic, and apostates are barely noticeable. Still, the number of people attending Sunday Mass has been steadily declining in the last three decades, from 51% at the beginning of the 1990s to 39% today.

Although the Polish Catholic Church is known for its conservative views, particularly visible in contrast to Pope Francis’s modernising ambitions, it is in many ways successfully adapting to the needs of today’s worshippers, examples of which I describe in my recent book, Reshaping Poland’s Community after Communism: Ordinary Celebrations.

One example that has been gaining significant media attention is the sanctuary in Licheń, notably its new gigantic basilica, officially opened in 2004. Two-thirds the size of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, its architectural style has been labelled “turbo-baroque”—a deeply contemporary mix of baroque-ish ornaments, folk-like paintings and numerous symbols referring to Poland and the Polish land such as crops in place of acanthus leaves on Roman-style columns. Also imitating baroque, oil paintings such as the Nativity Scene place religious and national heroes next to each other, including Polish kings, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Wałęsa, all waiting to see Baby Jesus in the stable.

This symbolic mix can be found all around the sanctuary, as the aim of the space is to provide a black-and-white, familiar and comforting narrative of Polish-Catholic unity. What’s more, the entire area within the sanctuary walls is filled with elements that make it feel almost recreational: gazebos, barbeque pits, a children’s playground, not to mentions shops, cafés, and two sizeable pilgrim’s houses, all located inside the sacred space. Indeed, the visitors, especially locals, enjoy hanging out there and relaxing in the sun, long-sleeve jumpers in hand in case a priest comes by. The sanctuary is well aware of its recreational appeal and even offers New Year’s Eve parties, regardless of the fact that it is not necessarily a Christian celebration.

Another method the Polish Catholic Church has been using to gain popular appeal outside church walls is its presence at Woodstock Station (Przystanek Woodstock, renamed Pol’and’Rock Festival this year due to copyright issues), one of the largest free summer rock festivals in Europe. The festival is an extension of a major Polish charity drive, Grand Orchestra of Christmas Charity (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy), now 25 years old. The winter appeal (during which money is collected on the internet and by volunteers on the streets for hospital equipment) and the two-years-younger summer festival are hugely popular, the latter especially among young people. Thus, the appeal and festival present secular competition to the Church in the framing of charity and empathy.

This is most likely one of the reasons why the Church decided to become present at Woodstock Station, establishing its own event, Jesus Station. In the first couple of years, it was located right next to the music festival and was openly hostile to it, accusing Woodstock Station attendees of Satanism, substance abuse, sexual immorality and generally rock-and-roll-style evil behaviour. Unsurprisingly, this message failed to attract the attention of the festival-goers. After the tone of the priests softened, Jesus Station was invited to set its tents on the premises of the main festival. Although it gathers a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people present at Woodstock Station, the priests there hold the Holy Mass, offer Christian film screenings and engage in conversations with the festival attendees—critically-minded, doubting, yet often searching for God.

However, in striking contrast to the Hare Krishna tent located several hundred metres away, known at the festival for its tasty and inexpensive food, at Jesus Station the food is reserved solely for the priests, nuns, and a few secular volunteers, while others are turned away. The Polish Catholic Church, while successful in carrying out grand projects such as the basilica in Licheń, continues to struggle with small gestures.

The reactions of the Church hierarchs to Smarzowski’s film have ranged from outrage to calls, much quieter, for the clergy to reconsider its attitudes towards the secular members of the Church. It is an extraordinary time for the Catholic Church in Poland. On the one hand, the current right-wing Law and Justice government has been granting the Church unprecedentedly large sums of money, as the ruling party needs the religious institution’s support. On the other hand, people are more than happy to watch a movie where the Church’s dirty open secrets come to light. It is particularly telling that the stories shown in Clergy, sometimes shocking, sometimes terrifying, are all based on facts.

Even if an anti-Church revolution in Poland is currently unlikely, people’s ‘ordinary celebrations’ are already changing, and the falling numbers of baptisms and Church weddings are telling.

About the author

Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer is a sociologist, Assistant Professor at Kozminski University Department of Management in Networked and Digital Societies and Visiting Fellow at LSE Department of Media & Communications. Her research is focused on politics and civic engagement in online media and everyday culture after 1989. Her current research focuses on the politicisation of online tabloids in the US, UK, and Poland. Author of Marxism and Sociology: A Selection of Writings by Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Brill, 2018) and Reshaping Poland’s Community after Communism: Ordinary Celebrations (Palgrave, 2018). Twitter: @HChSz

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.