As a child growing up in the Polish diaspora, I often visited the land of my forefathers for family occasions and celebrations. But the visit I made a few weekends ago marked my first to the nation as an adult. The occasion was the wedding of a dear friend in the Polish countryside, just outside the city of Wroclaw. And what I encountered during the four-day affair was the remarkable remnant of a living, breathing, holistic Catholic Europe.
In Poland in 2018, an unabashedly Catholic society is fully integrated into a modern European polity and economy. This society represents an integral and democratic Catholicism, one that has resisted the anti-culture of postmodernism and neoliberal cosmopolitanism. Americans might describe it as a national Benedict Option—though the Poles would reject Rod Dreher’s term, since most have little conception of the aggressive secular liberalism that exists across the rest of the West. For them, cultural Catholicism is a normal way of life.
Arriving on a Friday in the city of Wroclaw and stumbling into the university’s Jesuit chapel, I was surprised to discover hundreds of young parishioners of university age. The chapel could fit almost a thousand persons, and yet there was little space to stand when I arrived. I assumed it must have been a local feast day or celebration. On the contrary, it was merely a First Friday. And a weekly devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Walking about the Old Town, I felt I had been transported into a parallel Europe in which Christendom had been buttressed, rather than dethroned, by modernity. Groups of nuns (both old and young) were a not uncommon sight on the streets and in restaurants, walking about in traditional habits. Priests in cassocks sat in cafes and rode the bus. Strangers greeted each other in shops and pubs with “Szczęść Boże!” (God bless!). Public squares were filled with young couples and children. How different this felt from the cathedral towns of France and Germany, where once-great abbeys now stand empty, waiting to befor lack of vocations. How distinct from the streets of London, where clergy have for years been advised wearing habits for fear of assault and harassment. The peaceful city was far removed, too, from the streets of Paris and Berlin, where throngs of police stand at the ready in anticipation of Islamist attacks. The culture of fear that permeates the post-9/11 world in Western Europe was nowhere felt or seen in Wroclaw. Instead, there was an air of social cohesion and Christian communitarianism.
My friend’s nuptial Mass (in the Extraordinary Form) was celebrated in the neighboring countryside, in the thirteenth-century Sanctuary of St. Jadwiga. This magnificent convent church, the final resting place of St. Hedwig of Silesia and home to Cistercian nuns for more than six centuries, towered over the sleepy town of Trzebnica. It could not have been on any tourist’s map, and yet it was grander than the cathedral of my native Toronto. With massive Romanesque pillars and a Baroque high altar from the eighteenth century, the church was a far cry from the makeshift chapels in which the Traditional Latin Mass is usually celebrated in British and North American cities. The wedding invitees numbered at least two hundred, though we seemed to be joined by hundreds more townsfolk for the Mass. This was no North American “traddy” affectation, but a natural part of an organically Catholic society. When the church bells rang in celebration, the whole community seemed to pause to mark the occasion.
The celebrations that followed the wedding featured symbolism from a bygone era. The parents of the newlyweds greeted the bride and groom with bread and salt—gifts from God, and symbols of marital abundance. At the stroke of midnight, in an old Polish Catholic ceremony (“oczepiny”), the bride’s hair was slowly unbraided as family stood by. The ceremony celebrated the end of youth and innocence and the beginning of married life. The bride’s wedding veil was removed for the first time and replaced with a marriage cap gifted by her godmother—a solemn symbol of marital duties—as she was joined by her new husband. The marriage cap is to be worn at significant religious occasions, such as baptisms and first communions, and married Polish women are traditionally buried with their wedding caps. My new friends assured me that this ceremony is a staple of every Polish wedding; even the rare American-style secular wedding retains elements of it. It is another sign of an organic Catholic society, one that honors, instead of resisting, the passage of time and the changing of earthly seasons.
Beyond the presence of a lived cultural Catholicism, Poland feels like a distinct nation. Having traveled to more than forty countries on five continents, I find this phenomenon sadly unique. Every other nation feels like a pastiche of New York or London. The same handful of shops and Fortune 500 brands gut the interiors of otherwise culturally distinct architectures, from Brussels to Beijing. This, of course, is the ultimate ideological end of the neoliberal project: to construct what Robert Cardinal Sarah hasto as a “post-national and one-dimensional world where the only things that matter are consumption and production.” A strange new language—termed “business English” by the Germans—is heard everywhere, replacing the intricacies of unique dialects, tongues, and expressions.
In Poland, people rarely speak English unless addressed in English. Traditional costumes can still be seen, and everywhere there remains a Romanticist connection to the land—which is dotted with small Marian shrines, devotional altars to local saints, and statues of gallant soldiers, great generals, and ancient kings and queens. Unlike the family shrines of the Spanish or Italian countryside, these shrines are still tended to, decorated with candles and freshly cut flowers. This is a nation that still celebrates its heroes.
I understand now why the Western cosmopolitan media, bent on defending neoliberal ideology, is so keen to admonish Poland. On the day marking Poland’s independence from 123 years of foreign occupation, the usual suspects were quick to60,000 patriotic young families and elderly war heroes as far-right reactionaries. Poland is a sign of contradiction. The neoliberals fear the example it sets for the rest of the continent and the West.
What post-Trump Americans and post-Brexit Brits long for already exists in Poland: social cohesion and civic virtue, rooted in a Christian meta-narrative. In other words, a post-liberal politics of virtue. Here is a modern state firmly grounded in the principles of liberal democracy, but one that has begun to move beyond the policy limitations of classical liberalism. Undoubtedly, liberalism had to come first, overthrowing Soviet totalitarianism and providing a groundwork for human rights and civil liberties, before today’s leaders andcould begin to construct a society based on the common good. But Poland demonstrates that liberalism need not be the end of history.
Witness thesocial benefits program for poor parents and the recent of Sunday trading restrictions. Only madmen, or else those intimately familiar with Catholic social and political thought, would think to adopt such policies in the wake of a continent-wide economic recession. Witness also Poland’s unceasing majoritarian affirmation of the sanctity of life from natural conception to natural death, and the constitutional primacy it affords religious freedom. The recent Irish referendum makes clear that Poland alone in Europe remains a bulwark of social conservatism, resisting the enthronement of the market and the self as the ultimate goods.
Returning from the nuptial Mass with Fr. Emerson, FSSP at the wheel, we drove past a military convoy. One by one, all the soldiers atop the tanks and transport vehicles stood up and waved at us. It took us foreigners more than a minute to understand why, but afterwards, I couldn’t help but smile. They had waved and cheered because they saw a Roman collar. I could not imagine this scene taking place anywhere else in Europe today, but perhaps it offers a glimmer of hope for the continent.
Jozef Andrew Kosc is a DPhil student in international development at the University of Oxford.