The major weakness of Protestantism is fragmentation.

For more than a millennium, ever since Mieszko I became a Christian in the year 966, Poland and Roman Catholicism have been practically synonymous. “Probably no country in the world,” writes Trevor Beeson in his Discretion and Valour (1974), “is more tenaciously Catholic. Polonia semper fidelis was the motto of the old Polish gentry and bourgeoisie, and neither passage of time nor radical political change requires this motto to be modified.” The election of a Polish pope may require it rather to be underlined. The knowledge that a Pole reigns from the Vatican has given a great lift to Polish Catholic morale.

More than 95 percent of the population are Roman Catholics by baptism, and it is claimed that more than 75 percent attend church regularly. Communism’s failure to win the mind and soul of Poland is largely due to cultural heritage and national identity. For Communism smacks of Russia, as Protestantism smacks of Germany, and both countries are traditional enemies; to be a loyal son or daughter of Poland one must be a Roman Catholic. Moreover, the church has been able to retain considerable educational authority over its people. Young people are expected to receive religious instruction for an hour or two a week at one of 18,000 “catechetical points” throughout the country. Even many party leaders’ children conform to this pattern. Nor is there any sign that Roman Catholic influence is diminishing. New churches are being built, and 10,000 men are in training for the priesthood in the 27 diocesan seminaries or for one of the orders in the 35 special seminaries. In addition, there are four Academies of Catholic Theology and two full-blown Catholic Universities.

If we ask what kind of Catholicism prevails in Poland, an equivocal answer has to be given. On the one hand, Pope John Paul II’s June 1979 message in Warsaw centered on Christ. Without Christ, he boldly affirmed, it is not possible for man to understand or to fulfill himself. Also, a few charismatic prayer groups are meeting, and the “Oasis” movement encourages young people to read the Bible, pray, and serve. On the other hand, traditional Catholic piety continues, and an official church document refers to the “Marian character of Polish Catholicism.” The principal Marian shrine is at Czestochowa, southwest of Warsaw, and contains the world’s most famous image of the virgin. Since 1656 the Virgin Mary has been proclaimed “the Queen of Poland.” When the Pope visited the shrine in 1979, the Christ-centered Christianity he had expressed in Warsaw seemed to become Mary-centered again. Our Protestant conscience is troubled, and our evangelical theology affronted, by this unbiblical devotion to Mary.

How do Protestants fare in Poland, then? They constitute a tiny minority of about 100,000 Christians, or less than one-third of 1 percent of the population. The major weaknesses of Protestantism, according to a paper by Karol Karski, were from the beginning elitism and fragmentation. The latter continues. Even in cities in which several Protestant denominations maintain small and struggling churches, there is little fellowship or cooperation between them. And of course the Roman Catholics both notice this and take advantage of it. At least, however, Protestants have since 1945 enjoyed a certain brotherly association through the Polish Ecumenical Council, although they are outnumbered by the Orthodox and Old Catholic Churches.

Poland’s largest and most ancient non-Roman church, dating from the fourteenth century, is the autocephalous Orthodox church, with nearly a half-million members, especially Ukrainians. The two Old Catholic churches, which do not acknowledge the papal primacy, are the “Mariavites” of Russian origin and the “Polish Catholic Church”: they have nearly 60,000 members between them. The Lutherans now number about 80,000, the Evangelical Reformed church about 4,500, the Methodists 4,000, and the Baptists 3,000, while the United Evangelical Church (a federation formed in 1947 of two Pentecostal churches, the Christian Brethren, the Evangelical Christians, and the Churches of Christ) has a membership of about 9,000 baptized adults. The Polish Ecumenical Council maintains close links with the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw, which came into being in 1954, and enjoys a direct continuity with the earlier Evangelical Theological Faculty at Warsaw University. It has Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Evangelical sections, which have independent programs but unite for some lectures and worship services, so that virtually all the non-Roman ministerial candidates (120 at the moment, from 10 churches) are trained in it.

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The dominant Roman Catholic church is obliged to live with, but does not acquiesce in, the present system of inequity. For how can it be just for the Roman Catholic 95 percent of the country’s 35 million people to be controlled by the 3 million who are registered as Communist party members? To be sure, the church enjoys more liberty in Poland than in any other East European country, Roman Catholic chaplains are still appointed to army units, hospitals, and prisons. Nevertheless, the church is still inhibited in a number of ways. Its children are indoctrinated in the schools and taught a rewritten history of Poland; it has no access to the news media; its ecclesiastical appointments have to be endorsed by the state; and all its manuscripts have to be submitted to government censorship.

Yet there is a large degree of free speech. In answer to my question about religious freedom in Poland, Dr. Witold Benedyktowicz, superintendent of the Methodist Church and president of the Polish Ecumenical Council, replied: “We can do everything, except perhaps street preaching, which in any case is not a Polish tradition. We can also say anything from the pulpit. Catholic bishops, in their pastoral letters … at times criticize and even attack the government.”

Are Christians free to evangelize? Billy Graham’s visit to Poland in October 1978 seems to indicate they are. He was received by high government officials, was interviewed on national television, and seized the opportunity at the international press conference to proclaim the gospel to the many journalists present. Although his visit was sponsored by the Baptist Church and the Polish Ecumenical Council, the Roman Catholic church cooperated by placing their largest buildings at his disposal and by encouraging their people to attend. Many did so and responded positively to his message.

Yet evangelism is beset with peculiar difficulties. How are Roman Catholics to be reached who, though baptized and even practicing churchmen, nevertheless have no personal knowledge of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord? This was the question that exercised the Methodist ministers whose conference I attended in May. They recommended the use of Christian homes for evangelistic Bible studies, since Vatican II encouraged Bible reading among the laity, and since Roman Catholics who might feel unable to attend a Protestant church have no comparable embarrassment about entering a Protestant home. The Methodist ministers acknowledged the need to develop programs to train their members in personal witness. They also emphasized that the reality of the living God must be visibly demonstrated both in the reverence of their public worship and in the love of their community life.

John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.

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