Poland marks anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death as religious observance begins to flag

By Vanessa Gera, AP
Friday, April 2, 2010

More-secular Poland marks Pope John Paul’s death

WARSAW, Poland — A trumpet in Warsaw sounded a mournful tone Friday at 9:37 p.m., marking the minute five years ago when Poland’s revered native son Pope John Paul II died.

Believers held solemn commemorations of the pope amid Good Friday observances recalling the suffering of Jesus. Singing hymns in torch light, they followed a group of men who carried an enormous cross in a Way of the Cross procession.

“It was a great pope we had, and it’s important to pay homage to him,” said Barbara Pelka, 69, one of thousands who turned out in the rain for the ceremony. “This is our tradition, this is what we should be doing.”

The cross was then erected at Pilsudski Square, where John Paul, as the newly elected pope in 1979, delivered a Mass in which he subtly challenged the communist leadership and inspired the anti-communist movement that eventually helped defeat communism across eastern Europe.

Candlelit commemorations took place around the country Friday night — from John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice to Krakow, where he served as archbishop.

Others rose before dawn to gather at the pilgrimage site of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska in southern Poland for a reenactment of Christ’s death, joined by Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Krakow archbishop who was John Paul’s closest friend.

An actor playing Jesus buckled under the weight of a cross as brown-robed friars and believers clasping rosaries followed him.

Despite the day of religious reflection, many signs in Poland point to a slow but significant move away from the church five years after John Paul’s death.

Poland remains perhaps the most religiously observant country in Europe and churches are still packed, but they are slightly less full every year, with studies showing the numbers of those who attend regularly are on a slow decline, said sociologist Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, a professor and the dean of Collegium Civitas, a Warsaw university.

The number of Polish men starting study programs to become priests and monks fell from 1,500 to 953 between 2004, the year before the pope’s death, and 2008, according to church figures.

Shopping malls seem to have as many people as pews on Sunday mornings, and teenagers more eagerly point to TV stars as their heroes than to the nation’s greatest authority of recent times.

John Paul was elected pope in 1978 and played a pivotal role in Poland’s recent history, inspiring the birth of Lech Walesa’s anti-communist Solidarity movement, raising spirits during a martial law crackdown in the 1980s and bolstering the Polish church as it supported the democracy struggle.

His warmth and charisma — coming across so strongly in his numerous pilgrimages around the world and to Poland — won him great affection in his homeland, and young people across this country of 38 million considered him a role model.

But the pro-church Gazeta Polska weekly lamented on Wednesday that “10 years ago it was the Holy Father who was the main authority for school children, after their parents. But, in a survey last year, television stars ranked at the top.”

Some worry that Poland, which is growing increasingly wealthy, will start to resemble other traditionally Catholic countries, like France and Spain, where church attendance is much lower.

“In Europe, churches are becoming increasingly empty,” said Kazimierz Kik, a political scientist with Kielce University. “It is possible that Poland will be the very last country where churches will become empty, but still you can see the process of gradual secularization here, especially among young people and chiefly among those who travel to the West.”


Associated Press writer Katarzyna Mala in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska contributed to this report.

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