Alex is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Originally from Atlanta, she is majoring in Culture and Politics, focusing on the issue of identity in the European Union, with a certificate in Russian and Eastern European Studies. In the spring of 2012, she is studying at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. At the Centre, she hopes to learn more about the mechanics of the European Union, as well as Central European cultural identity and how it has been transformed by European institutions. With native son Pope John Paul II’s papacy intimately interwoven into the narrative of the collapse of communism, Poland will be a fascinating country in which to observe the interplay of politics, religion, and culture.
March 15, 2012
Karol Wojtyla is a national hero in Poland. He was born in 1920 in Wadowice, a city just outside of Krakow in southern Poland. He features prominently in the Polish historical narrative of the late seventies and eighties as leading resistance to the communist regime. The leader of Solidarity, the famous trade union that opposed the communist party in Poland, Lech Walesa, named Karol Wojtyla as “the paramount champion of freedom.” Walesa credited Wojtyla with sparking interest in the Solidarity movement, leading to a membership ten million strong that came together to agitate for free elections and vote the communist party out of Poland in 1989. In 2004, Wojtyla was awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work against communism.
Despite Karol Wojtyla’s superstar status in Poland, many Americans may not recognize his name, even after reading about his accomplishments. In fact, Karol Wojtyla is better known as Pope John Paul II.
Across the world, John Paul II is widely respected, but the Polish attitude towards John Paul II is bordering on an obsession. Everywhere I go in Poland, there’s something touched by John Paul II. Here in Krakow where I am studying, the house he lived in as archbishop of Krakow is now a museum. While he was archbishop of Krakow, he also taught at the Catholic University of Lublin in eastern Poland, which is now called The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin.
In the main square of his hometown of Wadowice, there’s a larger than life statue of the Pope, with holy water springing from the ground beneath his feet. In Wroclaw, the Pope is immortalized in a stained glass window in a church where he once gave a speech. Every church in Poland has at least one portrait of the Virgin Mary, and every important church has a portrait of the Virgin Mary wearing a golden crown placed on her head by John Paul II, accompanied by photos of this event.
Karol Wojtyla is still alive, not only in name and image throughout Poland, but also in the minds of the Polish people. My roommate here, who is a first generation American of Polish descent, summed up the general attitude in Poland towards Karol Wojtyla’s selection as Pope: “that was the best time in Polish history, ever.”
After over a century of partition, where Poland was wiped off the map of Europe from 1772 to 1919, the horrors of war and genocide, and communist repression, the rise of a Pole to the highest office in the Catholic Church represents the resurrection of Poland in the historical narrative. Of course, the Pope is supposed to represent all Catholics, but there is a very strong sentiment in Poland that John Paul II is “our Pope.” Under any circumstances, a Polish Pope would have been a huge deal in Poland—90% of the country is Catholic.
However, John Paul II’s connection to Poland’s political history elevates him even further; he is at once a spiritual and secular hero. Perhaps in future generations, farther removed from the struggles of the twentieth century, when no one alive will remember World War II and the Holocaust or life under communism, Karol’s star won’t shine quite as bright. But as long as Polish society remains haunted by the experience of communism, the Catholic Church and John Paul II will retain their exalted positions in Polish society.
June 8, 2012
I had a few weeks off between the end of my classes and the beginning of my exams here in Poland, so I got to go on vacation with my mom in Turkey. Part of the reason we chose Turkey was because I was getting tired of visiting European cities—a terrible problem to have, I know. But after a certain number of cities, I wasn’t interested in looking at another Renaissance town hall or Gothic cathedral. I was reading for a change in Istanbul, and part of that change was getting to visit mosques instead of churches.
The mosques I visited were indeed beautiful and different (in mosques it is forbidden to have any representations of people, so they are decorated with abstract or floral motifs), but what struck me the most on my visit to Turkey was the place of religion in society. Turkey and Poland both have huge religious majorities of Muslims and Catholics, 99.8% and 89.8% of the population according to the CIA World Factbook respectively, but each country is also a state without an official religion. Both are aiming for the separation of church and state struggling to achieve this.
For example, in government schools in both countries religious education is part of the curriculum. In Poland, religious classes teach Catholic doctrine. The classes are optional, but one of my professors who studies social issues in Poland explained that the social pressure, especially in rural Poland, means that the classes are much less optional than they are made out to be. Our tour guide in Turkey told a similar story. There, religion classes are mandatory in schools and teach the tenets of Sunni Islam. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, a branch of the central government that is at least officially autonomous, oversees religious education as well as all of the mosques and imams in the country.
To someone coming from the United States, compelling children to study the doctrine of one specific religious sect at school does not seem compatible with the idea of a secular country or the separation of church and state. That is not to say that separation of church and state is perfect in the United States. On the contrary, debates about the wording of the pledge of allegiance, the permissibility of elementary school choirs singing Christmas songs at holiday concerts, and the teaching of evolution indicates that the line between the state and religion is constantly being negotiated in the US as well.
In Turkey, the contradiction in living in a secular state where religious education is required in schools has been recognized by the government and explained. In an article in an issue of Turkish Review from 2010 by Levent Koker, the statement from the Turkish National Security Council about the role of religious education is reprinted: “In fact, compulsory religious education in schools is compatible with secularist principles. In this matter Ataturk stated, 'Religion must be taken out from the hands of ignorant people, and the control should be given to the appropriate people.'” Anyone who as ever visited Turkey will be familiar with the national hero, Ataturk, who created the current secular republic after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Every school has a statue of Ataturk outside, he peers down from photographs on restaurant walls, and our tour guide told us that most Turks still cry on the anniversary of his death every year.
The current government, made up of the conservative Justice and Development Party, would rather see a more religious, a more Islamic, Turkey; they are not so enamored with Ataturk and his policies. While the general trend in Poland is movement towards social liberalism (albeit slowly), in Turkey the trend is towards conservativism. Our tour guide told us she has seen a dramatic increase in the number of women wearing headscarves and the long coats typical of conservative Muslims in Istanbul, a traditional bastion of liberalism, in the last five years. This is the segment of the population keeping the Justice and Development Party in power, but the government still has to contend with their critics who support a more secular Turkey. The National Security Council’s appeal to Ataturk seems like their attempt to have their cake and eat it too—both to have the support of the secular and religious parts of Turkish society and have a “secular” state that where Islam is officially sponsored. It seems like some pretty serious magical thinking, but no countries has all the answers when it comes to the question of the relationship between church and state.