Notes from Poland 2022

For the past week and a half, I have been in Krakow, Poland teaching at the Tertio Millennio Seminar on Catholic social doctrine. I have been coming to this city every July since 2006 and while my Polish is abysmal, I have gotten to know the city well.

At first glance, Krakow seems as it ever was. The streets are filled with the usual hustle and bustle. But there are fewer foreign tourists than in years past. Strolling around the old town, it’s clear that many who might seem to be “locals” are, in fact, Ukrainian refugees.

The war in neighboring Ukraine is never far from anyone’s mind. In the months since Russia began its full-scale invasion, more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees have poured over the border into Poland. I’m told there are about 200,000 in and around Krakow alone. The immediate concerns here are less about the prospect of Russian tanks rolling down Grodzka Street than about what is to be done with the massive influx of newcomers.

For the Cracovians I’ve talked to, there was never any question that Poland would open her borders to those fleeing the war. One Polish friend has already hosted four different Ukrainian families. Groups like the Knights of Columbus, which have a growing presence in the country, have been doing heroic work in welcoming and processing refugees.

But accommodating more than 3 million refugees into a country with a pre-war population of about 38 million is a tall order. The longer the war lasts, the longer the refugees remain in Poland, and the more pressing and complicated the challenges become.

With Ukraine being granted emergency status from the EU, Ukrainians are more or less fully integrated into the social safety programs of Poland. This means refugees have access to important services like healthcare, schools, and government benefits. All of that has made it easier for the millions of displaced Ukrainians, but it comes at a cost. As is usually the case, those costs weigh the most on those least able to afford them.

A friend from Wroclaw in western Poland told me that there have been protests in his city from lower-income Poles who have been waiting for years for housing assistance and who have little patience for what they see as Ukrainians “skipping the line” for government help. Polish officials have appealed to the EU for financial assistance in handling the refugee situation, but the aid on offer has thus far not come close to matching the need.

Temporary housing arrangements or placing Ukrainian children in Polish schools is one thing, but accommodation – let  alone integrating – such massive numbers of people is a daunting task. How do you ramp up basic infrastructure on short notice? And what happens to all the new housing and schools when, in a few months or years, a large proportion of refugees return to their homeland? Even in the rosiest scenarios, the disruptions to social and economic life will be significant and likely to last well beyond the end of hostilities in Ukraine.

Ukrainians in Poland say, “Thank you.”

In places like Krakow, limited supply and high demand have been driving up housing prices for years. Inflation is a problem everywhere, but in Poland it has been especially bad, currently sitting around 14 percent. All of these challenges, as daunting as they may be, pale in comparison to what Ukrainians face – both those still in war-torn Ukraine and those living abroad as refugees.

This reality is hardly lost on Poles. But as prices rise across the board, and with the prospect of a winter of skyrocketing gas prices due to the war and sanctions, the warm welcome and goodwill Poland has shown its eastern neighbors will be tested in the coming months.

Major disruptions like those Poland currently faces can have a compounding effect, and Catholic Poland was already facing significant challenges before the war in Ukraine.

Secularization is a very real challenge. As the heroism shown by the Polish Church under Communism and the pontificate of Pope John Paul II fade farther into history, the reality of life in the Polish Church today looks quite different from the image of Polish Catholicism that many Americans – especially those of us more than 30 or 40 years old – grew up with.

In recent years, more than a dozen Polish bishops have faced Vatican investigations for sexual abuse or negligence in handling abuse cases. Most of these investigations have resulted in disciplinary action or resignations. The highest profile of those investigations was of Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former Archbishop of Krakow and former secretary to Pope John Paul II. Both civil and Church authorities have cleared Dziwisz of wrongdoing, but the whiff of scandal is not so easily dismissed.

A recent documentary film produced by Polish journalist, Paulina Guzik, explores the legacy of Pope John Paul II’s handling of clerical sexual abuse. It’s very well done and tackles a complicated story with dexterity and honesty. (I’m biased: Paulina is a good friend and I appear in the film). But the fact that a Polish film defending the legacy of the sainted Polish pope is even necessary says something about the state of affairs in the Polish Church.

As recently as a decade ago, Poland accounted for nearly one-third of all new priestly vocations in Europe. While priestly and religious vocations remain robust compared to the rest of Europe and the West, the numbers have been in steady decline for some time. What happens to the Church in Poland matters greatly for the global Church.

As time and world events create ever greater distance between the Polish Catholicism of the last century and that of today, the challenge for the Polish Church will be to find a way to draw inspiration from the past, to build on the past, rather than living in it. Poland has done it before; let’s hope and pray it can do so still.


You may also enjoy:

Brad Miner’s Miracle in Poland: a Review of “Love and Mercy”

Mary Eberstadt’s The Cross Amid the Crisis

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.