I have just been to Poland, which is why I have been out of radio contact for the last week. I had been meaning to go for some time, feeling that this was a country that all Catholics should visit, and I come back with my suspicions fully confirmed.
First there are the churches. They are quite magnificent. The baroque splendours of many of Krakow’s churches survived the destruction of war, and several of them are easily equal to the churches of Rome. Unlike Rome they are set in a serene and largely traffic-free environment. Moreover, these churches all seem to be places of religious devotion; many of them have perpetual adoration, and there were people at prayer in all the ones I visited.
In Warsaw’s historic centre virtually every building was damaged beyond recognition, but there the churches have risen again from the rubble of war. Kudos to the people who saw to their rebuilding. In contrast to the British government after the war, the Poles restored what had been destroyed, rather than replacing them with something modern. This was clearly a matter of national pride. Ironic to think that these churches were rebuilt under the rule of the Polish United Workers (ie Communist) Party, just as Britain under both Labour and Tory governments was busily demolishing what the Luftwaffe had spared, all in the name of progress. Warsaw, as a result, is a charming and delightful city, unlike so many of our British urban spaces.
But it is not just churches, it is the people in them that count (though I do happen to think that architecture does matter too.) I was struck wherever I went by the huge amount of young nuns and priests I saw. The nuns were all in habits of the old-fashioned type – the sort that the late Alice Thomas Ellis found so beautiful. The priests were by and large wearing cassocks. The heat was fierce, up to 35 degrees, but although one or two priests had rolled up the sleeves of their cassocks, the nuns seemed quite unaffected by the heat. They were, I have to conclude, one bunch of tough Sisters.
But seriously, these were people who have not lost confidence in themselves and the mission of the Church. This was, and still is, the land of the Blessed John Paul, and his spirit was clearly not confined to himself. We have got a lot to learn from him, I think. From his place in Heaven, he teaches us still.