Long Teaching Module: The Catholic Church in Poland, 1950-2000

Tom Rushford
thumbnail of chart result of how often someone goes to church


Poland is, at first glance, one of the most religiously homogeneous countries on earth. Almost all Polish children (99%) are baptized into the Roman Catholic Church; 93% of all marriages are accompanied by a church wedding; and depending on how you formulate the question, between 90% and 98% of the population will answer “Roman Catholic” when asked about their religion.

This long teaching module includes objectives, activities, discussion questions, guidance on executing the lesson, suggestions for engaging with the sources, and essay prompts relating to the ten primary sources.


During the 1980s, masses were so well-attended that people often had to stand outside the church doors and listen to the priest over loudspeakers. If you went to an anti-Communist demonstration in those days, you would be certain to see people holding crosses or icons of the Virgin Mary. There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic Church played an enormous social, political, and cultural role in the Polish People’s Republic, and the fall of Communism would certainly have played out differently were it not for the Church’s involvement. When Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Kraków became Pope John Paul II in 1978, it was immediately obvious that life would never be the same for the Communist authorities in Poland. Indeed, some have credited him with playing the key role in toppling Communism.

But exactly how should we characterize the Church’s involvement in the great drama of the 1980s? What was the relationship between the clergy and the opposition, and between the clergy and the regime? To what degree did the Pope influence events in 1980 or in 1989? And how did Catholicism shape the views and attitudes of those who opposed the Communist state? None of these questions have clear answers, and historians are only now beginning to conduct research that will lead us towards a deeper understanding of these issues.

During the early years of the Communist regime the Church was subjected to brutal oppression from the Stalinist state, but in 1956 reformers in the Communist party put an end to the worst abuses and established an informal truce with the Episcopate: the open assault on Christianity would end if the clergy would stay out of politics and recognize the legitimacy of Communist rule. Henceforth, the Church in Poland enjoyed freedoms that were unprecedented in the Soviet Bloc. Several independent Catholic periodicals were published (albeit with limited print-runs), the Church could supervise the selection and training of priests, and religious education was even returned to the schools (with restrictions that became more severe over time). The clergy remained vehemently anti-Communist and the bishops frequently criticized government policies, while for their part the Communists conducted covert surveillance on the clergy, set up bureaucratic obstacles to slow the construction of new churches, and used the media to undermine the bishops at every opportunity. Each side, nonetheless, recognized that they lacked the power to ever defeat the other, and a certain tense stability was established.

The growth of an organized democratic opposition in the 1970s placed the Church in an awkward position. On the one hand, the hierarchy was committed to sustaining social peace and feared the consequences of a violent uprising; on the other hand, they were suspicious of the intelligentsia dissidents. Many of the writers, scholars, artists, and political activists in the dissident movement had once been enthusiastic about the promises of socialism, and even as they moved into the opposition they retained the values and ideals of the left. Most of the clergy, on the other hand, still embraced a conservative and nationalistic worldview, and in their sermons they regularly warned against the dangers of liberalism, individualism, and “excessive freedom.”

With time, however, both sides began to move closer together, recognizing that they faced a common foe. During the late 1970s, it became more and more common for dissidents (even non-Catholics) to hold meetings in Church basements, where the state authorities usually feared to tread. Many parishes became sanctuaries for a wide variety of anti-Communist activists, and important members of the hierarchy (most famously, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła) began to embrace the rhetoric of “democracy” and “human rights.”

When Cardinal Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II in 1978, this tenuous relationship was further strengthened. In 1979, the new Pope staged a spectacular eight-day pilgrimage to his homeland, and approximately thirteen million people—one third of the entire Polish population—attended at least one of his public events. Those who experienced that amazing week report that their lives were forever transformed: for those few days, the Communist authorities seemed to vanish, and an entirely different Poland emerged. As Adam Michnik (who is not Catholic) put it, “In June, 1979, I lived through one of those moments in my life that gave me a sense that I was alive for a reason. . . . I felt absolutely no sense of separation. Alongside me kneeled a Catholic priest, and no one on that square had any intention to divide people. It was natural that we were together.” This feeling of freedom and this sense of belonging created the foundation from which Solidarity could be created one year later.

Mainly because of these experiences from the Papal pilgrimages to Poland, when strikes and demonstrations were held in the 1980s it seemed natural to use religious imagery. The Church hierarchy still tried to prevent the politicization of religion, and repeatedly urged the clergy not to speak out openly against the regime. Many priests, however, pushed the limits of obedience by sheltering the opposition and giving anti-Communist sermons. In 1984, one of these priests, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, was murdered by members of the secret police, and the bond between Catholicism and the opposition was further solidified in the popular imagination.

By the late 1980s the Church was widely seen as the primary site for anti-Communist activism, and attendance at mass became more popular than ever before or since. But the old tensions remained, and just beneath the surface the conservative nationalism of many priests was in sharp conflict with the secular liberalism of many of the leading dissidents. Meanwhile, the bishops bemoaned the fact that people were coming to church not to pray, but to express their political resistance to the Communists.

When the Communist regime extended feelers towards the opposition in the late 1980s, the Church hierarchy was asked to serve as a mediator. The bishops who took part in the Round Table Talks of 1989 insisted that they were not parties to the debates, but neutral guarantors who insured that both Solidarity and the communists were negotiating in good faith. This was slightly disingenuous—it was obvious that their sympathies were with Solidarity—but it was true that they were committed to ensuring that open conflict (particularly violent struggle) was avoided at all costs. In this sense, they played a crucial role in ensuring that the voices of moderation and compromise emerged victorious.

Brian Porter
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

"Almost all Polish children. . ." Statistics found in: Irena Borowik and Tadeusz Doktór, Pluralizm religijny i moralny w Polsce: Raport z badań (Kraków: Nomos, 2001), 23, 127.
"Indeed, some have credited. . ." See, for example, some of the commentaries published at the time of his death in 2005: Andrew Nagorski, “Freedom Matters,” Newsweek 145, 15 (April 11, 2005): 46-47; David van Biema, “Defender of the Faith: Pope John Paul II 1920-2005,” Time 165, 15 (April 11, 2005): 35-42.
Adam Michnik quoted from Adam Michnik, Józef Tischner, and Jacek Żakowski, Między panem a plebanem (Kraków: Znak, 1998), 287, 290.

Primary Sources

Statistics on Polish Catholicism in the Communist Era

The information presented in this table highlights some of the ambiguities regarding the position of the Roman Catholic Church in the Polish People's Republic. The basic message in these data is that Catholicism thrived between WWII and the 1990s. These decades saw an expanding network of parishes and a dramatic surge in the construction of church buildings. However, by comparing the last column of this chart with the overall increase in parishes (and with the information we gain from the other sources provided in the Teaching Module on the Roman Catholic Church in Poland), we see that it is more likely that the Church was indeed successfully improving its pastoral services.

Teaching Strategies

Statistics on Catholicism in Poland after the fall of Communism

Discussing these figures will help students understand that the image of "Catholic Poland" is more complicated than a casual observer might assume. Begin by asking the students what it means to call a country (or even a single individual) "Catholic." Does it refer to how a person answers a question about religious identity on a census questionnaire? If so, how do we account for the varying levels of religious practice among Poles (around 90% of whom declare themselves to be Catholic)? Does it change one's impression of Poland as a "Catholic nation" once we realize that most people only attend mass sporadically? In general, what do these statistics tell us about the religiosity of the Poles? How does the level of religiosity differ among various social categories, and how might we explain those differences. Drawing the students' attention to the statistics on moral values, ask what we should make of statistics showing that so many Poles disagree with the Church's official position on these matters (particularly premarital sex and birth control)? Finally, ask the students to speculate about the causes of the shifts between 1991 and 1998. Considering all these statistics together, ask the students to speculate about the future of Catholicism in Poland.

Excerpts from the sermon given by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw in 1987

Students can be asked how this particular Eucharistic Congress might have attained special meaning under the circumstances. What might the Pope have been trying to accomplish in this particular text? Were there any implicit messages behind his words? Why might he have avoided explicit political commentary in the summer of 1987? And even if the Pope did not intend any hidden messages, might his audience have heard such messages anyway? This is an excellent opportunity to talk with students about the difference between an author's intent and an audience’s interpretation, and to deal with some of the challenges historians face in dealing with these two levels of interpretation. Ask the students to explain why people who saw and heard the Pope later spoke of an increase sense of national identity, particularly given the lack of obvious political content in sermons such as this one.

Photographs from the Papal Visit of 1987

Ask the students to look for the police in these pictures; it is a trick question, because there were very few of them (look for the blue uniforms). Though tens of thousands of people lined the roads just to see him pass by, and millions attended his open-air masses, the entire state apparatus seemed to vanish for those few summer days. Crowd control was managed almost entirely by volunteers (they can be identified by their sky-blue paper hats). The Church, not the Communist state, even provided the motorcycle escorts of the “popemobile”. The site of the Pope's mass in Warsaw was loaded with symbolism. Ask the students to consider what symbolic impact this location might have had in these circumstances. Ask the students to speculate about the meaning of the various signs that were carried by the pilgrims. Can we make a distinction between "religious" and "political" symbolism in this context? The students can be asked to describe the feeling of being in a very large crowd; ask them to tell about the biggest event they've ever attended, then use that to compare to the million or so people who attended this mass in Warsaw in 1987. Here at the University of Michigan I evoke an image of our football stadium, which is the largest in the US and seats 112,000 people. Imagining ten such stadiums is daunting. Then ask the students to further imagine attending such a crowd in a country where religion was officially discouraged by the state authorities. A discussion of this event provides an opportunity for students to talk about the relative importance of the actual words spoken at events like this one. Although there were loudspeakers, many could barely hear what the Pope was saying. How, then, might a historian analyze the meaning or importance of this mass?

Photographs of the St. Stanisław Kostka church in Warsaw

The students should be asked to consider why the regime might have allowed this prominent Solidarity shrine to exist, and why they would accept such open displays of opposition yet at the same time enforce an unspoken rule that those displays must never leave church grounds. Was this an effective way to vent some of the opposition's steam without provoking real unrest, or did it simply allow Solidarity to organize and sustain the struggle? Was it appropriate for Solidarity to use the Church in this manner, blatantly taking advantage of a religious site for political purposes? How might Catholics have reconciled this blending of secular and sacred space?

Anonymous sermon from 1982

Students should be asked to compare this sermon with the other documents from the early 1980s included in this module, and explain whatever differences they find. Were these mainly differences of rhetorical style, or did they seem to reflect substantive disagreements within the Church? Given these differences, how should we characterize the Catholic response to General Jaruzelski's government or to the communist regime more generally? Are there common points that unite all the texts presented in this module, or should we avoid talking about a common "Catholic response" altogether? This is also an opportunity to talk with students about the importance of understanding context when interpreting a historical text. What differences would we expect when comparing a prayer, an official statement by a bishop, a papal sermon, and a regular Sunday sermon from a village priest? What pressures and constraints might the authors of these various texts have faced, and how might that have shaped the style and substance of each document?

Excerpt from a letter from the Episcopate to the parish clergy of Poland in 1981

A useful conversation can be launched by asking the students how they would have responded had they been in the bishops' shoes in 1981. How does one balance the religious injunction to maintain peace and preserve life on the one hand with the Church's opposition to the communist regime on the other? How should the Church respond when social justice and social peace seem to come into conflict? Such a discussion will generally devolve quickly into abstract moral terms, which then provides the instructor with the opportunity to remind the students of the specific constraints faced by everyone in Poland in 1981. The goal of discussing this text should be to show the students the delicacy and difficulty of the bishops' position in 1981.

Prayer for the Fatherland

Teachers can use this text not only to explore the complexity of the Church's stance in the 1980s, but also to discuss with the students how one might go about analyzing the distinctive genre of a prayer.

Excerpts from a sermon given by Primate Stefan Wyszyński in 1976

This document can be used to start a conversation with students about the nature of the conflict between the Catholic Church and the communist state. What sort of view is Cardinal Wyszyński arguing against in this piece? Is there anything distinctly communist about the ideal of separating Church and State? Would the Primate have been any happier with a system modeled on American or West European democracies? These questions move towards a clearer understanding of the nature of the Church's views about communist Poland. Students could be asked to imagine how an anticommunist dissident working to establish a pluralist democracy would respond to views like this. That can provide an opening for instructors to talk about the disagreements that always threatened to split the opposition in the 1970s and 1980s, with Catholic nationalists on one side and liberal democrats on the other. It may be that only the unifying power of John Paul II and the Solidarity movement could have brought these divergent forces together (see the sermon by the Pope in this module). After studying the revolutions of 1989, students could be asked to speculate how Wyszyński might have responded to the political order that emerged in the 1990s.

The Pledge of Jasna Góra

The text is a valuable teaching document for many reasons. First, it can be used to help students work through a rhetorical style that will be unfamiliar to most of them, and allow them to see how politics and religion can be intertwined. Students can be asked to explain why Wyszyński might have used the word "nation" so much, or why he cast the pledge as if it were being sworn on behalf of the entire Polish people. They can be prompted to consider the relationship between the theological and political elements of the text; did the latter necessarily emanate from the former? The second valuable element of this document is the way it clarifies the specific goals and ambitions of the Polish Catholic Church. The "Pledge of Jasna Góra" can be used to help students think about the importance of context in explaining a text. Since this was written during the Stalinist era but recited for decades to come, students can be asked to consider how its meaning might have subtly shifted over time, as people with different agendas recited the same words. Even more importantly, this provides an opportunity for students to think about the way a text can seem different when read and when recited, or when recited in a crowd of several thousand (or even several hundred thousand) pilgrims, as often happens. Assuming that the students' own religious sensibilities allow this, it can be interesting to have them recite the oath themselves, then ask them how it felt to participate in the ritualistic call-and-response format.

Statistics on Polish Catholicism in the Communist Era

Start by asking the students what they know about the fate of religion in the communist world, most will say something about oppression and persecution. Then present them with this chart, and ask them how these figures might be used to support, refute, or qualify our preconceptions about religion and Communism. It can be productive to ask the students to interpret the last column, because some might suggest that this indicates a decline in overall religiosity. However, by comparing this with the overall increase in parishes (and with the information we gain from the other sources provided in the module), we see that it is more likely that the Church was indeed successfully improving its pastoral services. Once the students have discussed the meaning of these figures, they should be asked to explain how such an expansion might have been possible under communism? This can lead to two interesting conversations: 1) a discussion about the appeal of the forbidden, and an exploration of how people might be drawn to religious life (i.e., the priesthood) for distinctive reasons in communist Poland (a comparison with the students' own backgrounds might be valuable here); 2) a debate about how our picture of communism is qualified by these figures, and how the mode of "totalitarianism" might be undermined by the Church's success in building new houses of worship.

Lesson Plan

Time Estimated

Four to five 90-minute class periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.


12 copies of each primary source.

Lecture materials (see Procedures prior to Activity 1 & Activity 6)


By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • 1. identify the differing ways in which the Catholic Church impacted the development of modern Poland;
  • 2. analyze the importance of the Catholic faith in the formation of Polish nationalism and how religion contributes to the formation of a national identity;
  • 3. discuss the ebb and flow of historical change within the Church and Poland as the country moved from communism to democracy; and
  • 4. interpret the challenges facing the Church within an increasingly secularized and modernized Polish state.


Preparation: Have students read Introductory Essay to “Making 1989” (http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989) as homework before lesson begins. Students should access the website to scan and skim the primary sources.

Short Lecture: Introduce Subject Area - The Catholic Church in Poland-- via a short lecture. (See below: background resources for teachers)

  • Suggested Points:
  • 1. The Catholic Church in Poland during communism: conflict and coexistence “mass as protest”
  • 2. The Church as Opposition Party during communism “church as sanctuary for anti-communists”
  • 3. The Church as mediator in Poland, 1988-90
  • 4. Post-Communist Poland: Church as political “party.”
  • 5. Overall link between Polish nation as Catholic nation (direct link between Polish community as a specifically religious one).

Small-group Activity: Break class into co-operative groups. Provide copies of all 12 primary sources which make up this unit to each group. Ensure that each group has a monitor, recorder and reporter. Note: The ‘monitor’ is responsible for the group staying on track and for time-management, the ‘recorder’ for taking notes of the group’s work, and the ‘reporter’ for sharing those notes with the whole class.

  • Each group should read the documents and divide them into thematic sets. The group should start by reading and summarizing each document, followed by a free-flowing discussion as to how each set is defined. For example, students might group all primary sources by author, type of source, date, etc. The goal is to have students create an overarching theme/idea to organize the documents. Students should keep notes on their logic and discussion and be prepared to explain them to the whole class.
  • Have each group report out to the whole class on their process and thematic sets. Questions and answers should be encouraged as groups explain their logic. There will be inconsistencies and comments to discuss. Have the entire class come to a consensus on the most effective or illustrative sets.
  • Use the closing time of class to have students reflect on what this exercise reveals about history more broadly and the process of making sense of the pieces of the past, the primary soruces. Be prepared to guide them along this process.

Small Group Activity: Using the best sets generated from the last activity, divide the students into groups again. This part of the activity may go more quickly as students should be familiar with the documents. Their task is to analyze their set, but to go more deeply into the specifics. Suggested questions include:

  • Who wrote the document, and for whom was it written? What does this suggest about the point of view reflected in the document?
  • Why was the document written and what form does it have? A document’s purpose and form (e.g. legal opinion, prohibition, instruction manual) will affect the sorts of material it contains and cause a systematic bias.

  • How do author, audience, purpose, and form relate to the event or phenomenon that the document describes? Was the author in a position to have reliable knowledge of the event or phenomenon? Does the form permit accurate reporting? Does the author have any reason to avoid telling the truth as he or she saw it?
  • In conclusion, how reliable do you think this document is? What other kinds of documents would you want to examine to corroborate its claims?
  • In light of this examination, does the set still make sense? Why or why not?

Have the groups record their answers to these questions. Each group should report their findings to the class as a whole. The reflection here should be on what the students struggled with in examining and interpreting their set? How could the task have been easier? More difficult? What does this task imply for the study of history?

Homework: Each student should choose (and let them to the extent that you can; assigning each student a document would also work) a document to research in more depth. (Note: some of the graphs look easy but will require more work in the following activity.)

Research: Each student can use the notes reported out by the groups in the last activity to orient their first steps. The purpose here is to produce an essay with additional background material that incorporates the source so that each student has the chance to explore the context of a document more completely.

  • The central theme of the research should be answering the question: What does this document (and your research) tell us about the role of the Catholic Church in modern Polish history?

Lecture: To bridge the contextual understanding of the period in Poland, another short lecture is suggested here to allow students time to work on their research and give them a richer sense of the role of the Church in this period. One suggestion would be to use this lecture to cover a more chronological structure.

  • Key Points:
  • 1. Using the Catholics Church’s role in Solidarity would provide a good focal point to reinforce the ideas listed for the firs lecture within this lecture. Thus, the same key points raised concerning the evolution of the Church through the period 1945-1989 can be used here but tied specifically to the evolution of the Solidarity movement.
  • 2. Another track might be to consider the Church’s role in the period of Communist rule and beyond. After 1990, the Church remained a powerful political force, passing laws on “mandatory” religious education, abortion and a Concordat with the Vatican. All of these post-Communist rules create questions concerning a Polish liberal democracy and a single state religion.

Presentation and Discussion: Have students present their research (even read their essays aloud) to the class. This can happen before their essays are completed. Have the entire class reflect on what the research shows in answering the question of how the Catholic Church influenced and shaped modern Polish society.

Wrap Up: Return to the primary sources. You could even repeat the first activity as an interesting way to re-examine the sets. Reflect on the growth in student awareness and sense of mastery of the material. Discuss how the primary sources guided their analysis and inquiry. Brainstorm the how the Church shaped Polish history—in what ways? At particular moments? Finally, discuss student opinions on the ability of the Catholic Church (or any religious organization) to play similar roles in U.S. history. Has it? Should it? Can it? What are the differences between Poland and America that shape the relationships between religion and society and religion and government? What does that tell them about each

Document Based Questions:

Use the primary sources to explain how the Catholic Church impacted the changes that occurred in modern Poland.

Identify and analyze two or three Points of View (POV) from the primary sources. How does each document reflect the author’s motives and interests?

Using at least 6 sources, describe the evolution of the Church’s role in Polish society over the three main periods of modern Poland (the Communist era, the transition during the 1980s and post-communist society after 1989).

Explain the reasons why the Catholic Church was and is such an integral part of Polish society. As part of your answer, comment upon whether the Church was and is a positive feature of the modern Polish state.


Provide summaries or highlighted sections of the documents to assist students in processing the primary sources used during the activities. Similarly, pre-organized note sheets (containing key words, ideas, and foreign topics) will aid in comprehension. For the research, provide some short suggestions or summaries to guide student participation. When administering the Document Based Question, allow additional time and provide outline guides for student responses. Allow for differing types of responses rather than simply essay format (editorial cartoons, short audio news “programs,” dictated responses,

Background Sources for Teachers:

Borowik, Irena. The Catholic Church in the Process of Democratic Transformation: the Case of Poland, Social Compass, 49:2 239-252 (2002).

Eberts, Mirella. “The Roman Catholic Church and Democracy in Poland,” Europe-Asia Studies, 50:5, 817-842 (1998).

Kurczewski, Jacek. “Parliament and the Political Class in the Constitutional Reconstruction of Poland,” International Sociology, 18:1 162-180 (2003).

Andrzej Paczkowski, The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom, trans. Jane Cave, The Pennsylvania University State Press: Pennsylvania (2003).

Document Based Question

Directions: Using the primary sources in this module, answer ONE of the following prompts:

1. Each country in Eastern Europe experienced a unique road in their journey to the ending of communist rule. Poland’s journey was complicated by the intertwining of Polish national identity with their religious, Catholic identity. Using the sources in this Module, analyze the roles the Catholic Church played in Poland’s transition from communism to democracy, 1960-1990.

2. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe is often touted as not only a change in political government but a qualitative move forward, a progressive movement toward “modernity.” Using Poland’s experience as reflected in the Polish Church's role in that “fall,” discuss whether the fall of communism was a “modern” change. Note that your response should focus on Poland, rather than attempting to deal with other countries’ experiences.


Kłoczowski, Jerzy, A History of Polish Christianity, trans. Małgorzata Sady et al, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
This is the only general history of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland available in the English language. Though somewhat dry, it provides a reliable overview of the millennium of Christianity in Poland, including some coverage of Protestant and Orthodox denominations.
Kubik, Jan, The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
Kubik compares the way the state authorities and the Roman Catholic Church employed symbolism in their attempt to win support during the late communist era. He includes valuable descriptions of Catholic public ceremonies, including the first papal visit in 1979.
Michel, Patrick, Politics and Religion in Eastern Europe: Catholicism in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, trans. Alan Braley, London: Polity Press, 1991.
This book provides a valuable comparison of the Catholic Church in three communist counties, covering not only Church-state relations, but internal developments in theology and religious practice.
Szajkowski, Bogdan Next to God. . . Poland: Politics and Religion in Contemporary Poland, London: Frances Pinter, 1983.
Though written from the perspective of a devout Catholic and ardent Polish patriot, this book provides a good history of the struggle between the Church and the state during the communist era.


About the Author

Brian Porter-Szűcs, Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, is author of When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth-Century Poland (awarded the Oskar Halecki Award of the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in America, for best new book on Polish history) and the forthcoming For God and Fatherland: Poland, Catholicism, and Modernity. He is also editor of Teaching Negotiation: The End of Communism and the Polish Round Table of 1989 and co-editor in the forthcoming publication of Christianity and Modernity in Eastern Europe.

About the Lesson Plan Author

Tom Rushford is a Postdoctoral Fellow at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2006. He is currently working on a manuscript based on his dissertation, entitled Burnings and Blessings: The Cultural Reality of the Supernatural Across Early Modern Spaces.

How to Cite This Source
Tom Rushford Long Teaching Module: The Catholic Church in Poland, 1950-2000 in World History Commons,