Can Poles integrate in the UK?

27 February 2008

Cultural tensions are simmering between British and Polish RCs, says Jonathan Luxmoore

When Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor travels to Warsaw next week to confer with the Bishops’ Conference of Poland, much will be at stake. Over the past year, a dispute has brewed over who should provide pastoral care for the hundreds of thousands of mostly Roman Catholic Polish migrants who have come to Britain since their country joined the European Union in May 2004.

The outcome could have important implications for Anglicans and other Churches. The influx of Poles could do much to strengthen the voice of Christians as a whole in British society. This will require mutual respect, however, as well as a willingness to co-operate not just with British RCs, but also with other Churches. Until now, the Polish Church has shown a distinct reluctance on each count.

Polish church leaders have done nothing to encourage an awareness of the range of British Christian traditions. Among most migrants, knowledge of Anglicanism is confined to stereotypes about Henry VIII’s divorce, and to satirical stories in the Polish media about women vicars and gay curates. Anglicans could also do more to welcome the migrants and to help them understand Anglican beliefs.

Some English Roman Catholics have enthused about the positive impact of Polish Catholicism here — from its carefully preserved sacramental order to its unashamed popular devotions, which include a special reverence for the Virgin Mary. Yet some caution is needed.

Roman Catholic traditions in Poland, forged in dramatic historical circumstances, are unlikely to transfer easily to the pluralistic atmosphere of British Christianity. The Polish Church’s ecumenical engagement is negligible, and it has shown little interest in global poverty and injustice, which are a vital part of Western church discourse.

In social and cultural terms, meanwhile, English Roman Catholics have much more in common with Anglicans than with their fellow-Catholics from Poland. Although Poland is well supplied with renewal movements, lay people play no part in running the Church. Practices taken for granted at British churches, such as Sunday schools and post-worship socialising, are virtually unknown.

The Polish Catholic Mission for England and Wales is headed from London by a Vicar-Delegate, nominated by the Polish bishops, and currently numbers 114 priests in 219 parishes and pastoral centres. Its brochure says that migrant communities are viewed as “an integral part of the Polish Church”.

When this was agreed with the English Roman Catholic Church back in 1948, it was intended to provide for the pastoral needs of 200,000 Polish soldiers and dependants left in Britain after the War. Yet the situation has clearly changed.

For Britain’s Roman Catholics, the influx represents a phenomenal asset. Poland’s 84 seminaries currently boast more than 6000 students, compared with about 100 in England and Wales. During a pilgrimage to Poland in May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI urged priests to work among its migrants “in partnership with local churches”.

In a pastoral letter a year ago, however, the Polish bishops urged Poles to find their own priests and parishes, “in surroundings indifferent to religion and even anti-Christian”.

The Polish Mission is seriously understaffed. It runs just ten parishes in London for a Polish population of 350,000. Yet some British priests are reluctant to lend their churches, insisting that Poles should join in the life of English parishes. This appears to be the view of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

In an interview in December with the Catholic Information Agency in Poland, he said that English church life had been boosted previously by Irish Roman Catholics: they had helped bring British citizens back to the faith by becoming an “integral part of the Church”. “I’m quite concerned that Poles are creating a separate Church in Britain — I would want them to be part of the Catholic life of this country.”

THE call for integration was quickly taken out of context. The Polish Mission’s Vice-Rector, Grazyna Sikorska, believed it was only the prelude to the eventual prohibition of all Polish masses. “How can he demand that we stop praying in Polish — is it a sin?” Mrs Sikorska demanded. “I feel my inner conscience has been violated, leaving me spiritually raped.”

In his Christmas message, the RC Primate of Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, appeared to throw down the gauntlet, urging Poles abroad to “organise a mini-Poland” wherever they found themselves.

Meanwhile, British Roman Catholic attitudes were bitterly criticised in the Polish media. The mass-circulation daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported that some Poles were travelling up to two hours each way after work “with tears in their eyes” to find Polish masses. “What the Grand Armada failed to achieve will be done by the Polish builder and supermarket cashier,” one reader responded. “Albion will return to the bosom of the one true, valid Church.”

More moderate voices have since attempted to explain the Polish position. They argue that many young Poles are already mature Christians, who are accustomed to higher standards of spirituality than those available in Britain. Polish parishes also provide a vital link with the ojczyzna, or homeland, running schools, clubs, and shops.

Polish church leaders may have other worries, too — not least, that migrants will bring liberal church influences back to Poland when they return.

Many Polish Catholics in Britain, when asked, will say that they value the chance to participate in their own mass, but are also quite happy to attend English churches. Many might be attracted to the warm, friendly style of the Church of England and other denominations, if they knew more about them. The best answer might well be the simplest — to help them get to know their host-country better, and decide for themselves.

Jonathan Luxmoore covers European church news from Oxford and Warsaw, and is the co-author of Rethinking Christendom (Gracewing, 2005).

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