A Painting under Arrest, the Beatles, and Jet Fighters: the Difficult Celebrations of the 1000th Anniversary of Poland's Baptism
It is every totalitarian system’s aim to not only control legislative, executive, and judicial power but also to rule people’s hearts and minds. This is why, immediately after the installation of Communist satellite governments on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, their leaders tried to suppress any kind of ideological competition.
The Communist Regime and the Church
Immediately after the installation of Communist satellite governments on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, their leaders tried to suppress any kind of ideological competition. Hence, in the new reality and social system, there was literally no place for the Church’s teaching. First and foremost, the Communist belief of absolute materialism didn’t tolerate faith in God. Further, the Communist and Christian moral systems had almost nothing in common, and the comprehensively implemented idea of collectivism (not only in industry and agriculture but also in social life) was irreconcilable with the Christian tendency to form local communities.
Thus, Christian Churches in Eastern Europe had to adopt some sort of survival strategy and each of them chose their own: ranging from smooth collaboration to intransigent and open resistance. In Poland, where the Catholic tradition was very strong, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, head of the Polish Catholic Church at the time, initially decided not to go to war with the Communists but soon it turned out that what the Communist government wanted was a head-on confrontation. The progressing Stalinisation of the country had a decisive impact on the drastic deterioration of the Church’s situation and independence.
Repressions of the Stalinist era
Around 1948, the Communists started severely persecuting priests, attempting to isolate the Church from the Vatican and to divide the Church by publicly supporting regime-obedient Christian groups and magazines. Cardinal Wyszyński, who started openly opposing the state’s policy, was arrested in 1953 and kept under house arrest. Only that year, 11 other bishops were arrested and detained and much of the Church’s property was confiscated. Moreover, the regime’s propaganda spared no efforts and resources to discredit the Church, knowing that its credibility among people was always very high.
With the Communist regime's resources almost unlimited and uncontrolled by any higher power, the independent functioning of the Church in Poland faced an ever more realistic danger.
In 1953, Josef Stalin died and soon, according to the new general policy of the post-Stalinist era, the regime slightly loosened its tight control over the Church. By coincidence it happened on the eve of the millennium of Poland’s conversion to Christianity and thus the 1000th anniversary of the Polish state, because the country's existence officially begun when it was baptised in the Latin rite.
Furthermore, it also fell in the wake of the first major post-war political and economic crisis in Poland and the resulting personnel changes in the Communist government. It was time for the wounded Church to act, but even though the Communists were no longer able to oppress with brute force they were far from accepting the Church's revival. Soon, celebrating the anniversary became the main battleground for the Church and the Communist regime.
The millennium or the 1000th anniversary?
In 1956, Cardinal Wyszyński proclaimed a decade-long novena that aimed at reminding society of the Christian roots of the Polish state as well as popularising the teachings of the Church. What wasn’t officially stated is that traditional Catholic celebrations were also a sign of political resistance, a claim for basic personal freedoms such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
The 10-year-long celebrations were planned to reach their finale in the first days of May 1966 in Chęstochowa's Jasna Góra Monastery (Polish for Luminous Mount), the most important sanctuary of the cult of the Virgin Mary. One of the focal points of the preparations was the ‘pilgrimage’ of the painting of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa around the country (actually, a copy). The painting was long associated with the history of Poland (for example, it was believed to have miraculously helped the country withstand the Tatar invasion in the 14th century and the Swedish Deluge in the 17th) and was as much as a symbol of free Poland as an object of religious worship. This is why its journey around Poland was met with enormous enthusiasm. People would join processions in masses, celebrating and showing their support for the Church.
The Communist regime, however, had radically different plans for this occasion. Not only did they want to a bombastic and secular celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Polish state, glossing over the fact that creation of the Polish state was inseparably linked with its conversion to Christianity, they also wanted to absolutely eclipse and smother the religious celebrations. To achieve it they turned back to the tools typical for a totalitarian regime – propaganda and the secret police.
Secret police operations
One of the first moves of the Communist security services was to arrest the painting of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Yes, to arrest a painting! It was captured on its way around the country and transported back to Częstochowa, where the authorities ordered that it remain under house arrest at Jasna Góra. Obviously, the absurdity of this move backfired and the pilgrimage was soon resumed – this time the procession carried only the frame of the celebrated painting. The empty frame immediately became a symbol of the Church’s persecution and gave the pilgrimage even more publicity and political meaning.
The closer the final celebration of 3rd May at Jasna Góra came the more active the secret police were. Its agents started ‘paying visits’ to priests, trying to discourage them and people living in their parish from attending it. Agents would offer the priests free holidays abroad or logistical help in organising local celebrations on the same date. They would give false information that the Jasna Góra sanctuary was too small for a gathering of this calibre, and that going there might be very dangerous for the pilgrims. The whole city of Częstochowa was bugged weeks before the celebration and foreign journalists who decided to attend were closely followed.
The Communists were so determined not to let people participate that they went as far as starting roadworks on the main roads to Chęstochowa. Moreover, transport companies were officially banned from renting cars to people going to Częstochowa and all employers were asked to studiously check their time-sheets on that day and not give holidays to their workers if asked.
The Communist's state answer for the Church’s novena was the announcement of the ‘1000 schools for the 1000 years of the Polish state’ programme in 1960. By this proclamation they vowed to build one thousand new schools all over the country. Indeed, facilities were heavily overcrowded at that time so the idea of investing huge amounts of money into development of educational infrastructure met with considerable support from the people.
There were numerous sporting and cultural events organised as part of the huge 1000th anniversary celebrations, such as commemorations of the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (one of the most remembered epic Polish victories) and the 20th anniversary of the proclamation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation's (the forerunner of the first communist government) manifesto as well as friendly football matches with other states from the Soviet Bloc.
Professor Jerzy Eisler recalls that the Communist Party was even seriously considering booking a show by the Beatles in Częstochowa that was to start simultaneously with the final Catholic celebrations. This idea was eventually abandoned for safety reasons but it shows how determined the Communists were to win the millennial struggle with the Church. Nevertheless, numerous smaller events such as picnics, academies, exhibitions, and meetings were organised simultaneously to the religious observations. Finally, the regime denied Pope Paul VI, who was invited for the final celebration, permission to enter Polish territory.
May vs. July
Eventually, on 2nd and 3rd May 1966 a huge, spontaneous crowd of pilgrims gathered at Jasna Góra. According to the security services, more than 120 thousand people came from all over Poland. The Church’s chronicles say that there were more than half a million people involved in that day's celebrations. There was an empty chair left on the presbytery for Pope Paul VI. Despite the celebration being closely watched by the police and security services it went undisturbed and turned out to be a grand success for the Church and its followers.
Two months later, on July 22nd, the Communist government organised an enormous military parade, preceded by hundreds of smaller events in other Polish cities. The scale of the final undertaking was immense, with jet fighters flying above participants’ heads, tanks, missile carriers, numerous historical re-enactment groups, and sportsman’s and workers’ group marching past the government and a few international guests for hours. Varsovians came out in considerable numbers but still the attendance was far less impressive than that at Jasna Góra.
There was no free press at that time in Poland and the authorities' subordinate media remained silent about what happened at Częstochowa, giving all the front pages to the parade in Warsaw – presenting it as a great success and a sign of Poland’s thriving and international significance. Yet, for people involved, the result of the Church’s clash with Communist power was far less unanimous. Despite a myriad of obstacles people managed to manifest their attachment to the institution of the Church and its role in the society and proved the Church to be a power that cannot be neglected or easily suppressed. The first step in the remaining 23-year-long and victorious struggle with Communism was boldly taken.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, February 29th 2016.