The Christianization of Poland
by Ted Rajchel


The Christianization of Poland refers to the introduction and spread of Christianity in Poland, which was the baptism of Poland. This was the personal baptism of Mieszko I, the first ruler of the future Polish state, and much of his court. This ceremony took place on the Holy Saturday of April 14, 966. Mieszko’s wife, Dobrawa of Bohemia, is often credited as a major influence on Mieszko’s decision to accept Christianity. The spread of Christianity in Poland took many centuries to finish this process, which became ultimately very successful. Within several decades, Poland joined the ranks of established European states recognized by the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. The baptism of Poland marks the beginning of Polish statehood. The Christianization was a long and difficult process, as most of the Polish population remained pagan until the pagan reaction during the 1030s. Before the start of Christianity in modern-day Poland, there were a number of many different pagan tribes. Svetovid was among the most widespread pagan gods worshipped in Poland. Christianity arrived around the late 9th century. Most likely around the time when the Vistulan tribe encountered the Christian Rite in dealing with their neighbors, The Great Moravia (Bohemian) State. The Moravian cultural made a big influence and played a significant role in the spread of Christianity onto the Polish lands and the adoption of the Christian religion. The Christianization of Poland through the Czech-Polish Alliance represented a conscious choice on the part of Polish rulers to ally themselves with the Czech state rather than the German one. Some of the later political struggles involved the Polish church refusing to subordinate itself to the German hierarchy and instead being directly subordinate to the Vatican, located within the City of Rome, Italy.

The Baptism of Poland

This refers to the ceremony when the first ruler of this Polish state, Mieszko I and much of his court, converted to the Christian religion. Mieszko’s wife, Dobrawa of Bohemia, a zealous Christian, played a significant role in promoting Christianity in Poland, and might have had significant influence on converting Mieszko himself. The exact place of Mieszko’s baptism is disputed; most historians argue that Gniezno or Poznan, Poland are the most likely sites the date of Mieszko’s baptism was on the Holy Saturday, April 14, 966. The ceremony was preceded by a week of oral Catechism and several days of fasting. The actual ceremony involved pouring water over the segregated groups of men and women. The baptismal mission which began in the two cities of Gniezno and Pozan with the baptism of Mieszko and his court spread throughout Poland. During the 10th and11th centuries, various ecclesiastical organs were established in Poland. This included the building of churches and the appointment of clergy. The first Bishop of Poland, Jordan, was appointed by Pope John XIII in 988. Mieszko’s son, Boleslaw I, supported Christianization missions to neighboring lands, notably the mission of future Saint Adalbert of Prague to Old Prussians, and established the Archbishopric of Gniezno in the year 1000. At first the Christian religion was “unpopular and alien”. Mileszko’s baptism was highly influential but needed to be enforce by the state and ran into some popular opposition, including an uprising in the 1030s (particularly intense in the years of 1035-1037). During this time Poland had won recognition as a papacy from the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity’s spread was slowest in Pomerania, where it gained a significant following only around the 12th century. The clergy came from the western European countries; native Polish clergy took three or four generations to emerge, and were supported by the monasteries and friars that grew increasingly common in the 12th century. By the 13th century Roman Catholicism had become the dominant religion throughout Poland. In adopting Christianity as the state religion, Mieszko sought to achieve several personal goals. He saw Poland’s baptism as a way to strengthening his hold on power, as well as using it as a unifying force for the Polish people. It replaced several smaller cults with a single, central one, clearly associated with the royal court. It would also improve the position and respectability of the Polish state on the international and European scene. The church also helped to strengthen the monarch’s authority and brought to Poland much experience with regard to state administration. The church organization supported the state and in return, the bishops received important government titles (in the later era, they were members of the senate of Poland).

History of the Church of Poland

Every since Poland officially adopted Latin Christianity in 966, the Catholic Church has played an important religious, cultural, and political role in the country. Identifying oneself as Catholic distinguished Polish culture and nationality from neighboring Germany, especially Eastern and Northern Germany, which is mostly Lutheran, and the countries to the East which are orthodox. During times of foreign oppression, the Catholic Church was a cultural guard in the fight for independence and national survival. The Polish Abbey in Czestochowa, which successfully resisted a siege in the Swedish invasion of Poland in the 17th century, became a symbol of national resistance to occupation. The establishment of a communist regime controlled by the Soviet Union following World War II allowed the church to continue fulfilling this role, although recent allegations suggest there was some minor collaboration between Polish clergy and the regime. The 1978 election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II strengthened the ties to identification. Pope John Paul II’s visits to Poland became rallying points for the faithful and galvanized opposition to the Soviet regime. His beatification in 2011 and canonization 3 years later further instilled pride and joy in the Polish people. In 2013 Pope Francis, John Paul II’s 2nd successor (and who was made a cardinal by the Polish Pope John Paul) announced that World Youth Day, the world’s largest religious gathering of young people would be held in Krakow, Poland in 2016.

The Thousand (1,000) Year Celebration of 1966 (966-1966)

The preparations for the millennial celebrations began with the Great Novena of 1957, which marked a nine years period of fast and prayer. In 1966 the People’s Republic of Poland witnessed large festivities on the 1,000 year anniversary of those events with the church celebrating the 1,000 years of Christianity in Poland, while the communist government celebrated the secular 1,000 years of the Polish State and culminated in twice denying Pope Paul VI permission to visit Poland that year. The desire of the communist party to separate religion from the state made the festivities a culture clash between the state and the church. While the church was focusing on the religious, ecclesiastical aspects of the Baptism, with slogans (in Latin) like Sacrum Poloniae Millenium (Poland’s Sacred Millennium), the Communist Party was framing the celebrations as a secular, political anniversary of the creation of the Polish State, with slogans, in Polish, like Tysiaclecie panstwa polskiego (A Thousand Years of the Polish
State. On the 30th of July 1966, the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing issued 128,475,000 commemoration stamps honoring the millennium anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Poland. An anniversary parade was held in the front of the Palace of Culture and Science on Parade Square on the 22nd of July to coincide with the Annual National Day of the Rebirth of Poland celebrations. It was attended by Wladyslaw Gonulka, the First Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party, as well as members of the Polish Council of State. The parade inspector was Marshal of Poland Marian Spychalski, while it was commanded by the Commander of the Warsaw Military District Major General Czeslaw Waryszak (1919-1979). Troops of the Polish People’s Army were on parade, featuring units such as the representative honor guard of the LWP, the Band of LWP (led by Colonel Lisztok) as well as cadets of military academies and other ceremonial units dressed in Polish historical military uniforms dating back to the Piast Dynasty. The parade is today regarded as the largest military parade in the history of Poland.

The Number of Catholics in Poland

As of 2005 a majority of Poles, approximately 88% identified themselves as Catholic and 58% said they are active practicing Catholics according to a survey by the Center for Public Opinion Research. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, 95% of Poles belong to the Catholic Church. This survey bases the number of adherents on the number of infants baptized, as provided by the Catholic Church. In the biggest part of Europe the rated of religious observance has steadily decreased. However, Poland still remains one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe. Polish Catholics participate in the sacraments more frequently than their counter parts in most Western European and North American countries. A 2009 study by the church itself revealed that 80% of Poles go to confession at least once a year, while 60% of the respondents say they do so more often than once a year. A 2005 study by Georgetown University’s Center for applied research in the apostolate revealed that only 14% of Americans Catholics take part in the Sacrament of Penance one a year. The majority of Poles continue to declare themselves Catholic. This is in stark contrast to the otherwise similar neighboring Czech Republic, which is one of the least religious practicing areas on earth, with only 19% declaring “They believe there is a God” of any kind. A 2014 survey conducted by the church found that the number of Polish Catholics attending Sunday Mass had fallen by two million over the last decade with 39% of baptized Catholics regularly attending Mass in 2014. At the same time, however, this partly results from the fact that since 2004, 2.1 million Poles have emigrated to Western Europe. “Open wide the doors to Christ,” urged Pope John Paul II when he was installed as Pope in 1978. Believed by Catholics worldwide, Saint John Paul II’s personal warmth and charisma helped trans form the papacy and inspired millions of Catholics.

References: 1. Catholic Church in Poland—Wikipedia 2. 100th Birthday of St. John Paul II/Nawas Poland Pilgrimages 3. Christianization of Poland—Wikipedia 4. Poland’s Government is Leading a Catholic Revival

Lockwood Law


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