G. Bujak, Diocesan Synods of the Catholic Church in Poland in the Years 1922-1931.

Their Organization and Problem Areas






4. The Laity – Threats and Revival Trends


In the light of the tradition and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, the baptized persons who are not members of the clergy constitute a separate class, i.e. the laity. The 1917 Code, as has been mentioned earlier, stated that the laity did not participate in managing the Church. However, they were obliged to adopt, under the direction of the clergy, the measures necessary for salvation. They did not participate in the teaching authority of the Church, but they had to submit themselves to the authority of the Church regarding divine life, faith and morals. The synodal statutes did not devote much attention to the laity as a separate class in the Church. Most of the regulations directly concerning the laity were included in the decisions regarding the pastoral work, education, social and political work and religious organizations.

In the rulings of the synods regarding the laity, a number of various subjects can be found. One of them concerned the analysis of their intellectual and moral condition, another discussed the interpretation of the reasons behind such a condition, yet another presented the measures that should be adopted to improve the situation, including the spiritual ideal of the laity. In the rulings of the earliest synods (the Synods of Warsaw, Sandomierz and Podlasie), there was no separate in-depth analysis regarding the issues of the laity. It appeared on the margin of the regulations regarding the work done by the priests to improve the moral and religious condition of the faithful.

An in-depth analysis of the laity can be found in two synods: the Synod of Kielce of 1927 and, to a lesser extent, in the Synod of Tarnów of 1928. The rulings of those synods took the form of recommendations addressed mostly, but not solely, to the priests. The content of the statutes of both synods showed a number of similarities as for the description and the evaluation of the causes of the crisis that the laity was faced with and indicating possible solutions. Both these synods were held in the territory of two former partitions: the Russian and the Austrian, and for that reason their approach towards the laity can be regarded as typical of the opinions shared by the majority of the clergy in these territories.

The Synod of Kielce began with noting that there was a universal corruption of morals, accompanied by “an emergence, in the broad circles of society, of people who wavered in faith, found themselves on the verge of heresy, dissented, and in some cases even committed apostasy.” The Synod emphasized especially two manifestations of the crisis: the lack of religious knowledge and religious indifference. Statute 88 reads as follows: “unfortunately, the lack of religious awareness in the faithful manifests itself in all the classes of the Polish society, i.e. the intelligentsia, the working classes and the lower classes”, whereas statute 89 reads as follows: “The religious indifference as a degeneration of the life based on the faith is another one of the ills of our Catholicism, which just like ignorance, may bring the people to apostasy. In Poland, the intelligentsia suffered from this malady, and nowadays, despite some revival of religious life in that social class, the Church still has too few examples of the intelligentsia that is Catholic in its conviction and life.” A slackening of morals was also observed: “After the war, there has been a greater slackening in morals in the society, which just like a plague affects all the classes and professions and manifests itself in the lust for pleasure, in the cult of nudity, in immodest dress and dance, in seeking the divorce, in prostitution, in practices of aborting a foetus and of birth control, in demanding impunity of sexual abuses, in displaying independence of morals.”

In the opinion of the Synod, the negative phenomena were wide-spread and were not veiled: “There is a growing number of overt and hidden scandals in the society, class struggle, impunity of public crimes, drunkenness, perjury, libellous plots, attempts to undermine social order and the statehood. The moral life of the society is corrupted at the root and threatened with extinction.” The decline of authority caused anxiety: “the Synod sees a dangerous sign of the serious disease of the modern society in undermining all authority, when riots and rebellious human spirit, pronouncing treacherous slogans of unlimited freedom, governed by lust refuse to admit any right or authority above it, neither parental, lay nor clerical, as a consequence, rejecting even the authority of God.”

A similar diagnosis of the crisis of the society can be found in the statutes of the Synod of Tarnów. According to the Synod, “universal corruption of good morals, disappearance of the basic catechism rules, blindness or indifference are present even in the people of goodwill.” The Synod sought the causes of a number of individual pathological phenomena in “life beyond one’s means, which usually breeds an unhealthy greed for easy profit, avarice in some, selfishness in others, or leads to evading family duties.” Among the manifestations of the corruption of morals, the Synod of Tarnów condemned “unseemly fashion”, “modern dances that insult morality and modesty”, drunkenness, litigiousness, “the lack of discipline, and the spirit of insubordination.”

Especially harsh in its criticism of the inappropriate dances was the Synod of Kielce: “The clergy gathered in the synod, terrified with the fact that the modern generation in some unbelievable blindness succumb to the frenzy of enjoying themselves and dancing, regardless of the moral vileness of those forms of entertainment, in order to prevent spiritual damage, call upon all the healthy elements within the society to condemn all those kinds of dance that, because of the indecent proximity of the dancers, their holding each other and movements they make is an affront to common decency and modesty.”

The synods usually blamed the war for the corruption of morality. However, it was not the only reason given. The Synod of Kielce indicated a typical sequence of social events which took place within a longer period of time and which led to the decay of faith and morals. The statutes of that synod read as follows: “Devious campaign of radical and subversive parties, which show no consideration for the requirements of Christian ethics in their promises or political programs, waged the war against the clergy and the Church, and as a result led to undermining the faith among the people.” The presented sequence of events was characteristic for the evaluation of the social phenomena by the majority of the clergy of that period. The most important elements included pointing out the activity of the radical parties, which spread their erroneous theories among a healthy society. When such an activity encountered the opposition on the part of the Church, and the clergy in particular, it led to “the battle against the Church.” It resulted in the moral crisis of the faithful. Such a logical sequence did not consider deeper causes of the social and religious changes among the faithful, typical of the previous century.

The existing crisis of morality was reflected in a number of individual phenomena and posed potential threats. Among the latter, the synods listed a growing number of sects, especially protestant ones, which after 1918 intensified their activity in Poland. Such threats were indicated by the Synod of Kielce, among others, which claimed that “the American sectarians (Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, Holy Scriptures Researchers and the followers of Polish National Catholic Church founded by Bishop F. Hodur) took advantage of the confusion wrought in the hearts and minds of the Polish people and tore away the weakest from the Catholic faith, or from the ecclesiastical unity.” Social stratification, which occurred as a result of political struggles, was used, according to the Synod, by Masonry, which “using socialism and radicalism, is trying to lure the legislative and governmental circles into the sphere of modern paganism. Masonry was also accused of attempts to destroy marriage and the family: “At present, Masonry along with socialism is tirelessly working on disrupting the Christian family, rejecting the authority of God and erasing the notions of inherent rights and duties.” Another movement accused of the moral crisis was communism, which “undermines the foundations of the nation’s life in order to demolish at one go the edifice of Christian culture, which has strenuously been built through the centuries.”

In the content of the subsequent statutes, there was an opinion that the causes of the crisis were to be found also in the internal conditions of the Church. However, those causes were not qualitative but quantitative. In the context of the moral and religious crisis of the faithful, it was often said that the clergy did not participate in the pastoral work hard enough. It was said that the participation that would have been sufficient in normal times turned out to be insufficient in the times of a massive attack of “radical forces.” The methods or directions of exercising influence on the faithful were not criticized. On the contrary, among the remedial measures designed to improve the condition of faith and morality, the traditional pastoral aims and measures were repeated as the most important elements. Such an approach resulted from the intellectual and disciplinary education received by the clergy in the previous period and was not only a Polish specificity, but it also applied to the majority of the Catholic clergy of that time.

The negative evaluation of the religious and moral level of the faithful included in the statutes reflects the opinion shared by the majority of the clergy, who fairly often spoke on that matter during the pre-synodal discussions. Most information on that problem can be found in the questionnaire held in Sandomierz in 1921. Therein prevailed the opinions of the priests working at the parishes, mainly rural ones. That is why most of the comments concerned the inhabitants of the countryside. The opinions on the other social groups were usually formulated as based on the contacts with their local representatives. In the opinions of the priests representing the urban areas, there was a recurrent problem of disappearance of the religious observances among the working class. The most frequent complaints concerned the low level of religious awareness, debauchery, theft and wide-spread superstitions.

The following statement made by Rev. J. Grabowicz can be regarded as a typical example of the opinions expressed in the discussion: “Farmers are usually attached to religion and ceremonies, they are usually used to certain kinds of devotions, but they do not have the understanding of their essence, the identity and the dignity of the Catholic Church. The awareness of the foundations of the faith is weak, often combined with superstition. As far as morals are concerned, there is a lot left to be desired. Stealing of wood, lust for land and wealth, simple covetousness for things belonging to their neighbours are typical features of the Polish farmer. (…) It is even worse as far as the working class is concerned, as they have got under the influence of the socialist parties.”

Rev. R. Adamski from Dębno presented a similar point of view: “How much viciousness, hatred, mutual injustice there is among the people. Hence it can be observed that failing to keep the commandments, people do acknowledge their belief in God, follow religious observances and go to church. What is the reason behind this? It is the simple lack of knowledge of the rules taught by the catechism.”

The problem of the socialist campaign and its negative results on the attitude of the faithful towards the Church was noted by Rev. F. Hordyski from Iłża: “Nowadays, the Catholic world faces a great danger from the apostles of lies and their immoral measures with which they try to delude the numerous faithful to follow them.

In the deluge of negative phenomena, the Synod of Kielce observed some positive aspect, which were an answer to the spreading social confusion: “A violent propaganda of anti-religious ideas, in addition to the signs of anarchy, viciousness and moral corruption have waken healthier forces within the nation and nowadays a turn to religion and to the Church has become more visible.” At the same time, the Synod indicated that a great deal of effort was needed on the part of the Church in Poland “by means of the work of the clergy and the lay apostolate” in order to “make Poland a Christian country for the purposes of providence in decisive moments in the history of the world.” According to the Synod of Kielce, the clergy had the leading role “in the work on reviving faith and morals in the nation.”

The Synod of Tarnów, in the face of endangerment of the Christian society, called for uniting the Catholics under the leadership of the clergy: “the responsibility for spiritual health of the nation is borne not only by the priests, but also by all the faithful. May, therefore, everyone have friendly attitude towards any noble activities in this field, may the admonition by the bishops and the efforts of the clergy be received everywhere with friendliness and respect. May everyone try to implement the rules of the Christian life both in one’s private and in public life.”

The particular synods expressed their postulates regarding the particular tasks to realize, in relation to both, the relevant social groups and the specific threats. Special attention was paid to working classes, for whom both religious and economic measures were designed. Typical examples of such actions can be found in the statutes of the Synod of Kielce: “In order to rescue the befuddled Polish workers from falling into abyss, the Synod recommends remedial measures that would prevent the workers from being influenced by socialism, prevent creating an chasm of mistrust between the workers, the clergy and the Church. In addition, the measures that would deepen religious awareness and help these people follow the religious observances were also designed. As far as the economy is concerned, the remedial measures should consist in providing the workers with the help of Christian trade unions.”

Out of concern for maintaining a Christian character of a family and limiting the number of sexual misdeeds, it was suggested for the authorities to penalize the production, popularization and trading of contraceptives. The faithful were instructed that using them was a mortal sin. The Synod of Kielce warned “the society and the legislation” against any practice aiming at limiting the number of births, which was a manifestation of “a lethal disease of the society”. The Synod called for acting in conformity with the dictates of one’s conscience “in the name of the weighty responsibility towards God and for the nation’s sake.”

An important role was attributed to, as the Synod of Kielce put it, a collective effort to eradicate tolerance for evil: “The Christian society should not allow the tolerance of evil in the civil law, resulting in treating evil as a rule, corrupt the moral notions of the nation.” The clergy were reminded that the Divine Law applies to everybody, at all times and places “and the whole society shall be responsible before God for its fate.” The cautions issued by the preachers, confessors and prefects, who should fight against the plague of “massive reading of novels and romances”, were to protect the society against the results of bad literature, which, as it was argued, caused the greatest damage among the young. To prevent the consequences of the indecent fashion, the Synod advised exercising influence on men and to strengthening in women “the sense of the dignity of womanhood and Christianity (…) so that they would not become slaves of the fashion but its masters.” “Fashion excesses” were to be fought by feminine organizations, whereas mothers were reminded of their responsibility for the way their daughters dressed and behaved.

In the opinion of the Synod of Kielce, and of other synods, modern forms of entertainment such as cabarets, dancing, cinematography or even the theatre could pose a serious threat to morality. The faithful were warned to use them with moderation. They were also encouraged to submit protests and to influence the legislative authorities to affect the activities of cinemas, theatres or publishing houses by issuing relevant regulations, demanding censorship or withdrawing concessions.

Calling for the fight against abuses, at the same time, the synods pointed out the need to create alternatives for immoral types of entertainment, “while eradicating the frenzy of parties and their abuses, the evil things should be juxtaposed with good ones, so that the whole society and especially the young should be given an opportunity to experience pure and noble joy of life.” The Catholics were called for supporting “any healthy and decent parties and entertainment, gymnast competitions, sports and folk singing.” The Synod of Kielce concluded that it would be “the best method of fighting the evil and an effective measure to edify the society.”

The Synod of Kielce regarded the plague of drunkenness as a serious social problem and encouraged the faithful and the clergy alike to undertake teetotalism or at least to abstain from alcohol during Lent and Advent. An important role in fighting against drunkenness was assigned to teetotaller organizations and women associations: “If in a given parish drunkenness is spreading, then to fight against it a new teetotaller association should be established. (…) Women associations should ardently and assiduously support the teetotaller movement and any Catholic cultural organization should appoint their representatives to work in different committees for eradicating drunkenness.” The statutes of the Synods of Tarnów read: “In eradicating the deeply rooted alcohol addiction one has to make sure that the inns and taverns were closed at times prescribed by the law, to dissuade the faithful from frequent and unnecessary rides and walks to fairs and markets, and to maintain and develop the Teetotaller Association.”

       The other synods, though to a lesser extent, pointed out similar threats to the laity. The most frequent warnings concerned sects. The Synod of Lublin forbade the faithful to accept the Holy Bibles from the representatives of protestant sects and to read the books and press published by them. The Synod of Warsaw observed that many sects combined their propaganda with the charity work, which was of particular importance for the largely impoverished Polish society. The Synod of Lublin, like many others, warned against the errors of socialism and communism. The Synods of Lublin and Pinsk criticized most severely the indecent dress of women. In this context, the Synod of Pinsk decreed that women were obliged to cover their heads in church while attending a service: “Let women and young ladies cover their heads in church and during the services, and when they receive sacraments or take part in the ceremonies as god mothers or witnesses.” It obliged parents to make sure that their children dressed properly when going to church.

       The above-mentioned detailed instructions depict the main areas of threats to the faith and morality, which the clergy identified and discussed at synods, also proposing remedial measures. The main source of the ideological threats were the socialist organizations and Masonry. They were accused mainly of propagating such a way of organizing and functioning of a society that did not comply with the Catholic teaching. The threats of the modern culture concerned the changes in the morality, types of entertainment, mass press and literature.

       The recommendations addressed to the clergy and the laity expressed the appeal for undertaking individual and collective measures to maintain and revive traditional values, appropriate use of the mass culture and decent kinds of entertainment. The synods recalled the obligations of the particular classes in the Church, suggesting how they should react to negative phenomena. The importance of states obligations both in eliminating undesirable phenomena and promoting the desirable ones was emphasised. The faithful were encouraged to wield influence on the politicians in order to make them enact rightful laws. Some of the decisions of the synods, such as the rulings of the Synod of Pinsk on covering the heads by women in church, had a long tradition in church. They were also in accordance with the 1917 Code. Not all the synods repeated this and similar regulations of the Code and, therefore, it can be assumed that the fact they were chosen to be discussed and their importance was emphasized was dictated by the situation and the customs of the individual dioceses.

       The participants of the synods were aware of the fact that highlighting the threats to faith and morality and summoning the faithful under the banner of eradicating the evil was important, but it did not determine whether, as the Synod of Kielce put it “the Christian faith and morals will be revived in the nation.” They could bring along only partial benefits. Not without reason did the synods indicate as the main threats to faith the religious ignorance and indifference, by which abandoning religious observances was usually understood. The realization of long-term goals set before the Church in Poland, which were called by the Synod of Kielce openly “making Poland a Christian state”, demanded deep transformation and long-term activities aiming at educating the society in the spirit of Christianity. Statute 87 of the Synod of Kielce reads: “The Church in Poland has to rebuild the little piece of Christ’s legacy with the work of the clergy and the apostolate of the faithful. In the times crucial for the world, they have to make Poland a Christian country for the purpose of Divine Providence. The clergy has a leading role to play in the work on the revival of the nation’s faith and morals.” This approach to the problem unveils an increasing influence of papal teaching on Catholic action, which was received with growing interest by various groups of the Catholic laity as well as the clergy, and with time led to the creation of the nation-wide organization named Catholic Action.

A long-term objective of the above-mentioned actions was define the ideal of a lay Catholic. The most comprehensive opinion on the subject was expressed by the Synod of Kielce, whose regulations on the issues concerning the laity were the most thorough. In the chapter consisting of 11 statutes entitled “De perfectione Christiana,” there were regulations addressed mainly to the clergy, specifying what features they should try to instil in the laity and what measures should be used to fulfil that task.

       The Synod began with the statement that the laity in their whole life “should act in accordance with the Christian perfection befitting each class, in order to prepare themselves to attain salvation.” Developing Christian perfection was the main aim of all the confraternities and religious associations. The task of the clergy was to spare no effort in enabling the faithful that development. Further on, the Synod sadly condemned the negligence and indifference of many Catholics, who regarded themselves as followers of Christ and at the same time “in their life there was no room for prayer, God’s service or the mortification of the flesh. They did not pray, they disregarded fasts, they rarely went to the Holy Mass or confession and they rarely received Communion even at Easter. As such they are of no use for the Church in following the God-given mission.”

       The Synod called on the faithful to penance. It regarded penance as an important feature of spiritual life of the faithful and a weapon to fight with the errors of contemporaneity. The statutes read that: “at present, among the deluge of debauchery, corruption and godlessness, while the Church preaches strongly to the faithful the obligation of penance and mortification of the flesh, the Synod makes this obligation even stronger, and goes as far as to state that today all the Christians, who are aware of their vocation, are obligated to penance and the mortification of the flesh.” The form and scope of penance was also clearly determined: “Let the faithful Catholics train themselves to penance and the mortification of the flesh, let them not only observe the already existing fasts but also seek new opportunities to fast. Even if somebody cannot fast, everyone can perform penance. Therefore, let the faithful abstain from alcoholic beverages. Moreover, let them bear illnesses, which are so numerous nowadays, ailments, torments and national hardships as forms of penance. Let them restrain their desires, let them renounce their will, let them avoid going to performances, parties, and dancing during Advent and Lent, let them always serve God, let them live in grace and let them fortify themselves with the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.”

       In this context, the Synod encouraged the clergy to introduce in the parishes where “the number of priests was sufficient to enable it” a quarterly practice of penance and Communion. It urged the priests to persuade the faithful one by one “depending on their needs and situation” to go to confession and to receive Communion every month, or even once or twice a week.

       While emphasizing the importance of religious observances, the Synod warned that the faithful who frequently practise religious observances should not limit themselves to the appearances of piety. The Synod demanded that the religious observances should be followed by work on one’s self, internal struggle against desires and vices. In this context, the synodal texts pointed out the need for fighting the anger, stubbornness, sensuality, disagreement and hatred. Instead, it encouraged generosity and charity as well as joining Catholic social actions.

       The Synod enumerated a list of religious observances to which the faithful should be encouraged by the clergy. They included: devotions to Saint Joseph, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to the Blessed Sacrament. Among the periodic devotions, these of May, June and October were specially recommended. From among the other individual and collective practices, the following were ordered: general and detailed examination of consciousness, spiritual reading, contemplation and Eucharistic meditation, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, prayer of the Stations of the Cross. The Synod of Kielce recommended as well that the families should entrust themselves to the care of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Parents and children were encouraged to pray together in front of the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At the same time, the Synod instructed what such a prayer should look like: “the father, the mother or one of the children in the name of all should read or recite piously in a loud and clear voice the prayers while the others should repeat them silently. On Saturday or even more often during the week, the litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary (every day in May) should be said, along with one set of the Mysteries of the Rosary (in October) and a novena before the special feasts. Before the prayer at least once a week e.g. on Friday let them perform a short meditation or spiritual reading.”

       It is worth noting that the Synod ordered the laity to practice spiritual reading and meditation. The clergy were to encourage the laity to make this practice permanent and they were also obliged to recommend to the faithful appropriate works and ascetic writings. The faithful displaying the propensity for spiritual life should get used to daily meditation, being prepared to that through the class and confraternity teaching and by being recommended appropriate textbooks during the parish priest’s round of visits to parishioners. It was also advised that every day before the Holy Mass, when the priest hears confessions of the faithful, an especially appointed lay person “read meditation for all the people present.”

       The model of religious life outlined in the statutes of the Synod of Kielce can be regarded as representative also of the other dioceses and its elements can be found throughout a number of regulations of the other synods. With regard to the religious observances, this model, to a large extent, adapted the practices recommended for the clergy to the possibilities of the laity. It concerned frequent going to confession and receiving Holy Communion, adoration, meditation and spiritual reading. The orders were formulated as an encouragement for the faithful and guidelines for the clergy regarding the direction they should take while working on the development of religious life in the parishes.

       An important element of such an ideal of religious life of the faithful was to point out the necessity to combine the religious observances with the daily life. Unlike the 19th century model of religiousness, which emphasized the relation of the faithful with the Church mainly through the religious observances, in the interwar period more emphasis was laid on the necessity to implement the rules of faith in daily life both private and social. The Synods underlined the need to deepen the religious awareness and participation in the social action of the Church. As far as the internal life, religious observances and the obligation to live the faith every day, they posed greater requirements for the laity regarding the pastoral practice, as compared with the previous period. A greater emphasis was put on the awareness and engagement of the faithful, in which one can see the influence of the Popes Leo XIII and Pius X.

       In the assessment of the moral threats both to the faithful as individuals and as society, there are strong echoes of teaching against modernism and traditional vision of harmonious development of society, dating back to the teaching of Pius IX. Its important element was to exclude and refute the vision of an autonomous development of society. Instead, the Church stressed the indispensability of the need for cooperation between the state and the Church as well as the general acceptance of Catholic values as necessary elements of the holistic development of the society. The analysis of the causes of the crisis of the faith and morals referring to the results of the war and the activities of the enemies of the Church showed that deeper changes within the society and the change of place of the faith and religiousness in the society were ignored.

       Summing up the reflection on the relationships between the clergy and the laity, one should note how this relation was handled in a concise way by the Synod of Lviv: “The clergy should discharge their duties diligently and they should watch over their rights and privileges. Whereas the faithful should respect the clergy.”

       The relations between the classes in the Church were due to the place they occupied in the hierarchic structure of the whole Church. Within this structure, the managerial role was attributed to the clergy. The statutes confirmed such an organization of the Church and reminded everyone their place in the hierarchy, along with the rights and obligations that are corollaries of this order of things. The clergy, who were excluded from the lay community by the different degrees of Holy Orders, had been established to perform the pastoral work towards the flock. To fulfil this task, the following tools were to be used: an appropriate spiritual and intellectual education and decent the life style. The laity were to pursue their vocation under the direction of the clergy.

       In the Polish Church in the interwar period, there were opinions that indicated negative consequences of the existing relationships between the laity and the clergy. New solutions were being called for. Such opinions were the most visible in the circles of the growing elite of the Polish Church, including the laity. Some of the clergymen, there more and more aware of the threats posed by consolidating the traditional model of relationships between the clergy and the laity, even as early as the beginning of the 1920s. In the article “My a świeccy” (“We versus the laity”), published in “Wiadomości dla Duchowieństwa” (“News for the Clergy”), one can read as follows: “We have little trust in the laity and we approach them with bias almost without exception. They are still biased against us, therefore, the contact of two such elements results in a paralysing inability and unreadiness that thwart what could otherwise be a most promising, collaborative, well-designed and effective action.” The author pointed out the need for a change in this respect and encouraged a greater openness and a more advanced cooperation between both classes of the Church. He also quoted one of the German bishops: “Let the clergy side with the laity, let them connect so strongly as the two arms of the cross are connected, let those two classes blend with one another, as the bishop blends the chancel with the nave, anointing it with the same chrism.” Such opinions were not dominant among either the Polish clergy or the laity, and the traditional model of relations between the classes prevailed during the whole interwar period.



Translated by Konrad Klimkowski

Autor: Grzegorz Bujak
Ostatnia aktualizacja: 03.03.2013, godz. 12:17 - Grzegorz Bujak