7. Poland, the Orthodox, and the Conversion of Russia
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7 | || Poland, the Orthodox, and the Conversion of Russia In 1917, as the world war continued to ravage Europe, several things happened that, taken together, foreshadowed the most ambitious and complex theme of the relationship between Poland and Catholicism during the two decades that followed. On May 13, three Portuguese shepherd children received the first of what many came to believe were a series of miraculous visitations from the Virgin Mary at Fatima; their testimony has fired the Catholic imagination ever since. Just two days earlier, Pope Benedict XV had issued a formal statement promoting Catholic missionary work in the Christian East and establishing the Congregation for Eastern Churches, devoted to that very task. In the meantime, the country that had been the colossus of Orthodoxy careened through revolutionary upheaval, from the collapse of the Romanov dynasty to the advent of the Bolsheviks. The leadership of the Catholic Church read these as converging signs pointing to the imminent realization of one of the grandest and most enduring of Roman dreams, one that the Fatima visionaries declared that Mary had promised would come true if her warnings and requests were heeded: the conversion of Russia to the Catholic faith. What did this immense project of trying to herd the Orthodox masses into the flock of Peter have to do with the Second Polish Republic after it emerged unexpectedly in 1918? An essential, natural, and even providential part, in the eyes of the keepers of the dream. To those inclined to view the world through the eyes of the Church, the revived homeland of the devoutly Catholic Polish nation appeared to be a state largely founded on the rejection of all things Russian, including the religion of the ousted foreign overlords . Hilaire Belloc applauded the postwar demolition of a massive Russian Orthodox cathedral on Saxony Square in Warsaw “with everything about it utterly un-Polish. It was like a seal of conquest. . . . Its complete disappearance was one of the first tasks of the new Poland”—a perfect expression of Polish political and spiritual emancipation and independence. Echoing his friend, G. K. Chesterton observed that “If the erection of a building is a symbol or memorial, the destruction of a building can be a symbol and a memorial also”—a token, in this case, of the welcome restoration of the supremacy of Catholicism in one of its historic strongholds, and possibly of further advances yet to come.1 Just as Catholicism had conquered Orthodoxy in Warsaw, so might it elsewhere as well, and undo the schism of 1054. For the religious fault line of Europe ran through the heart of the Second Republic. Once the boundaries of the country were fixed, nearly four million Orthodox dwelt in the regions east of the zone of Polish and Catholic settlement, chiefly Ukrainians and Belorussians in the Volhynia, Polesie, and Nowogródek districts. Beyond the eastern frontier lay Russia itself, the great prize. Inevitably, any Catholic campaign to woo the Orthodox would count on the cooperation of Poland in fostering the conversion of its own Eastern Christians and serving as a base for the evangelization of the Russian expanses. The plan failed, for many reasons, one being that the government of Poland refused its assigned role in the enterprise. The Church might yearn to win souls, but in calculating its own interests Warsaw preferred that its Orthodox subjects stay Orthodox rather than become Catholic on the terms offered by the Vatican, and did its best to frustrate the efforts of the pope and his men to extend the reach of Catholicism into Soviet Russia. Although the direct opposite of what might be expected of a country renowned as semper fidelis, these policies made unanswerable sense to all the various governments of the Second Republic, which might have agreed on almost nothing else, and underscored the general point that during the interwar period, the purposes of Catholicism and of a free Polish state proved harder to match than most might have guessed in 1918. This story begins with the convulsion of Russia by war and upheaval, and the hopeful belief within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that the dangers and evils of the revolution, however great, were outweighed by the greater opportunity it afforded to redraw the religious map of Christendom to their gain. Ghastly though the war had been, by destroying the antebellum order it seemed to have opened dazzling possibilities for historic initiatives in the regions that lay beyond the traditional sphere of Catholicism...


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Subject Headings

  • Church and state -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Catholic Church -- Poland -- Bishops -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Foreign relations -- Catholic Church.
  • Catholic Church -- Foreign relations -- Poland.
  • Secularism -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Church history -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Politics and government -- 1918-1945.
  • Piłsudski, Józef, 1867-1935.
  • Catholic Church -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
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