Is World Youth Day in Krakow welcoming for LGBTQ Pilgrims?: An Interview with Polish young adults

Written By Call To Action

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July 28, 2016

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Outdoor mass at an orphanage in Zmiaca, Poland

Pope Francis kicked off World Youth Day 2016 celebrations this week in Krakow, Poland, which spans from July 25-31st.  The convergence has special significance to Polish Catholics, as Pope John Paul II, who was formerly the Archbishop of Krakow, born in Wadowice, Poland, began World Youth Day in 1985.

Today, Poland is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and as cited in the New York Times, 92% identify as Catholic.  Catholic Churches are abundant in Krakow, and during religious festivals the streets are full of processions.  Pope John Paul II is everywhere.  However, growing popular discontent with the outspoken hierarchy’s anti-gay, anti-woman statements and their collusion with politicians, in particularly the Law and Justice party which rose to power in 2015, have led skeptical young people away from the church.

Grodzka Street in Krakow, Poland decorated with John Paul II items and Vatican flags, in May 2011 during the beatification of the former Pope.

Often, Call To Action takes part in the coalition Equally Blessed, LGBTQ pilgrim families who attend major Catholic world events advocating for equality, inclusion and love in the Church.  Equally Blessed attended last year’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and World Youth Day in Rio De Janero, Brazil in 2011.

However, this year, Equally Blessed decided not to attend the celebration partially due to potential fears surrounding safety in Poland.  I, too, wondered what the reaction would be in Krakow to our rainbow pilgrims, as being openly gay is still largely taboo.  I lived in Krakow in 2011 and that year learned of one of my best friends, an openly gay man, being robbed and beaten up in downtown Krakow. That year I also witnessed a Pride march on the main square, that was countered by a large number of Neo-Nazis spewing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

On the other hand, I used to go to popular gay clubs in Krakow, which were not hidden from the mainstream. I’ve also had encouraging conversations with Jesuit friends living in Krakow about welcoming Equally Blessed to the city, inviting them to attend their MAGIS week of events before the World Youth Day events.  My experience living in Poland was overwhelmingly positive, I loved living in Krakow and found Poles to be incredibly inviting people.  But, I’m a young straight white America woman.  I only see what I see.

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Polish and Vatican flags lining the Rynek Glowny, main square in Krakow for the beatification of JPII in 2011.

The Church and the political environment of Poland is complicated, evolving, and multi-faceted (read more in NCR here).  It is difficult to accurately report on without being there (or being Polish).  So, yesterday I spoke with two Polish Jagellonian University students in Krakow, one whom I have known for many years, Alek Turek, a Medical student at Jagellonian University and his girlfriend Karolina Machalska, a psychology student and LGBTQ-activist, about the current state of the Catholic Church in Poland.  Both Alek and Karolina grew up in the Church but neither are now practicing Catholics. Read their take on the current state of affairs in Poland below:

Are Pope Francis’ views popular in Poland?

Karolina: “We’re both atheists to be honest, but he’s amazing!”

Alek: “I love him.  The words that he [Pope Francis] spoke when he first was at the mass [in Krakow] were totally different from everything we hear from Polish priests.  There is a difference between our church—which is very old and very conservative and involved in politics.  They don’t care about changing the lives of poor people for the better—they don’t care about single mothers—they care about specific political issues.  The Pope today spoke about basic humanitarian values.  Of course you can be a priest in Poland and have some other views but it is only really right they are conservative views.”

Can you tell me a little about the public presence of the Catholic Church in Poland?

Karolina: “Generally in Poland the Church and the state are very intertwined.  I think also it was before, ever since communism fell, because they helped us get rid of the communists.  But here the Church is very powerful.  And Law and Justice is very religious.”

Alek: “I think when the Church sees an occasion to be involved in politics they are very active.  For example in issues like in-vitro fertilization.  Their stance advocating against it it hurt many people who tried to be parents.  I think they are very invasive in people’s lives if they see the occasion.”

Karolina: “There are priests getting involved in women’s issues—in the abortion case, in contraceptives.  And one of the Bishops even says very machismo things like how boys shouldn’t clean after themselves because it was women’s role to clean.  It just isn’t even logical.”

What’s happening with the abortion laws in Poland?

Alek: “The Church started the discussion to pass a total ban on abortion.  The project is supported by a Catholic law group.  It is a NGO that mostly involves lawyers who are very Catholic and very conservative.  The law was proposed under our last government but it didn’t pass and now Law and Justice has the majority so they can go with everything they want.  The Law and Justice party now is in control of the constitutional court system, which makes sure that once laws are passed they are just.  They have total control now.

Karolina: “This law they want to pass would be such a horror to women.  It says that miscarriages would be investigated—can you imagine if you miscarried and were accused of abortion?  That’s what the new law would be.”

How do you feel about the Law and Justice party?

Karolina: “Once a week or so we say let’s move to Germany.  I know that I am called names, I know that I am discriminated against because I am a woman.”

Alek: “Law and Justice really approves this ‘pure Catholic white Poland’ so many Pro-Fascists and Pro-Nazi organizations feel really free to for example go to the street and have a demonstration.  There was actually an official demonstration with a Neo-Nazi group in Bialystok.”

Karolina: “There is violence against people who are not white and are not Catholics—it’s getting more and more common.”

Alek: “People of color, they are really screwed, and Muslims. . .”

Karolina: “We don’t have many people of color here or different religions here.  Once you have the media propaganda that focuses on addressing these people, they can create a scare of refugees.  When [President] Obama was in Poland he said the democracy in Poland is in danger and the media translated his words wrong—they omitted it to say something totally different.  It was the perfect example of democracy disappearing.  Also, Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Poland too—one of the most common insults right now, or rumors you can create about a politician is that they are a Jew or that they are a communist.”

Alek: “In Wroslaw, they burned a figure of a Jew at a demonstration.”

Do you think Equally Blessed and other LGBTQ Pilgrims would find a welcoming place in Poland?

Karolina: “There is a place people are organizing meetings for LGBTQ people during World Youth Days.  Most cafes and clubs are closed but at this place, Ogniwo, there is food and support.  There is also this place that we found: LGBTQ Pilgrim’s Haven. I think it would be hard [for Equally Blessed] in Poland because of the anti-gay elderly people who are religious. Heteronormativity is really ingrained in our society, with all of the religious guilt associated.  On the other hand, there are loads of younger people who are coming into a real “thinking state” of the religion.”

Alek: “There was a Catholic pro-LGBTQ group who wanted to address the Pope directly and let him know that there’s a hostile situation here, they wrote a letter in the newspaper.  It was parents of LGBTQ children and so it was a public open Catholic support of LGBTQ people.”

Karolina: “I think it would be great for those who are in the LGBTQ community in Poland to see American LGBTQ Catholics to see that there are people fighting stereotypes about being Catholic and being LGBTQ.  To see that you can’t just be one or the other.”

Alek: “The Church is very open about how LGBTQ people are not normal—and how the “normal” family must have a husband and wife.  I agree it would be very important for Polish Catholics to see LGBTQ Catholics because it’s very polarizing here—if you’re Catholic you must be conservative—and if you’re atheist you must hate the church—it’s polarizing and it’s easy to label people.”

Benedictine Monastery at Tynec Poland

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