Kraków, July 4. The sensitivity to local anniversaries in the Catholic liturgical calendar often makes for happy, if coincidental, intersections with the civil calendar. Thus the “Fortnight for Freedom,” a period of intensified prayer and work for religious liberty mandated by the U.S. Catholic bishops, began two weeks ago on the eve of the liturgical feasts of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher—two Tudor-period martyrs who died defending the freedom of the Church—and ended on the Fourth of July. So it happened that my students and colleagues in the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, holding its 21st annual assembly in Kraków, marked America’s Independence Day with a Mass of special local resonance: for July 4, in Poland’s ancient capital, is also the liturgical commemoration of the dedication of Wawel Cathedral.
On reflection, that happenstance seemed more providential than coincidental.
The cathedral, which is hard by the old Royal Palace atop the Wawel hill, the “Polish Zion,” is the historic and emotional heart of Poland. Its crypt shelters the mortal remains of many heroes of Polish history: King Władyslaw Jagiełło, victor over the Teutonic Knights at the 1410 Battle of Grunwald; King John III Sobieski, victor over the Ottomans and savior of Europe at the 1683 Battle of Vienna; Marshall Józef Piłsudski, founder of the Second Polish Republic in the aftermath of World War I; General Władyslaw Sikorski, leader of the Polish government-in-exile in World War II; and Tadeusz Kościuszko, friend of Thomas Jefferson, who fought for both American and Polish freedom. And at the heart of Wawel cathedral is the great silver tomb of St. Stanisław, the eleventh-century bishop of Kraków whose death during the reign of King Boleslaw II made him the Polish analogue to Thomas Becket.
Poland was “baptized” in 966 when the Piast prince, Mieszko I, accepted Latin-rite Christianity, in a historic decision that oriented this Slavic country toward the West. The beginnings of the formal organization of the Church in Poland date to the erection of the Diocese of Kraków in the eleventh century; in those days, many Poles came to believe, the country was “baptized” again in the blood of the martyr-bishop Stanislaw, whose sacrifice set the pattern for the Church as the defensor civitatis, the defender of the nation and its liberties. That tradition was embodied in a particularly powerful way, of course, by another Cracovian bishop, Karol Wojtyła, whom the world came to know as John Paul II. The late pope’s affection for the United States, and his hope that it would remain a beacon of freedom rightly understood in a world confused about the true meaning of freedom, made the celebration of Independence Day at a Mass commemorating the eleventh-century dedication of the cathedral Wojtyla loved (and where he said his first Masses as a young priest in 1946) even more resonant.
In his homily at our seminar Mass, Father Jaroslaw Kupczak, O.P., a distinguished student of the thought of John Paul II, discussed the millennium-long history of the Church in Kraków, and then illustrated its contemporary significance with a story that spoke movingly to Americans, celebrating Independence Day in a far country with which America shares close bonds of Christian faith and democratic commitment. Father Kupczak has friends who are Pentecostal Christians—a group not frequently encountered in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Yet one of these Pentecostal Christians once said to the Polish Dominican, “We are grateful that this has been a Catholic country for so long. When so many people call on the name of Jesus for so long a time, it drives out the demons.”
The American Founding was a culturally complex affair, in which the imprints of Calvinism and Deism are easier to find than the imprint of Catholicism. Yet if Jefferson, in his defense of “self-evident” rights, appealed to Locke in citing “Nature, and Nature’s God”; and if Locke’s understanding of natural rights owed something to the Anglican divine Richard Hooker, who in turn was influenced by the Counter-Reformation Catholic political theorist Robert Bellarmine, who in turn developed the medieval political theory of Thomas Aquinas—well, it’s a complex intellectual skein, to be sure, but here, in a place where a millennium of cultural complexity lives in the city’s very stones, one learns a certain respect for the often-surprising channels through which the history of ideas flows.
But back to those Polish Pentecostals. Driving out demons is not perhaps the most marketable, or focus-group-friendly, way of describing the Fortnight for Freedom that concluded on the Fourth of July. Still, that biblical imagery does remind 21st-century Americans of the gravity of the issues that must be engaged between July 4 and November 6. The Catholic bishops of the United States were not being hysterical in calling for two weeks of prayer and penance in support of the first freedom. Nor were they being “partisan,” save in the sense that reflecting seriously on threats to religious freedom today inevitably draws attention to the primary source of those threats, which is the present Administration in Washington. And despite the fact that a lot of the media paid far more attention to a ramshackle bus tour by dissident nuns (which drew a fractional percentage of the attention “on the ground” that the Fortnight for Freedom did in large—and largely unreported—rallies and prayer services from coast to coast), the Fortnight captured a new mood of seriousness in the Catholic Church in the United States, even as it reflected a new consensus among the U.S. bishops on the priority issues in their address to American public life. That seriousness could have serious electoral consequences. There has been a lot of chatter about the swing Catholic vote in recent months. And while there is no reason to think that the Catholic vote will break all that differently in 2012 than it has in recent election cycles—Catholics who attend Mass frequently will skew heavily Republican, while Catholics of infrequent or negligible practice will skew heavily Democratic—the Administration’s clumsy and often boorish response to serious Catholic issues with Obamacare and the HHS “contraceptive” mandate implementing it may rouse otherwise-torpid Catholic voters who, whatever their degree of practice, resent their Church being bullied; and that may make a difference in states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Florida.
But whatever happens in November, the Fortnight for Freedom ought to have demonstrated that the Catholic Church in the United States is in the fight for religious liberty for the long haul—and Kraków, the city under the protection of St. Stanisław, is an especially good place to reflect on the long, or even medium, haul in history.
Seventy-three years ago this coming September 1, Luftwaffe bombs began to fall on this city, where von Rundstedt’s Panzers arrived a few days later. Polish Catholicism walked a very hard path over the next five years: six bishops, 2,000 diocesan priests, 859 priests and monks from religious orders, 300 nuns, 113 seminarians, and millions of Polish laity lost their lives during World War II, often in what the historically challenged president of the United States recently called “Polish death camps.” Then came the Communist usurpation of Polish liberties, which marked the end of what Poles term the “war we lost twice.” Yet, to return to those Polish Pentecostal friends of Father Kupczak once more, the demons of oppression were finally driven away—exorcised by the aroused consciences that built the Solidarity movement under the inspiration of the Catholic bishop who went from Kraków to Rome in October 1978, and came home eight months later to bend the course of 20th-century history in a more human direction.
All of which prompts a final Ind
ependence Day thought. The history of Christian tenacity and fidelity here suggests that, whatever the cultured despisers of religion have to say about it, the Church will endure. The question for America, on this and every other Fourth of July, is the question Lincoln posed at Gettysburg: the question of whether a nation “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” There are no guarantees about freedom; that hard fact of history is unmistakable in this city, which has lost its freedom more than once. And there is no guarantee about the infinite endurance of American freedom unless conscious efforts are made to deal with the demons of our own time, which include false ideas of freedom that reduce freedom to license in the name of political correctness or misconstrued compassion and tolerance.
The Fortnight of Freedom was a summons to a new moral and political seriousness in the United States. That summons is not for Catholics only.
- George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.