Polish Catholicism’s opportunity

It’s been a tough month for Polish Catholicism. Yet, even in the wake of the resignation of Warsaw’s new archbishop and the revelations of clerical cooperation with the communist secret police, the Catholic Church in Poland can reconfirm its traditional roles as the guardian of Poland’s noblest instincts and the nation’s tutor in moral truth — if it remembers something Pope John Paul II said to a French journalist, Andre Frossard.

Frossard asked, “What is the most important word in the New Testament?” John Paul immediately replied, “Truth.” Why? Because the truth sets us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. And from that spiritual liberation, much good can come. Poland lived that fact of moral and public life in the 1980s, when a revolution of conscience, ignited by John Paul II and supported by the Polish Church, led to the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 and the restoration of Poland’s liberties.

Amidst the drama and controversy of the past several weeks, that great truth — “No Church, No Solidarity, No Revolution of 1989″ — remains intact. Now, however, the world knows something every Pole, and every serious student of modern Polish history, already knew: not everyone was an anti-communist resistance hero. That fact should not obscure two others, however. First, there were far, far more heroes than scoundrels in Polish Catholicism under communism; perhaps 10% of the Polish clergy were involved with the SB, the secret police. Second, the people who produced the SB files now being scrutinized are moral villains, too — as much as, or even more than, those who collaborated, in different ways and with different degrees of culpability.

The Polish Church can regain control of its own story if it provides a comprehensive account of its stewardship during the communist period, using the archive of SB files kept in Poland’s Institute of National Memory [IPN]. Those materials are “raw files,” and some reflect the ambitions of unscrupulous police ferrets more than the truth of particular situations. Yet the IPN archives do contain truths that should be brought to light, both to liberate the Church from burdensome aspects of its past and to confirm the larger truth of the nobility of the Catholic struggle, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, for the Church’s freedom and Poland’s. If, in the process, Poles are reminded that moral clarity sometimes lies on the far side of moral complexity, that is no bad thing; it is, in fact, an essential understanding in a democracy.  In rendering an account of its stewardship, the Church would also perform a public service. The media is rarely an instrument of precise moral analysis. The Church can help Poles understand that there were different forms of interaction with the SB, and that some activities were far worse than others.

Casual interaction with the ferrets by people seeking passports to study or do research abroad is one thing; others refused even that minimum of cooperation, and their steadfastness should be honored. Still, we have to ask whether someone’s interactions with the SB led, with that person’s knowledge and will, to material or moral harm to others. Some churchmen — who imagined themselves more clever than the police and accepted advantages in return for clerical gossip — cooperated because of their egos; they strike me more as fools than villains, although their foolishness was not morally neutral. Venality was the sin of others, and a more serious moral failure, too. Those who pridefully imagined that they could “use” their secret police contacts to build a more open Polish Church, and ended up doing the communists’ political bidding, bear a particularly heavy burden; they betrayed both Church and society.

The kind of comprehensive, carefully calibrated moral reckoning needed here can only be provided by the Polish Church itself, in cooperation with reputable scholars. During the years I’ve been aware of the IPN archives, I’ve been waiting for the Polish Church to seize what struck me as a great opportunity. It didn’t; the result is the drama and damage of the past month. Yet the opportunity remains. In the spirit of John Paul II who taught the liberating power of truth, it should be seized — quickly.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.