It sometimes helps to know where something is headed before you get there. So this once, let me begin where the proctors of creative writing would tell me to end.
When the language of prayer or religious expression is used as a tool of ideology or pragmatic advancement it becomes a profanity. Pressed into service as an instrument of institutional pride, or any other cherished good, it loses its soul. Put to profane purposes—e.g. a means to preempt questions and short-circuit conscientious doubts, or as a bribe to observe questionable devotions—it is an impiety. Pious boilerplate sins against both truth and justice when it is wielded like a stick to beat back reason or dangled like a carrot to induce assent where none—or little—belongs.
There. Now we can get started.
Reader’s comments are always instructive. What an individual reader has seized upon as worth mentioning makes plain how a topic—some point or argument—sounds to someone else.
Responses to previous postings on the Faustina drama were revealing. Before hitting the publish button on WordPress, I braced for complaints with a second cappuccino. (Extra hot milk on the side, please.) But hardly a grumble came. Quite the opposite. As anecdotal evidence goes, there seem to be more Catholics uneasy with the Faustina engine—fueled as it is on syrup—than I had expected.
But one cavil was interesting. It came from a man who objected to something completely askance of what I had written. He scolded:
Poland is still really Catholic. They have so many priests in some areas that they send them to the United States to make room. And these aren’t your feminized priests. These are masculine men that also happen to be serious about this devotion.
My essay said nothing about feminized priests. It mentioned only the painting of a feminized Jesus, cloaked in a gauzy haze and drained of virility. Nowhere did it question the masculinity of the Polish Marians who initiated promotion of Faustina’s diary. The question must have nagged subliminally at my respondent for him to have read it into the essay.
But now that someone has raised the subject, it claims attention. Along comes a thought I had not had before. It is this: What kind of men devote themselves to playing Pygmalion to a young, unschooled, histrionic female engaged in a challenge to Thérèsa of Lisieux—a fellow consumptive—for the laurel of redemptive suffering? What moves ordained men to expend their priesthood on grooming delusional diary entries until they can pass, teased and re-translated, as divine revelation?
Contemporary Marians are not shy about declaring themselves “the official promoters of the authentic Divine Mercy message.” That is a publicist’s identity. How far does the manufacture and advancement of a sentimental cult conform to a priestly charism? Maybe you can answer that. I do not know how.
• • • •
Contemporary Marians are an enterprising order. During the tenure of John Paul II, they built the grandiose Leichen Basilica. It is an ambitious Marian shrine intended to rival the Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa. Founded in 1382, the monastery is a stunning historical monument, and home of the Black Madonna, a legendary icon. As Poland’s national shrine, it has long been the traditional heart of Polish Catholicism.
Now, its upstart rival, the basilica, can boast of being the largest church in Poland. To what purpose?
Funded by donations raised in the heady aftermath of Communist suppression, the basilica is understandable as a post-Soviet assertion of Polish Catholic identity. Nonetheless, the ostentation of competitive shrine-building testifies less to faith than to politics. In the end, it is a monument set on sand.
Political orders tack and bend in the wind. As the Church loses control of the moral climate, no massive building project will reestablish the old authority. Neither will a novel private devotion cobbled together to shore up institutional health.
In July, 2012, Der Spiegel reported on the Church’s rapidly declining influence on a fast-changing nation:
. . . Once considered the most Catholic country in Europe, the faithful are vanishing.
Some 95 percent of all Poles still say that they are Catholic. Yet loyalty to the church is waning. Even the conservative Catholic publicist Tomasz Terlikowski estimates the true number of devout Catholics at little more than 20 percent. “We Poles like to proclaim our Catholicism,” he says, but the reality looks quite different.” [Terlikowski is more than a publicist. He is a journalist, philosopher, prolific author, and station manager of Telewizja Polska, Poland’s largest television network.]
Der Spiegel expands on that reality:
Only slightly more than 44 percent of young people say they go to church on Sundays, compared with 62 percent in 1992. Forty-two percent admit that they do not observe all religious commandments. Hardly anyone pays attention to rules about things like sexual abstinence before marriage anymore.
The article does not mention the source of its numbers. Did Der Spiegel overstate its case? It would seem not. Two years later, Matthew Day, writing from Warsaw for The Telegraph, also reported on the dramatic decline in church-going. He quoted from the Church’s own inquiry:
An official survey by the Polish Catholic church found that in the last 10 years the number attending Sunday mass has fallen by around two million, and that on average only 39 per cent of the population now attend church: the first time the figure has been below 40 per cent since 1980. The drop was described as “significant” by Father Wojciech Sadlon, director of the Catholic Church Institute of Statistics, the body that carried out the research.
Fr. Sadlon continued:
Lifestyles on Sundays have changed. Faith is losing out to other ‘offers’ such as people spending time with friends and family, as well as just sitting in front of the TV as an individual.
People who often came to church were motivated by an attachment to tradition and a culture given to them by their family, but this is no longer enough to sustain them and so they gradually cease to attend.
It all brings to mind François Mitterand’s Grands Projects. An architectural initiative intended to memorialize France as the consummate capitol of Europe, the gesture is fast coming to represent the capitol of Eurabia.
Ozymandias must be grinning in his grave.