“He is not our Pope”: Polish Catholics view Francis with mixed feelings

The clergy is suspicious about his liberal views on family, while lay people are skeptical about his openness to refugees. It appears Pope Francis cannot win in Poland.

Photo: Jeffrey Bruno/Aleteia

Pope Francis has spoken up about building an interfaith dialogue between all religions, even with those who do not ascribe to a particular faith. He has been encouraging the Catholic clergy to show compassion towards homosexuals and divorcees, while also appealing to governments to find solutions to international problems, like the refugee crisis. A large portion of Polish Catholics, who account for 94% of the country’s population, view Francis and his teachings with a high level of distrust. 1

When Pope Francis attended 2016’s World Youth Days in Kraków in July, many hoped he would speak out about the problems that have been escalating for many minority groups in Poland since the refugee crisis began, like the hate speech LGBT groups have endured or the racism and ethnocentrism directed at immigrants and Polish citizens of foreign origin. However, there were others, who hoped he would not do so.


From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis raised controversies among Polish Catholics, Catholic journalists, and members of the Polish clergy, who had openly expressed their discontent with his liberal take on the Church’s teachings. 2

However, he is not the first pope to receive criticism. “Some aspects of John Paul II’s teaching received a large dose of skepticism,” says Gabriel Olearnik of Catholic Voices Poland, a group of lay Catholics, whose mission is to explain the Church’s teachings in a way that is understandable for all. He reminds the V4Revue that a large part of Polish society “was not very enthusiastic” about John Paul II’s papal encouragements to support EU integration, either. 3

However, Francis faces stronger criticism among Polish Catholics compared to John Paul II.

It is not just his engagement in international politics or his teachings, but everything he does – from the clothes he wears (he “should wear red shoes symbolizing his willingness to die for Christ, but instead walks in a pair of old, ugly black boots instead”) 4 to the way he talks (his saying “good day” and “good evening” instead of “God bless you” are considered “suspicious”) that raise doubts and come under scrutiny. 5

When asked by Vatican Insider about Pope Francis’ reception in Poland, Kazimierz Nycz, the current Archbishop of Warsaw, gave an evasive answer, admitting that Francis is perceived differently by lay Catholics than he is by priests. As he explained, “in terms of acceptance, the situation is similar to the one John Paul II faced when he was pope … In Latin America, John Paul II received an enthusiastic welcome from the laity, but this was because of his liberation theology, 6 as well as other reasons. Bishops and priests welcomed him… differently.” 7

Nycz suggests that just like John Paul II who was welcomed in Latin America with great enthusiasm by lay Catholics and lesser enthusiasm by bishops, Francis is adored by the crowds in Poland, but not so much by the clergy.

However, this analogy may not fully be appropriate. Fervent discussions about Francis on social media show that even many Polish lay Catholics do not particularly sympathize with him. So why is this the case?

Church and politics

One of the reasons for a visible divide between Francis´ supporters and opponents are his strong appeals to help those fleeing from countries torn by war and civil unrest. The Pope said, “migrants are not dangerous, but in danger,” 8 while he took a dozen refugees back to Rome with him after his visit to the Lesbos detention center. And when he washed the refugees’ feet on Easter this year, the Polish Catholic milieu trembled. Tomasz Terlikowski, a Catholic journalist, commented that “reducing Jesus’ actions to charity and a gesture of solidarity with the excluded, flattens the great theology of Christ.” 9

But a portion of the Polish clergy defend Pope Francis. Father Wojciech Lemański is known for his openness in talking about the Catholic Church’s problems, as well as raising questions about taboo issues like in vitro fertilization or pedophilia among priests. Because of his frankness, a few years ago he was forbidden from speaking in public, and then later suspended from the priesthood altogether. Father Lemański has noticed that whenever Francis calls for Polish Catholics to open their hearts and homes to those in need as the EU struggles to tackle the basic problems created by the refugee crisis, Polish journalists affiliated with the current government and some Polish priests and bishops create an atmosphere of fear in society, instead of seeking solutions to the crisis. 10

As Lemański noticed, one group of Catholic priests repeats clichés about refugees without deeper reflection, including Deacon Jacek Jan Pawłowicz, who has described refugees as “hordes attacking the police,” and has argued for the need to find solutions to the refugee crisis, because these “savages” coming to Europe have “nothing to do with refugees.” 11 According to Deacon Pawłowicz, it is really hard to find genuine refugees, as most of the people arriving in Europe are “fully strong, able-bodied men,” who are “using the situation to get to the West so they can receive social benefits.” 12

Not a dogma

The conflict between the Pope´s declarations and the willingness of the clergy to abide by them, opens a question about how binding his words are for the Church. During a lecture in Szczecin, Father Waldemar Cisło, director of the Polish chapter of Aid to the Church in Need, an international aid organization founded by the Catholic Church in 1947 to aid refugees after WW2, claimed that “the Pope’s declarations about refugees were not dogma.” 13 He reminded that in September 2015 the Presidium of the Episcopate of Polish bishops, had stated that it was, “necessary to help those who suffer from wars in their countries of origin,” 14 concluding that the provision of aid to refugees in Poland is the domain of the state, not the Church.

Gabriel Olearnik from Catholic Voices confirms that not every statement given by the Pope is considered a dogma in a theological sense: “We should always listen to the Pope with a filial devotion,” but then adds, “not every statement given by the Pope is infallible and marked by the same authority.” Olearnik explains that issues related to refugees are not only a matter of morality, but also involve factors of international politics, so they are not “teachings that require immediate obedience.”

Change of heart?

Recently the higher echelons of the Church seem to be more favorable to Francis’ papal teachings about refugee aid, at least verbally.

Caritas, a Catholic charity run by the Polish Episcopal Conference, is in charge of Poland’s numerous Centers of Support for Migrants and Refugees, where over 5,000 refugees from different countries have found assistance. The charity’s director, Marian Subocz, has stated that local Caritas groups are open to the provision of assistance to refugees from the Near East, who are seeking safety in Poland. During the plenary meeting of June’s Polish Episcopal Conference, Caritas was granted permission to organize a humanitarian corridor from the Near East, allowing the safe transit of refugees out of crisis regions. 15

So far the declarations have not translated to action. The Polish clergy have taken no steps to actually organize the corridor, nor stop the spread of hatred towards refugees. It is, therefore, difficult to say whether declarations about humanitarian corridors will move beyond the realm of promises.

 In the land of Karol Wojtyla

Any Catholic Church leadership visiting Poland must understand the legacy of Father Karol Wojtyla, who made history as the first Polish pope and became known to the world as John Paul II. He was dedicated to defeating communism and mobilizing the Church against the Communist regime, and he was also devoted to youth.

He was referred to as the “Pope of Families” and “Pope of Dialogue,” often addressing parents and teachers, reminding them about the importance of raising children. He put great effort into creating a dialogue with young people and directly appealed to them to work on their character.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II arranged meetings for young Catholics, inviting them to Rome for Palm Sunday, and a year later, announced the first official event, known as World Youth Days (WYD). Pope Francis has continued his predecessor´s tradition, and in 2016 chose to host WYD in Kraków, a city dear to John Paul II, a place he considered his homeland.

 High hopes

 This years´ WYD caused controversies in Polish society before it even started. OKO.press, a webzine that verifies statements given by politicians, calculated that WYD cost taxpayers over 100 million EUR, which equals the yearly expenditure for 30 thousand refugees’ primary care. 16 This questions one of the governmental arguments that justifies the refusal to accept refugees due to lack of funds for such help.

 More importantly, civil society groups hoped that Pope Francis would speak on the refugee issue during the WYD, filling a “dialogue void” that persists in Poland among the clergy and Polish government when it comes to finding solutions to the refugee crisis. And they were not let down.

During a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the Courtyard of Wawel Castle, Pope Francis said: “What is needed is a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing war and hunger, and a solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”

“New forms of exchange and cooperation need to be developed at the international level in order to resolve the conflicts and wars that force so many people to leave their homes and their native lands,” the Pope continued, and then added, “this means doing everything possible to alleviate their suffering, while tirelessly working with wisdom and constancy for justice and peace, bearing witness in practice to human and Christian values.” 17

Many read this message as a call to the Polish government to accept refugees in Poland. Others, however, claimed that the Pope did not say anything about opening Poland’s doors.

A matter of “interpretation”

During the July 2016 NATO summit press conference in Warsaw, US President Barack Obama expressed concern “over certain actions and the impasse around Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal” and reminded Poland that the North Atlantic Treaty was founded “on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” 18

Out of Obama’s whole speech, the representatives of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) only highlighted his congratulations to Poland for the 225th anniversary of the penning of the country’s constitution, the oldest in Europe, perceiving the whole speech as praise for Poland – an “exemplary case of democracy in Europe and the whole world.” 19

Similar “differences in interpretation” occurred with the Pope’s speech. When the Polish PM’s Chief of the Chancellery, Beata Kempa, was asked by a reporter from RMF FM whether the Pope’s speech was going to be “food for thought” for the government, she said that all she remembered was that “Pope Francis stated our absolute value in this part of Europe, emphasized our efforts, our roots, our memory.” 20

When the reporter asked about Francis’ appeal to countries to exhibit a “readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger,” Kempa said, “the Pope’s message was very broad,” and then said she believed the, “(media) wanted to drive a wedge between the Polish government and Pope Francis.”

On the same day, however, Bishop Henryk Tomasik of Radom, revealed to Polish Radio that Pope Francis had touched upon the issue of helping refugees in a closed meeting with the Polish bishops. When Tomasik was asked whether the bishops were going to take the Pope’s suggestions about refugees to heart, he answered rhetorically: “When have bishops ever not concerned themselves with the needy?” and then added that Poles already help those affected by wars “a lot”. 21

Church for everyone

Nevertheless, the Pope’s appeals regarding refugees are not the only ones that lead Catholics to question his authority and result in “interpretation matters”.

He has also made attempts to include those who are divorced and civilly remarried into the Catholic community, as well as to change the Church’s approach towards LGBT groups. He convoked two synods on the family in 2014 and 2015, resulting in the “The Joy of Love” document, which discusses divorce, remarriage, homosexuality and abortion. Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, criticized the document as “showing traces of anti-marriage ideology,” echoing the voices of many Polish bishops, who have trouble accepting Francis’ teaching on the family, considering it an unnecessary compromise with the secular world. 22

Others believe the Pope’s word are being erroneously interpreted. Krystian Kratiuk, a journalist and deputy editor of the conservative-Catholic website, Pch24.pl, claimed that the papal document was constructed in a way that allows Western clergy to interpret it in a more progressive way. 23 A few priests even radically reject Francis’ teachings, criticizing him via social media, and claiming that “he was not their pope.” 24 Father Jacek Międlar, known as the patron priest of Polish nationalists, Tweeted that Pope Francis was a driving force of destruction, “destroying the Church from within.”  25

“Let your Spirit descend!”

 After arriving in Poland, Francis recalled the words John Paul II said during his apostolic journey to Poland in 1979: “Let your Spirit descend! And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land!” As Federico Lombardi, the former director of The Holy See Press Office explained, “those words referred to the situation of Poland and Poles under communist rule, but they are also valid today, in the troubled times in which we live.” 26

Will the Spirit renew the face of Polish Catholics and inspire a change of heart – or will Pope Francis’ appeals and teachings be received with “with a filial devotion,” then later shrugged off? So far, Francis and his messages of togetherness and inclusivity have politically divided Poland, driving a wedge between the Left and Right. As the Left proclaims Pope Francis their leader, 27 the Right gets even more critical with their political opponents and the Pope, himself. 28

So although Pope Francis hopes to be everyone’s pope – all nationalities, races, and sexualities, rich or poor, young and old, married or divorced – not all Poles are ready to accept him as their pope.


  1. “Faith and Religious Practice in Poland,” Pope in Poland 2016 Press Centre, http://bit.ly/2aImvWQ (accessed on August 3, 2016).
  2. Scott Simpson, all further quotes taken from an e-mail exchange with the author June 18, 2016.
  3. Gabriel Olearnik, all further quotes taken from an e-mail exchange with the author July 19, 2016.
  4. Wojciech Teister, ”Buty ważniejsze niż papież / Shoes more important than the pope,” Gość Niedzielny, March 20, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aI5ePu (accessed on June 20, 2016).
  5. Jacek Dziedzina, ”Kto czeka na Franciszka / Who is waiting for Francis,” Gość Niedzielny, July 20, 2016, http://bit.ly/2akLTAC (accessed on July 25).
  6. Liberation theology is a Latin American progressive movement within the Catholic Church, according to which the Church should not only care for the poor, but also contribute to political changes that would end poverty, like the provision of support to victims involved in armed struggles against their oppressors. See: “Catholic Church warms to liberation theology as founder heads to Vatican,” The Guardian, May 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aHar4I (accessed on August 2, 2016).
  7. Andrea Tornielli, “Nycz: ‘We need to help refugees fleeing war’,” La Stampa, June 6, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aBU6Bh (accessed on June 20th, 2016).
  8. Domenico Agasso, ”The Pope to the children: migrants are not dangerous, but in danger,” La Stampa, May 28, 2016, http://bit.ly/2akM3bc (accessed on July 10, 2016).
  9. Tomasz Terlikowski, “Papież obmyje nogi dwunastu uchodźcom. Czy to dobry pomysł? / The Pope washed the feet of twelve refugees. Is it a good idea?”, Fronda, March 23, 2016, http://bit.ly/29K2s7u (accessed on July 12, 2016).
  10. Jarosław Mikołajewski, ”Uchodźcy. Nasze groby stoją dla Was otworem”, Gazeta Wyborcza, June 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aE6rGM (accessed on June 20, 2016).
  11. Katarzyna Wiśniewska, “Schizma w polskim Kościele. Franciszek nie jest ich papieżem / The schism in the Polish Church. Francis is not their Pope,” Gazeta Wyborcza, September 19, 2015, http://bit.ly/2anBMix (accessed on June 20, 2016).
  12. Ibid.
  13. Piotr Kołodziejski, “Apel papieża w sprawie uchodźców to nie dogmat / Pope’s appeal about refugees is not a dogma,” Radio Szczecin, May 10, 2016, http://bit.ly/29BpMZ2 (accessed on July 10, 2016).
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Korytarz humanitarny dla uchodźców z Bliskiego Wschodu? Zorganizuje go Caritas Polska / Humanitarian corridor for refugees from the Middle East? It will organized by Caritas Poland,” PCh24.pl, June 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/29JyvWe (accessed on July 9, 2016).
  16. “Kosztowne Światowe Dni Młodzieży / Costly World Youth Day,” Newsweek, June 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2anBHeG (accessed on July 27, 2016).
  17. Meeting with the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps, an address of His Holiness Pope Francis, Kraków, Courtyard of Wawel Castle, July 27, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aI6nXf (accessed July 28, 2016).
  18. Remarks by President Obama and President Duda of Poland After Bilateral Meeting, July 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/29V9043 (accessed July 28, 2016).
  19. “‘Jesteśmy dla świata wzorem demokracji’ – tyle Kaczyński zapamiętał z wypowiedzi Obamy o TK / We are a model of democracy for the world ‘- so Kaczynski remembered the Obama´s speech on the Constitutional Court,” Newsweek, July 10, 2016, http://bit.ly/29vOATC (accessed on July 28, 2016).
  20. “Beata Kempa o słowach papieża ws. uchodźców: Mamy milion uchodźców ekonomicznych / Beata Kempa on the pope´s words of Pope on refugees: we have a million of economic refugees”, RMF FM, July 27, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aI65Qu (accessed on July 28, 2016).
  21. “Polacy bardzo pomagają uchodźcom / The Poles really help the refugees,” Radio eM, July 28, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aeJV3d (accessed on July 28, 2016).
  22. “Abp Gądecki krytykuje dokument synodu w sprawie rozwodników i homoseksualistów / Archbishop Gadecki criticizes the synod´s document on divorcees and homosexuals,” Polskie Radio, October 14, 2014, http://bit.ly/2aRe6Om (accessed on August 2, 2016).
  23. Krystian Kratiuk, “Po Amoris Laetitia. Kościół dwóch prędkości / After Amoris Laetitia. A two-speed Church,” PCh24.pl, April 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aVpUQy (accessed on July 28, 2016).
  24.  Katarzyna Wiśniewska, ”Schizma w polskim Kościele. Franciszek nie jest ich papieżem / The schism in the Polish Church. Francis is not the Pope,” Gazeta Wyborcza, September 19, 2015, http://bit.ly/2anBMix (accessed on June 20, 2016).
  25. “Kolejne niepokojące wypowiedzi ks. Międlara / Another disturbing statements of priest Międlar”, Deon.pl, December 11, 2015, http://bit.ly/2b2OtgZ (accessed on August 2, 2016).
  26. Remigiusz Póltorak, “Franciszek mówił do biskupów jak do dzieci. Prostym językiem / Francis spoke to the bishops as to the children. With a simple language,” Dziennik Polski, July 28, 2016, http://bit.ly/2aI2RfY (accessed on July 28, 2016).
  27. Sławomir Sierakowski, “Papież jest przywódcą prawicy / Pope is the leader of the left,” Krytyka Polityczna, July 22, 2016, http://bit.ly/2blbo34 (accessed on August 28, 2016).
  28. Jakub Dymek, “Zbyt lewicowy i zbyt liberalny. Czy papież Franciszek zostanie w Polsce odpowiednio przyjęty? / Too leftist and too liberal. Will Pope Francis be properly welcomed in Poland?,” Gazeta Prawna, July 24, 2016, http://bit.ly/2biGB7m (accessed on August 25, 2016).
Agata Mazepus

Agata Mazepus

is a journalist specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. She is a graduate of the joint master degree programme "Europe in the Visegrad Perspective."