Szymon Hołownia: some people think they will satisfy their hunger for faith in a different restaurant than the Catholic church

Out of a population of 38 million, 33 million Poles belong to the Roman Catholic Church. But the last year witnessed much tension between the church hierarchy and believers. The clergy is too often seen as simply dictating their views, rather than engaging in a dialogue. During wars and under Communism, the Church was a stronghold of Polish freedom and tradition. Is this position going to change now? We talked to Szymon Hołownia, a Catholic, a well-known Polish journalist, author of many books on religion and host of the popular show Got Talent.

Foto: Creative Commons/ DrabikPany

You are just about to travel to Africa again. What you are doing there? Is it connected with your faith and your understanding of Christianity?

There are nuns who run an orphanage in Kasisi in Zambia. For me, these nuns – five Poles and two Zambians – are the incarnation of Christianity. I have been returning there six or seven times a year for the last few years. I have been trying to help. The nuns take care of about 300 children, the majority of them suffering from AIDS and additional health problems. For two or three years I tried to do something myself. I have renovated the building of the clinic and bought some medical equipment. Half a year ago, I started the Kasisi Foundation based on crowdfunding. The response was so positive and massive that now we are able to support the nuns regularly and we run new projects like Larder Kasisi, where people can choose Internet products they want to buy for the orphanage and actually do it. We have already fully equipped the clinic, and in just two months we have managed to collect money for a new ambulance. For me, Kasisi is a place of prayer and work, of laughter and tears. This is Christianity as it should be. This is Christianity in practice, not theological theory. And I am so happy to see that more and more people are now getting involved in the project.

Now there are people who get involved, crowd-funding, etc., but at the beginning you were alone. You have said that you personally renovated the clinic. What did that actually involve?

It meant that I renovated the clinic building and bought medical equipment, like and incubator and proper, comfortable hospital beds. We have also installed the air conditioning, because when I first went there, the only air-conditioned area was the mortuary.

I understand that the air-conditioning was needed, but I do not understand that you arranged this yourself. Usually such actions are organized by foundations or institutions.

I do not see anything unusual in it. At this time I had some money, so I could pay for it. Also what is worth stressing is the fact that I have seen many similar places, but in Kasisi each invested minute and dollar are invested in an optimal way. There is still poverty but this is simply very well managed and Kasisi became a sort of a model place in Zambia. It was visited by the British Princess Anne, the former American president George Bush and the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He brought us generators, so that we could have an emergency power source. There were even arguments that we should not be supported because “at Hołownia’s” there is everything in comparison with other places! Of course it is not true and the nuns are exactly the people who should be supported, because they guarantee that nothing will be wasted.

You have said that it is Christianity in practice. In Poland, which is considered to be a Catholic country, the faith is often limited to Sunday Mass or even less. Poles readily declare themselves as Catholic, but rather selectively choose the elements of doctrine that influence their daily lives, for example ,regarding moral and sexual issues. Also, for example, only 40% of Catholics attend Sunday mass. Is the Polish faith superficial?

In my opinion, this issue is much more complicated and becomes lost in such a generalization. Maybe my personal experience is not average, but I do have a lot of insight in to what is going on at the bottom layers of the Church. I very often meet people all over Poland, especially when I present my books. I have talked to dozens of priests and hundreds, if not thousands, of people and I know what they think and feel.


I am convinced that the situation now looks completely different than five or ten years ago. There is a group of people who gave up on religious life, but I do not think we have a faith crisis in Poland. What we have is the affiliation to the Church crisis. People need to believe, but they have lost the idea of connection between Christ and the Church, sometimes they decide that they will deal with the hunger for faith in a different restaurant than the Catholic Church.

And the Church does not seem to cope with it well – I mean it does not think about adjusting the menu.

It shouldn’t. Because it is convinced that what it serves is the best. The core of the problem is not in adjusting the doctrine to modern times but to find modern ways to communicate this doctrine to contemporary people. A lot of good things in this area are going on at the lower layer. The Church reform is progressing from the bottom and I can see it. Since the 90s, we have expected that the reform would be introduced by the bishops. Nothing like that happened, so people, regular priests, vicars, started to re-build and re-communicate the Church themselves. They know that what we need the most is to come back to the core, to renew our faith in Christ, beacause Christianity is all about Christ in the first place, and moral teaching is the implication of this relationship with God, not the opposite.

And often they catch it in the neck. Like in the case of Father Lemański, who was removed from the parish in the village Jasienica, despite protests of the local parishioners. They supported their priest in his conflict with the bishop, and now have the feeling that the Church rejected them.

Such cases often affect people, who have very decisive views, like Father Lemański. He has made many mistakes in his cause, there were too many emotional declarations by him. Of course, the other side – the institutional Church – has also made mistakes, while it should show how to solve such problems. The dialogue was what was missed in this case.

There was no dialogue between Father Lemański and his superiors, and nobody talked with the parishioners. They complain how they are treated by the priests who were sent to replace Father Lemański. It is a painful disappointment for the faithful.

I had this impression that there were much too many emotions on the all sides of this conflict. Shouting at each other is never a good solution, and remember that the bishop’s messengers have been shouted out, their car was attacked — there were no saints in this story. On the other hand, I think that the territorial model of the Church in Poland – its division into parishes – will have to be changed. A person is registered in a parish where he or she lives, but may prefer another one. I would support parishes based on personal choices of people, who decide in which church they attend the Mass, in which they are involved. Maybe in 10-15 years we will have such a model and then the way the priests communicate with people will be crucial.

This sounds good, but so far we have a list of disastrous blunders of the priests and bishops. Some of the things we heard from them are unjustifiable, like suggestions that it is the children who provoke pedophiles. It really makes people wonder if they want to be part of the Church…

The people who leave the Church have already been at its border, have had doubts. People, who have faith and understand the Church, are not affected by it. These issues should be solved in a different, wise way, but for me it is not a reason to abandon the Church. I am patient and I can wait until the situation changes, because for me the Church is the most important place in the world, full of grace and amazing people. This couple of criminals will not  change my opinion on that. And I am not expecting too much of it, especially that I am well aware that Poles have always been and still are a very anticlerical nation.

Anticlerical? Poland is one of the most Catholic countries in Europe.

Yes, but we are anticlerical. It has always been like that – on one side, we kneel in front of the priest with respect, and when he turns back we badmouth him.

Because Poles do not like any power, the church power too.

Now it is something more – people expect that a priest will be a saint somehow instead of one of them. This is his function and this is what he is paid for – he must lead this highly moral life, so that others can have ordinary lives. This is not what I expect from a priest – I am grown up enough not to need a daddy or a moral role model. Sometimes I look at my colleagues and cannot believe that they cope so well with all aspects of life, but still need somebody to take the responsibility for their own lives out of their own shoulders. Sometimes I can’t help the impression that this is even bigger case we do have to cope with – not the quality of the priests, but lack of church maturity amongst our laity.

You are very mature in your faith, but not all Catholics are like you. Are you not afraid that people who have doubts will simply leave the Church?

I will do everything to convince them to stay. What else can I do? I can only hope that those who stay will be more involved in church life. Catholics will become a minority, but I still hope that this will be a really creative one.

Do you think that the Church hierarchy will accept that its influence on social and political life will be smaller? The list of issues when the Church tries to have a decisive word is very long – religion lessons in schools, crucifixes in public buildings, etc.. There are situations when non-Catholics may feel discriminated against.

I will tell you an anecdote. I have a friend who is a Buddhist and he complains that his child is discriminated at school since does not attend Catholic religion lessons. I just advise the kid to wait patiently until he goes to secondary school. Then Catholic pupils will not be seen as cool enough to be friends with. But if he says then that he is a Buddhist, all the girls will be ready to date him saying: “Wow, this one must really be a spiritual one!” But speaking seriously, I think that there is some oversensitivity in Poland as far as Church issues are concerned. It reminds me of a teenager’s reaction when he finally can shout at his dad and leaves slamming the door.

And such a teenager may not come back home after a row…

Precisely. They are obsessed with the idea of the Church wanting to follow their every step. The times of the direct influence of the Church on  Polish politics are gone. Today we have the same position on the free market of ideas, like the liberals or the feminists. They can preach what they believe, why shouldn’t we? Just because we are the Church? Isn’t it a form of discrimination? The other thing is that we, in the Church, cannot be obssesed with the idea of the Church as a social institution. Church, in its core, should be much more of an organism, not an organisation.

You talk from the point of view of a member of the Church. What about those who are not Catholics and still the Church tries to influence their lifestyle? For example, nobody forces Catholic couples to use the in vitro method, so why does the Church try to stop non-Catholics from using it?

This is not so simple, really. Because of the progress of medicine, there will be more such difficult questions and dilemmas. As far as the in vitro procedure is concerned, I agree with the Church completely.

I was thinking about people who do not have to accept views of the Church, because they are, for example, atheists.

You must understand that for Catholics such issues as abortion, in vitro, euthanasia are a matter of conscious. And they concern not only my conscious, we are talking (like in abortion or euthanasia case) about other people’s lives! We have to protect them. We cannot be neutral about them. I know that not all people have the same consciousness, that is why it is so important how we talk about it. I think it is better to explain not why it is bad to have the in vitro procedure, but why it is good not to have it. The problem is that too rarely we “sell” Christianity as “a source of happiness project.”

You have mentioned your Buddhist friend, whose son feels discriminated against. Sometimes it is Catholics who say the same. Do you – as a very well known person, who openly admits religiousness – have any unpleasant reactions to your faith?

Catholics have already lost a privileged position in Poland. Now we are just one of many options. Has anything unpleasant happened to me because of my faith? Apart from the fact that I had to quit job twice? Well, but I am not making drama out of it. In Great Britain, you are not allowed to wear a cross at work, but people get on well. In Poland, on the official level there is religious freedom, but on the interpersonal level you may sometimes lose something: work, friendship, opportunities. I am not moaning about it, but I am kept at a certain distance. I am traveling around the world, talking with Christians here and there and one thing I can say for sure: Poland is still a great place for Catholics and Christians in general.

What about the convinced Catholics, on the other hand? Do they not criticize you that you are a host of a popular TV show?

My question if they watch it, it usually ends the discussion … Because they do watch it.

You have written many books about Christianity in the contemporary world and have lots of meetings with your readers. Who comes to these meetings? Those who read your books, or those who want to see a TV star?

I have had these meetings for six years, a few dozens a year. Hundreds of people come. At the last one, organized near Lodz, there was about two thousand people. I can tell you that never ever I have heard one question about Got Talent. It is possible that some of them come because they recognize me from TV programs, but when they come, they drop the idea of the TV-orientated chit-chat, they see that there is an opportunity to talk seriously but with passion about the most important things in their lives. And they do take advantage of it.

What are your wishes for the New Year?

Recently I have reached the conclusion that I am getting old, and I do not have any material wishes or dreams that things in life will work out for me …

Be serious, please. You are not even 40 yet…

But, seriously, everything already happened in my life. If I was to have one more wish, it would be developing the Kasisi Foundation. Opening people’s hearts. Showing them how much joy helping others can bring to their very lives. I hope I will have time, strength and possibilities to do it.


Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.