Polish church: a powerful mediator. But religious leaders are torn between calls to back political change or strike deal with state

For all the wisdom of his years, the stooped, silver-haired priest wasn't sure how to react. When strikes broke out in April at the huge Lenin steel works here just outside of Krakow, his parishioners turned to him for support. So did the communist authorities, who hoped he could help them gain credibility with the angry workers.

``The authorities tell me, `We'll give your building permit for a new church if you stop supporting Solidarity,''' the priest says. ``My faithful tell me, `We want you to support Solidarity.'''

In the aftermath of this spring's labor unrest, Poland's Roman Catholic Church never has been so strong. It is the pivotal player in the country's explosive political deadlock. Both Solidarity and the Polish authorities depend on it for support.

But this power poses a painful dilemma which the church has not yet resolved. Should it push for political change by supporting the outlawed trade union? Or should it stick to its religious goals and strike a deal with the state?

``The church protects society and it protects itself,'' says Krzysztof Sliwinski, a journalist at the Catholic magazine ZNAK. ``It needs its churches, it needs its schools, it needs paper for its publications. It also demands free associations and legal guarantees for trade union pluralism.''

After Solidarity was banned in 1981, the church became the repository for the hopes of union supporters. Militant priests hold ``masses for the homeland'' to pray for victims of the communist regime, while Solidarity committees use church basements to plot strategy.

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa's confidant is the Rev. Henryk Jankowski, to cite one example. Fr. Jankowski has turned his St. Brigida's Church into a Solidarity bastion, where every Sunday union supporters gather at mass and sing, revival-style, ``We need Solidarity.''

Here in Nowa Huta, a similar role at the Mistrzejowice Church is played by the Rev. Kazimerz Jancakz.

``Fr. Jancakz didn't get involved in the strike, but he helped guide us,'' says Solidarity leader Stanislaw Zieba, in his basement office at the Mistrzejowice Church. ``He gave spiritual support to sustain us.''

For the government, church support is just as important. During the strikes, the authorities asked the episcopate to send mediators into the closed factories. At Nowa Huta, police lost patience and overwhelmed the strikers with clubs and percussion grenades. The church protested.

Eager to restore a dialogue, the police held back at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk. Bishop Tadeusz Goglowski mediated. He shuttled between management and strikers, meeting as many as 10 times a day with Mr. Walesa before convincing him to end the protest.

Since then, the authorities have redoubled their efforts to strike a deal with the church. Deputy Prime Minister Zdzislaw Sadowski, responsible for economic reforms, has met with the primate of Poland, Jozef Cardinal Glemp, to explain his policies. Officials say they are ready to open diplomatic relations with the Vatican, formally legalize church rights, even offer up 90 seats to a new Christian Democratic Party in the next parliament.

``The church is our essential mediator with society,'' one official says. ``We want to share responsibility for the problems facing the country.''

Cardinal Glemp is receptive to these opportunities. Cautious and compromising, the Primate emphasizes ``church-state dialogue'' ahead of the spirit of Solidarity. He has ordered priests ``not to deal in politics,'' and transferred some who disobeyed to remote parishes.

In Glemp's view, an accommodating approach represents the only path to social peace. His perspective is not that of a secular politician in office for a few years; but that of one associated with a church which has existed for nearly two millennium.

``Communism, Gorbachev, Solidarity, I don't want to hear anything about it,'' says the elderly priest in Nowa Huta. ``In 200 years, they all will be gone. The church still will be here.''

Militant priests and radical church intellectuals are impatient with the episcopate's caution. They look for support in the words and actions of the Polish Pope, John Paul II. On each of his three visits to his homeland, the Pope spoke out in support of human rights, and during the recent strikes, he took the workers' side, saying independent labor unions are ``useful to achieve social harmony.''

The militants distrust Glemp, mocking him as ``Comrade Glemp.'' In their view, he is ready to disavow human rights in return for a few more churches, a few more Sunday Schools, and a few more priests.

``Its an unholy alliance between the baton stick and the cross,'' complains Maciej Kozslowski, an editor at Krakow's respected Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powzscheny. ``By becoming an ally of this unpopular state, the church risks losing its support from the people.''

The church tries to avoid this danger by presenting different faces to different audiences.

Glemp negotiates for building permits with the authorities, while militant priests such as Jankowski in Gdansk and Jancakz in Nowa Huta support Solidarity.

``There are many churches here, the young pro-Solidarity priests, the John Paul II hierarchy, the nationalist Old Guard, and the soft ones around Glemp ready to deal with the communists,'' says one journalist. ``In this way, the church doesn't have to choose.''

And the elderly priest in Nowa Huta, what category does he fit in? He scorns politics and Solidarity, leaving that work to Jancakz. Instead he presses for his building permit.

``I don't want to know what Fr. Jancakz does,'' he explains, insisting that he not be identified in this article. ``I just let him do it, and I do what I have to do. Everyone has his role.''

Articles in this series appeared July 27 and 28.

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