Catholicism in the Classroom

`LAST week, we talked about ascension into heaven," the Rev. Grzegorz Kopytowski is telling his class of 28 students. "Today, we're going to talk about the practical consequences of this."

Like almost every week, though, Fr. Kopytowski never gets the chance to finish his 45-minute lecture. Instead, the young priest is interrupted by a barrage of questions from his students.

"We ask him questions all the time. He can never finish his program," says Jakub Lechiewicz, an 18-year-old in the class. "This is a period in our lives when everything interests us" - even religion, says Mr. Lechiewicz, who sports a Humphrey Bogart T-shirt.

Kopytowski is not teaching Catholicism in a church building, but in a public school, just as it was done before World War II.

This return to tradition, however, is controversial.

Even though Poland is 95 percent Catholic, Tadeusz Zielinski, the parliament's appointed ombudsman for civil rights, believes some aspects of the religion classes violate the right to privacy as well as the separation of church and state. These aspects include the public financing of priests and lay teachers at school as well as the inclusion of religion on a student's general report card.

Mr. Zielinski recently took these and other issues to the

Constitutional Tribunal, which rules on constitutional disputes. But in April the tribunal struck these two complaints down.

Iwona Fuks, another member of the class, is relieved that religion lessons are back in school. "It makes life easier for me. I don't have to go to special classes in a church. I have my friends here," she says. Besides, she smiles, "the priest is great! He's such a change. He doesn't just preach, he allows for questions."

Ms. Fuks, who says she attends church every Sunday and goes regularly to confession, says she is making spiritual progress because of Kopytowski's teaching.

The students say that it is the openness of this particular priest that has won their attention, although Lechiewicz adds that "most of the people who come to class are pressured by their parents."

When religion was reintroduced to Polish public schools in 1990, the law left it up to parents of grammar school students to decide whether their children should take the religion class or not. In high school, the decision is left up to the students. Officially, the law allows students to take classes in other religions or in ethics, but there frequently are no teachers available for these subjects.

SOME of the students in Kopytowski's class are frustrated by lack of religious choice. "Other religions should be taught in school," Lechiewicz criticizes. Because of the teacher's position as a priest, he adds, "he has to answer questions in a roundabout way." Lechiewicz says he's not getting what he's looking for, such as more about the Bible itself and "how it is that Jesus performed miracles."

"Only one way is shown to young people, and young people who don't want this way somehow are drop outs," says Grzegorz Cichosz, a class member who says he is at the point of deciding whether to break from the Catholic Church.

"I'm against hypocrisy. If I'm going to go to church, I want to believe," says Mr. Cichosz, who is one of the principal questioners in Kopytowski's class and opposes Catholicism being taught in school.

Cichosz, who says he prefers to pray in an empty church rather than go to Mass, describes himself as being on a search for spiritual truth. "But it's a very difficult time to be on that search, since everywhere in Poland, there is just one church." The lack of options, he concludes earnestly, "is my greatest obstacle in my search for faith."

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