Savior Neighbor

Responding to a decline in the number of Czech clerics, Polish priest Krzysztof Parol brings the Good News to Prague

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.



Krzysztof Parol believes he was summoned by God to Prague. The Roman Catholic priest left his native Poland six months ago and has been heading the Polish parish at St. Giles', a 13th century Romanesque church in Prague's Old Town, ever since.



Parol, a portly 40-year-old, says he left his hometown of Krakow because he felt his services were deeply needed in the Czech Republic.



The total number of priests working in the archdiocese of Prague has been in slow decline since 2002 according to Lawrence Cada, a former press officer for the Czech Bishop's Conference, the umbrella organization for the Czech Catholic Church.



The shortage has been felt throughout the Czech Republic. In 2001 the country's 1,700 priests directly administered only 1,100 of 3,000 Catholic parishes according to the Czech News Agency. The remaining two-thirds were either closed or administered by deacons, lay clerics ordained in the Catholic Church.



Though church attendance has been declining here since the end of Communism, the current shortage of local clergy still leaves many churches without a priest to lead the remaining believers.



So the Poles have been called on for help. Parol is one of about 200 Polish priests, 35 of whom are stationed in the Prague Archdiocese alone, currently working in the Czech Republic, according to Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Archbishop of Prague.



"The Poles are an integral part of the Catholic community in Prague," said Vlk, after conducting mass alongside Parol early last month. "They are steadfast in their faith and without them many of the churches in Prague would be left without a priest."



Parol, like most foreigners, faced many obstacles when moving to the Czech Republic. Leaving family and friends in Poland was most difficult for him, but learning the Czech language came in at a close second.



"I speak a little bit of Czech with many mistakes and, most likely, that is how it's going to stay. I can't deal with all the little lines, hačeks, and circles, but on a basic level I can still communicate with most Czechs," he said.



Czech and Polish, both Slavic languages, are similar enough that speakers of one can usually understand a lot of the other.



Parol, who plans to return to Poland in the future, doesn't see the mastery of the Czech language as imperative because even here he spends most of his time with Poles. Unlike all of the other Polish priests who come to the Czech Republic and work exclusively with Czechs, Parol leads the only Polish-language mass in the country at St. Giles'.



There are some 15,000 Poles living in the Czech Republic. Poles are consistently ranked among the top five groups of immigrants to the Czech Republic over the last five years.



On weekdays Parol gives mass for Czech nuns. He also teaches children at a Polish school in the city and in his spare time visits his Polish parishioners, who have grown very fond of him in the last six months.



"We are all pleased by the work he has done in the parish," said Krystyna Nicpoń, a Polish woman who has been attending mass at St. Giles' for the past four years, after hearing Parol conduct mass on Palm Sunday. "I haven't seen such a well prepared Palm Sunday mass nor homily since I started coming here."



"He is a truly good, kind human being, and that's what is most important," Liliana Voda, a Pole who has been attending Polish mass at St. Giles' with her Czech husband for two years, said on Palm Sunday after mass. "Simply put: being a priest is his calling."



Catholicism in Poland and the Czech Republic

Poland, which began sending priests here after the fall of Communism 18 years ago, has plenty of faith to go around. Of the country's 38.6 million inhabitants, 95 percent were Catholic in 2002 according to the Polish Bishop's Conference. Of the 27 EU member states, only Malta has a higher percentage of believers.



Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic more than 70 percent of people regard religion as insignificant, according to a recent Eurostat survey. Of the practicing, most are Catholic. Czechs are 26.8 percent Catholic, followed by 2.5 percent who identify themselves as Protestant according to the most recent census.



Why does such a large gap between the religious make-ups of these two neighboring countries exist? Parol attributes differing national character as the cause.



"Poles are resolute, they don't like to give themselves up to any kind of rule and due to this, under Communism, the position of the church, even though it was persecuted, was preserved and maybe even strengthened," he says. "The Czechs on the other hand are, or at least want to be orderly. This tendency caused faith to be almost entirely destroyed under Communism because the regime wanted it that way."



History plays a more integral role than does national character according to Jiří Pehe, political advisor to former Czech President Václav Havel and current director of New York University in Prague.



"For many years, the Poles have used Catholicism as a political weapon against the government and even against Protestantism," Pehe said in a recent phone interview. "On the other hand, in the Czech Republic Catholicism was used by the Austrian Empire as a political weapon against the Czechs themselves, when the latter began fighting for independence in the 19th century."



Because of this, after Czechs gained a country in 1918, even though most of the nation was Catholic, it was "a religion that was not deeply felt," and this is one of the main reasons why "Czechs are so lukewarm towards religion," according to Pehe.



Widespread atheism is not unique to the Czech Republic. The recent Eurostat survey found that only 53 percent of all EU citizens regard religion as a significant part of their lives, with Belgium and the Czech Republic having the lowest percentage of believers.



The demise of traditional religion among Czechs and other European nations has led Mark Lilla, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, to describe present-day Europe as "the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known," in his recent review of historian Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers.



Former Pope John Paul II seemed to think that a lack of faith in the former Eastern Bloc was linked to its post-Communist embrace of American-like consumerism, while most others attribute the Communist legacy as the main cause. According to Cardinal Vlk, 75 percent of Czech citizens were Catholic believers before Communism's implementation, whereas only 30 percent were believers directly after 1989.



Can faith be strengthened in the Czech Republic?



"It's going to take a long time but I think the attendance of many young people in the churches gives hope for the future," says Parol.



Cardinal Vlk also believes in and has been working towards a revival of faith in the Czech community. He has recently implemented a three-step program within the Prague Archdiocese of the Catholic Church to help garner faith in the area. The plan is education, conversion, and prayer.



But with the number of believers in Europe as a whole continually decreasing, such measures aren't reassuring skeptics.



"I don't see religion becoming more popular here," wrote Peter Kononczuk, a Warsaw-based British journalist who has written about religion in the Czech Republic, in an e-mail. "And it's going to become even less so, in keeping with trends across Europe where secularization seems to be an unstoppable process."



Though constantly bombarded with such skepticism, Father Parol continues to believe that man's natural need for faith will ensure a better future for Catholicism in the Czech Republic.



"There is in the human being an abyss, a need that only God can fill -- otherwise only an empty shell is left, one that people try to fill with money, sex, alcohol, and drugs. But the soul cannot be satiated this way. You have to believe that something will change because people need faith."



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Magdalena Slapik is in her third year at New York University, studying journalism and Spanish. She is originally from Goldap in northeast Poland, and now lives in McHenry, Illinois.

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