Polish Populists: Papal Reprimand for Catholic Radio

By Jan Puhl in Torun

The Polish Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja openly agitates against Jews and strongly supports the Kaczynski brothers, Poland's ruling populist leaders. The German Pope wants to rein in the station, but the founding priest isn't likely to toe the Vatican line willingly.

Pope Benedict XVI has warned a right-wing Catholic radio station in Poland to quit engaging in politics.
REUTERS

Pope Benedict XVI has warned a right-wing Catholic radio station in Poland to quit engaging in politics.

A solid steel fence protects Radio Maryja's headquarters from the outside world. The public has no access to this high-tech fortification in the suburbs of Torun. Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, founder of the nationalist Catholic radio station, lives in the pretentious main building with satellite dishes and relay towers rising in the background.

Father Rydzyk sees no contradiction between wearing a collar and spreading his politics via satellite. He believes in using modern technology to spread his call for the salvation of God-fearing Poland to hundreds of thousands of homes. But other people do see a contradiction -- namely the German-born pope, Benedict XVI. He wants Rydzyk to quit his rabble-rousing, but the stubborn priest won't be easy to silence.

A typical day at Radio Maryja starts with prayers, hymns, and cooking tips. The controversial stuff doesn't start until later. A show called "Unfinished Conversations" airs at 9:40 p.m. and deals with topics like "The Battle for a Woman's Worth: Stopping Pornography." Listeners get to call in. Rydzyk rarely sits at the microphone himself, but he sometimes adds his input via by telephone towards the end of the show. For example, he once called the European Union a conspiracy of Freemasons, who want to force Catholic Poland to accept gay marriage. One Radio Maryja commentary in March suggested that Jews were sabotaging the struggle for democracy in Eastern European democracy in Ukraine and Belarus -- while Poles battled on the frontlines. Radio Maryja also warned that the "Holocaust Industry" wields influence worldwide and expects "kickbacks" from Warsaw.

Critics of the station are denounced as police-state informers -- including even the legendary head of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa, last spring. But Rydzyk's favorite targets are Germans, who -- he says -- still haven't let go of their Nazi-era wish to conquer Poland.

Trained in Germany

Rydzyk, ironically, learned his trade in Germany. In the 1980s he served in a Bavarian parish and laid the groundwork for a Catholic station called Radio Maria International. He returned home to Poland in 1991 and set up a radio service to broadcast his own sermons. These stirred up controversy in the post-Soviet '90s, and soon almost every Polish congregation opened a Radio Maryja office. They organizinged the pledge drives which still finance the station.

Alms from his fans allowed Rydzyk to expand his propaganda empire. Now he oversees a TV station, a daily newspaper, a Catholic academy for young followers, and various foundations. Most of his 3 million listeners are women over 55, with not much education, who live in the countryside or small towns -- Poles, in other words, who failed to thrive after 1989 and still feel threatened by new post-Soviet freedoms.

They make up a significant voting bloc and when Poland elected its lower house of parliament and president last fall, Radio Maryja came down on the side of the right-wing populist Kaczynski brothers. Thanks to Radio Maryja's help, Lech Kaczynski is now Poland's president. His brother Jaroslaw regularly takes a seat behind the microphone at Rykzyk's station.

Under the Polish Pope John Paul II, the Vatican released lukewarm warnings to Radio Maryja about "self-restraint." But the German Pope Benedict XVI has stepped up efforts to control the intolerant rhetoric. Through his envoys he's let it be known that political engagement by priests is not sanctioned by Rome -- and this counts as a "serious warning" to Radio Maryja.

But the Polish national clergy can't just force Father Rydzyk into line. The 60-year-old priest belongs to the Order of Redemptorists, a missionary movement that stands outside the church's traditional power structure in Poland.

Push for resignation

In the meantime, critics of Radio Maryja expect to hear that Polish bishops will pressure Rydzyk to resign. An episcopacy meeting this week might make such a recommendation public. Whether it will be followed, of course, remains an open question. "The Radio Maryja problem won't go away overnight," says a church observer in Warsaw.

Pope Benedict XVI sits between Vatican Radio journalists Emanuela Campanile, left, and Luca Collodi during a live broadcast in March 2006.
AP

Pope Benedict XVI sits between Vatican Radio journalists Emanuela Campanile, left, and Luca Collodi during a live broadcast in March 2006.

Benedict XVI was close friends with John Paul II, and many Catholics across Poland still hold the new pope in high esteem. But after his move against Radio Maryja, Rydzyk's disciples dared to broach the matter of the Benedict's nationality -- in hints cloaked by anti-Semitic broadsides. A religious philosopher named Boguslaw Wolniewicz wrote in a piece for Rydzyk's newspaper to Radio Maryja fans: "I suspect that people now pressuring you are exploiting the fact that Benedict is German." The Third Reich had broken the German moral spine, he wrote, with the result that, "No one in the world fears being called anti-Semitic more than a German." For better or worse, Wolniewicz argued, a German Pope will be forced to punish any broadcaster accused of anti-Semitism.

Such rhetoric angers Tomasz Krolak from a Catholic news agency in Poland. "Telling people that one pope works for the Poles while another pope serves the Germans has nothing to do with true religious faith," he says.

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