Poland is rapidly secularising. Yet Krzysztof Dzikowski (24) hopes to be ordained a priest this spring after six years of study.
Dzikowski looks so young that it seems he doesn't need to shave yet, but he hopes to be ordained as a priest this spring after six years of internal training. An ambition he developed as a teenager, but which also continues to fill him with uncertainty. What does God expect of him? Does he even fit into the politicised Polish Catholic Church? How much scandal and criticism from society can he withstand? And what will remain of the Catholic community he wants to lead? "There are so many questions that I don't have the answers to yet," - he said.
From a deeply religious nation, Poland is becoming a religiously polarised country in which a fundamentalist minority - for now - imposes its will on an indifferent or angry majority. The Catholic Church is no longer a unifying factor, but a dividing factor in society. This can be seen in the seminaries, such as the one in the medium-sized town of Olsztyn, and in the small parishes that can no longer find their own priest. Because in this climate, who else wants to become a priest? And why?
The lack of enthusiasm to become a priest has not relaxed the training requirements. Young men have to spend six or seven years in seminary training and are not allowed to return home even for weekends. They must, since the abuse scandals, undergo numerous psychological tests. They study studies on paedophilia in the Church. And they learn to avoid and recognise certain situations. "Make sure you are not alone with the child. Make sure you don't touch children. That's all part of it now. Because you might just become suspicious and have the media and public opinion against you," - Dzikowski says. "And if you see a colleague, a friend doing something that is unacceptable, you need to report it. We teach the distinction between going for the easy way and doing the right thing."
When Dzikowski started the training more than five years ago, he was one of a group of nine people. "After one week there were seven of us, after two months there were five, and as of last year there are four of us." He himself found the first year "the most difficult in my life, because of the confrontation with myself". But such a crisis, he says, is important.
The drop-out rate in the priesthood has always been around 50 per cent, says Hubert Tryk, rector of the seminary in Olsztyn. "Rarely because of temptation, infatuation, external pressure or a crisis of faith. The people who cross the threshold here are very confident in their piety. What most don't appreciate is how lonely it can be. An empty church, endless religious texts and all the rules can be overwhelming. The romantic image they come with doesn't match the reality of the priesthood."
A serious problem for the Church is not that the priesthood resignation rate remains high, but that the influx is stagnant. Over the past decade, 10 per cent fewer future priests have applied each year in Poland than the year before. While 828 young men entered seminaries in 2012, the number shrank to 338 last year. Poland is still training more priests than other European countries, but not enough to keep all seminaries and churches open. Mergers and sharing of priests are becoming inevitable.
Written by Emilie van Outeren
On assignment for NRC
De eenzame Poolse priester