Religious life in the democratic state

The socio-political transformations of the 1980s opened up new possibilities to act in accordance with congregations’ own charisms. The breakthrough of 1989 was not an opening to freedom for the orders in a sense of their religious existence. However, the breakthrough brought a new social dimension to their vocations, religious and apostolic life. One of the visible changes was the return to a full implementation of the goals of particular orders, which had not been possible during the totalitarian period: the opening of new schools, publishing houses, work in hospitals and other social institutions. The state returned buildings, although these were usually run-down and damaged. An opportunity arose to regain at least some part of their state-confiscated property. However, there were no women religious who could be adequately prepared for such tasks, following the goal of a given congregation. These tasks had not been implemented in Communism due to the fact that sisters were often impelled to break their activity and tradition, essential for education or healthcare. Therefore, congregations were not forced to adapt their activity to a new reality, but rather to create it anew. Sisters thus reported in the early 1990s:

The current situation in Poland opens up new opportunities of apostolic and charitable influence. We get a lot of requests for sisters, mostly in hospitals but also new nursing homes, for educational work with children, pre-schoolers mainly. Parents keep asking when sisters will finally come back to these institutions. The number of vocations is decreasing, young people who come to the Congregation lack physical and psychical strength, which forces us to act prudently and take into account personal capabilities.

(AWSZ; Kwietniewska 1990, p. 8)

That is why congregations, faced with new challenges, decided to send women religious to study. The situation forced superiors to make very difficult choices since the opening of new apostolic institutions was not possible if sisters did not stop or considerably limit their previous service or work. The resignation forced by new tasks was frequently misunderstood not only by previous employers and people using the services offered by the sisters, but also by women religious themselves. Another issue which had an impact on the development of congregations and the direction of their apostolic work was the possibility and necessity of working in the East.

Female congregations took up these challenges with courage, dynamism and determination. Significant changes took place in the activity of particular congregations. Between 1989 and 2007, the number of kindergartens run by sisters increased by over 130. Seventeen primary schools and 42 secondary schools (lower and higher secondary schools) were established in Poland whereas the Catechetical Institute run by the Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union in Krakow became a higher education school. Yet, the number of vocational schools decreased. Dormitories for young people and student’s houses were founded, their number grew from 18 in 1989 to 73 in 2007. The number of children’s homes increased by 50 per cent, sisters also ran centres for children with special needs. Many day rooms and centres for children from dysfunctional families were established (Olech 2009, p. 22). The number of nursing homes for children and adults remained the same or increased. Various forms of healthcare counselling were also organised as well as doctors’ surgeries and hospices. Women religious frequently returned to work in hospitals although running hospitals turned out to be too complicated and, in spite of numerous attempts, did not bring the expected results. The number of kitchens for the homeless increased to a great extent although still not sufficiently enough. Homes for the homeless and shelters for women with children were established. Moreover, almost every congregational house had a group of people in need who were given constant support.

In regard to spiritual work, it is difficult to describe the specific forms of help which were provided by congregations to those who desired it, for example, two pilgrims’ homes, 41 retreat houses, 19 mission animation centres and four publishing houses were organised. Retreats, days of recollection and meetings for lay people were held in religious houses.

In 1989-2000, unlike congregations in Western Europe which closed their institutions and gave up running them, female congregations in Poland kept on creating and improving these institutions anew so that they reflected the current requirements and standards. This was not only the return to earlier forms of commitment but also the search for an answer to the needs of contemporary people and communities. The Albertine Sisters wrote:

First, we can see a need to establish open shelters in St Brother Albert’s spirit in the houses owned by dioceses or parishes. This is the return to sources and a short-time necessity. The point is that these houses should not only embrace misery but also have an educational impact. They also call us kitchens for the hungry. At the gates we feed a few dozen people but this is nothing compared to the needs. We are running several kitchens of Brother Albert and shelters. The needs are great - we have a lot of offers. We are not afraid to keep these shelters because the generosity of society will meet what we are experiencing today. The lack of sisters is what paralyses us the most. Involving lay people as volunteers may solve problems a bit but not entirely. We are facing the choice what to liquidate in order to have sisters for new initiatives in the spirit of the charism and what the consequences of the liquidation will be. The task which we have faced is not easy to solve. (...) What to do in order not to lose the chance of the Act of 17 May 1989 and return to the forms of statutory activity.

(AWSZ; Filipowicz 1990)

This adjustment to social needs brought about changes in the number of women religious employed in specific jobs and institutions. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of sisters teaching in various types of schools, headmistresses of educational, care and charity institutions considerably increased. The first signs of educational activity had appeared already during workers’ strikes and ‘Solidarity’ activity. As early as 1980, such action was taken up by congregations whose charism was based in education - at the appeal of the Episcopate of Poland, the Congregation of the Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union attempted to open schools in Rybnik and Poznan, which had been closed in the 1950s by state authorities. These actions turned out to be successful and at the end of April 1982 the Ministry of Education allowed for the opening of these two schools. In Rybnik, 1,500 candidates applied for 150 places. The act of 17 May 1989 allowed women religious to make other attempts at reviving Ursuline schools. Problems appeared with regaining buildings as state schools had occupied them and the running of a school involved a huge financial outlay and professional teaching staff, which significantly limited the possibilities of the Congregation (AWSZ, Nowak 1990, c. 2).

Employment as teachers of religion was essential for female congregations. About 3,350 sisters were employed as catechists in 1990. In subsequent years, almost 1,000 women religious stopped being catechists. There were various reasons for this - older sisters were not able to meet the new standards or requirements, frequently due to a necessity to complete their education or supplement existing professional qualifications. This was often the decision of the particular congregation needing women religious for new tasks, but also an effect of personal policy within particular dioceses, as lay people were also being trained to teach religion and priests could be employed as well.

The number of nursing sisters, however, increased - they worked in hospitals and institutions run by congregations, both in Church and state entities. Sisters’ professional qualifications after 1989 became a great challenge for women religious themselves and for the congregations, due to the need to complete their education and adapt to legal requirements as well as the opportunity of free access to higher education schools.

Sister Marietta Kopinska, the superior general of the Congregation of the Servant Sisters of Stara Wies noted:

Since 1980 when with Solidarity an opportunity appeared to regain buildings, the congregation has been making attempts to regain the buildings under the pretext of redecoration or finding a place for ill sisters. In the regained buildings illegal shelters were still being organised. 38 such institutions were established in 1980-1989.

(AWSZ, Kopinska 1990, c. 5)

Life in reality was ahead of the act of 17 May 1989. The act gave the opportunity of running such institutions in accordance with state law. Sister Marietta continued:

That is why, the Congregation made attempts to take over kindergartens nationalised in 1962. Due to the limited possibility of educating new staff and the retirement age of former kindergarten teachers, such actions were inhibited by the lack of properly qualified sisters. Similarly, the lack of qualified nurses prevented women religious from returning to work in hospitals. When actions in accordance with the charism are concerned, the Congregation considered more work in the countryside. Giving up catechisation and the return to nurseries frequently meant the return to the countryside.

(AWSZ; Kopinska 1990)

Polish sisters also participated in the rebuilding of the Church in Eastern European countries. The contacts had continued uninterrupted from the end of the Second World War, yet they were quite limited due to various difficulties. In many countries, such as Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, communities survived, non-habited mainly, whose headquarters were in Poland. When the transformations of 1989 opened the borders, freedom of activity in all countries of the former Eastern bloc did not, however, ensue. The limitations were particularly painful in Belarus and Russia. In spite of these difficulties, congregations met these needs by sending a great number of women religious there - over 400 of them have served there since 1989. Communities were established in many former USSR countries, from Transcaucasia to Siberia.

Immediately after the act of 17 May 1989 became effective, religious communities submitted applications to the Property Commission operating in the Office of the Council of Ministers. They applied to regain properties seized by Communist authorities. First, these houses were regained where the former activity was to be introduced (schools, kindergartens, children’s homes). Communities made efforts in double: carrying on with the work all the while undertaking renovation of devastated buildings. The state granted a subsidy to continue these activities but congregations were forced to raise funds for renovations by themselves (D^bowska 2007, p. 20) (Table 4.1).

Apostolic dynamism was not followed by numerical development. Regaining freedom did not bring a major change in the field of vocations. There were 14 cloistered orders with 75 convents in Poland in 2000 whereas the general number of active congregations amounted to 93 with 2,642 religious houses. Since 1984 about 60 congregations have come to Poland from various parts of the world. Several domestic congregations were also established but their legal status and development has not yet stabilised. Among incoming congregations, most of these were from Italy and other European countries such as France, Spain and Belgium, but also from Algeria, Brazil, Japan and Mexico. Some left Poland after only a few years.

The general number of women religious decreased in Poland after 1989. Female congregations, present in Poland for dozens of years, have suffered from the gradual decrease in the number of sisters due to the ageing population from the 1930s and the post-war period. The number of people entering orders has also constantly been decreasing for many years. Other reasons for decline in vocations are related to the continuous process of the secularisation of Polish society and the crisis of the family as the centre of education. The issue of women’s position and role in society is also significant. Cardinal Ratzinger rightly anticipated in the conversation with V. Messori in 1986 that,

it would be the woman who would suffer most from the effects of the chaos caused by the superficiality of culture. This is the result of masculine thoughts and ideologies which tempt the woman with slogans of freedom, but in reality they are devastating her psyche. (...) this is the woman who will pay for new social relationships and new values appreciated in modem societies. And among women, sisters will pay most dearly.

(Raport 1986, pp. 79, 87).

The post-Council renewal bore fruit but also brought some disintegration of the idea and identity of religious life which should be determined, integrated and experienced anew. The question remained as to what extent women


Number of sisters




















































Source: Secretariat of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in Poland.

religious were important for the Church and society. The lack of clear answer as to the role and place of a consecrated woman in the Church leads to the conviction that this vocation raises confusion, fear and frequently a negative attitude in families and priests (Olech 2009, p. 23).

The concept which currently aids the description of reality is ‘post- modernity’ or breaking w'ith totalitarian unambiguity in favour of liberal pluralism and ambiguity. Postmodernity in human life and culture is mostly visible in a break w'ith previous standards, the adoption of pluralism in every field, unlimited scientific and economic development w'here moral and ethical values are placed in the background. Practically, of great significance are also human mobility and migration, computerisation and technicisation of life, wild, interactive clashes of values, cultures, identities. These tendencies have a great impact on human religiosity and the way of choosing a sanctifying life (Tatar 2015, p. 59).

Research from 2002, on the opinion of Poles on orders, shows that an average Pole very rarely encounters this form of life, and contacts with orders are of a various nature. This influences the character of the opinion and the way of seeing orders. There are fixed stereotypes which originate in the different presentation of monastic history in school and academic education. An average Pole usually associates an order with charity (16 per cent) or widely understood evangelisation (14 per cent). One in ten Poles claims that orders mostly pray, repent and ask for favours for the Church. The responses to the basic question on the role of orders in the Church are as follows: they teach, evangelise, preach a mission, convert - 13.9 per cent; charitable care of the sick and orphaned - 15.7 per cent; they perform an important role - 8.1 per cent; they pray, repent, ask for favours for the Church - 8 per cent; auxiliary role for the Church - 7.6 per cent; 1 don’t know - 22 per cent ( 144-zakony-w'-opinii-polakow').

The theological reflection on the nature of consecrated life outlined by the Second Vatican Council has shaped the awareness that the evangelical profession undoubtedly belongs to the life and sanctity of the Church.

In the transformation period, religious congregations have entered a time of anomie: there have been new norms and solutions, adaptations to new' conditions as recommended by the Second Vatican Council but what is yet missing is an in-depth reception. A new' set of norms has not been accepted in the form of the expected response. The same thesis may be applied to the missions of orders, which after the systemic transformation were forced to adapt to the new' conditions. Many positions were abandoned and new ones w'ere chosen, activity was restructured and staff retrained. There are also positive effects: religious institutions and services performed by sisters function well and often set an example for other, state or local government, entities. How'ever, consecrated people bitterly note that people use their achievements and services but search for the justification for their life else- w'here. This is an issue worth deeper consideration (Guccini 2011, p. 22). What orders used to express through action, currently may turn out to be of little use in the act of the apostolate, not only due to the fact that communities suffer from the lack of resources and personnel to continue their work but also because of a complex historical situation which prevents them from acting and organising their services.

The same issue concerns sisters’ professional qualifications. Competence and professionalism are important but, if too much attention is paid to them, the result is a diversion from the goal set by the congregational life. The image of vocations has become distorted as it is undeniable that pro- fessionalisation inevitably means competition.

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