Andrzej W. KACZOROWSKI: Birth of the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship

Birth of the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship

Photo of Andrzej W. KACZOROWSKI


Researcher of the history of the People's Republic of Poland (anti-communist opposition in the countryside; the Church and PAX; the press and censorship), journalist (including articles on the Carpathian region).

other articles by this author

From the beginning, authorities viewed the Church and the individual farming it supported – and which was dismantling the communist system – as the two main anti-establishment forces.

.In 1980-1981, the solidarity movement in the countryside found powerful support not only in the structures of the workers’ Solidarity (NSZZ ‘Solidarność’) but, above all, in the Church structures, from village parish priests to bishops and the Primate of Poland. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński’s consistent support for the emerging trade unions of individual farmers played a decisive role in compelling the authorities to allow the registration of Rural Solidarity (NSZZ IR ‘Solidarność’), which took place on 12 May 1981.

The leadership of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) feared this independent peasant movement, remembering the nationwide support Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s opposition party, the Polish People’s Party (PSL), had won after the war. There was also constant pressure from Soviet comrades on the Polish communists to prevent the registration of Rural Solidarity. As a result, the farmers had to fight for the right to form a union for 9 months, which left them no time to build a strong professional organisation.

Martial law – the introduction of which in the countryside, preceded by the penetration of military task forces, was relatively mild and did not meet with much social resistance – led to a deepening of social ties between the rural areas and the Church, particularly as regards the circles of the outlawed Rural Solidarity.

The trade union-Church contacts gained importance during martial law. Right after 13 December 1981, the Church – the only independent centre – offered extensive support to the victims of the new order. This drew in individuals and rural communities who tried to reach out to the internees and imprisoned.

Although repression against Rural Solidarity activists was limited compared to urban Solidarity – with around 125 people interned in the initial wave and a total of about 350 activists interned during the entire period of martial law – the shock of seeing fellow trade unionists and neighbours imprisoned led to spontaneous acts of generosity and solidarity in rural areas, mainly gathering funds and food, and aiding the families and farms of the oppressed.

The ‘Committee on Piwna Street’ – the Primate’s Aid Committee for the Detained and their Families – established by a decree of the Primate of Poland on 17 December 1981 – was very quickly approached by farmers and Rural Solidarity activists from the Warsaw area. They would provide food (mainly vegetables and fruit), fuel and transport for people visiting internment camps throughout Poland. The same happened in other dioceses.

The union team coordinating the activities of the individual centres was composed of: Marian Wiak and Eligiusz Sieklicki from Błonie, Andrzej Łuszczewski and Janusz Byliński from Zakroczym, Józef Broniszewski from Karczew, Stanisław Czartoryski from Tarchomin, Kazimierz Porębski from Tarczyn, Leszek Mirkowicz from Szczęśliwice, Stanisław Zając from Babice, Tomasz Kamiński from Jabłonna, Karolina Przybylska from Brwinów, Grzegorz Piasecki from Czosnów, Włodzimierz Klingofer from Wilanów, Michał Wójciak from Nasielsko and Irena Megler, who hosted Rural Solidarity meetings in her flat in Warsaw. Among the advisors to the Warsaw group were Prof Andrzej Stelmachowski, Bolesław Banaszkiewicz, Piotr Dąbrowski and Andrzej W. Kaczorowski.

During martial law, the Church not only carried out its fundamental pastoral mission (including assistance to the victims, intervention on behalf of the oppressed, visits by priests and bishops to internment sites and prisons and charity work) but also engaged in social and national affairs. It proclaimed the need for social conciliation and a national agreement (a new social contract) in the new conditions. It also sought to revive dialogue between the authorities and the solidarity camp. From the first communiqué of the General Council of the Polish Bishop’s Conference of 15 December 1981 until the dissolution of the trade unions on 8 October 1982, the bishops continued to postulate the reactivation of Solidarity and Rural Solidarity. The Plenary Assembly of the Polish Bishops’ Conference spoke about this issue several times; the Primate of Poland, Archbishop Józef Glemp, also expressed his views. These demands corresponded to the mood and expectations of society. However, after only a few months, it became clear that the martial law authorities had no interest in Solidarity continuing to function in any form.

The suspension of trade union activities by the communists came as a shock to many active members of Rural Solidarity, which had not even managed to develop its organisational structures before 13 December 1981. In the new circumstances, the Church became the only natural ally of Rural Solidarity and its defender against the martial law authorities.

The need to deepen mutual relations between Rural Solidarity activists and representatives of the clergy and the Church hierarchy did not, of course, stem only from strictly religious motivations. Although many were active in their parish communities, some trade unionists undertook an accelerated course of catechisation during martial law; anti-clerical attitudes or distancing from contacts with the clergy were in the minority. It was difficult to avoid the danger of instrumentalising the Church, which was treated as a convenient ‘protective umbrella’ and a space where attachment to the idea of Solidarity could be freely expressed – this enabled the authorities to accuse the Church of organising ‘political rallies’. On the other hand, the avoidance of political involvement as contradictory to the mission of the Church led some opposition circles to question the independence and credibility of the Church as a representative of public opinion.

Among the milieus of Rural Solidarity, the group of activists from the then-capital voivodeship was among the first to establish close contacts with the Church hierarchy. Deprived of their leader Gabriel Janowski, who was in solitary confinement, they initially concentrated on providing various forms of aid to the interned and imprisoned, mainly through the ‘Committee on Piwna Street’. In the spring of 1982, this group decided to celebrate a Mass at the Warsaw Archcathedral on the first anniversary of the registration of their union. This initiative was sanctioned by Bishop Władysław Miziołek, who also presided over the solemn celebration on 12 May 1982 – although, due to pressure from the authorities, without the banner of the Provincial Board of the Solidarity in Warsaw. The farmers prepared the prayers and performed the liturgical readings. Despite sparse announcements, the ceremony was attended by union activists from all over the country. Western radio stations were the only ones covering the event. The Security Service (SB) tried unsuccessfully to prevent the celebrations by detaining two organisers, Tomasz Kamiński and Marian Wiak.

From then on, Warsaw Mass was held every year in May to commemorate the anniversary of the Rural Solidarity registration. It gained more publicity and attracted a larger crowd of sympathisers who showed their will to survive by reminding people of the need to reactivate the union. Similar religious-union celebrations were later organised in Rzeszów on the anniversary of signing the Rzeszów-Ustrzyce agreements.

Inspired by the first successful initiative on church grounds, in the summer of 1982, a group of Warsaw activists from the Rural Solidarity started developing a program for a farmers’ thanksgiving pilgrimage to Jasna Góra to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The idea came from Józef Broniszewski and was approved by Bishop Władysław Miziołek, who, as Chairman of the Commission for the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, set the date and proposed that the pilgrimage take the form of a church harvest festival.

The invitation – read out in every Church in the country – was issued by the Primate of Poland, Archbishop Józef Glemp.

The main coordinator of the preparations – in consultation with the sanctuary’s guardians – was Fr. Boguslaw Bijak, Director of the Pastoral Department of the Warsaw Metropolitan Curia. He also agreed that a representative of farmers should speak from the top of Jasna Góra.

The entire pilgrimage programme was prepared by the Rural Solidarity in Warsaw. The perfectly organised religious-patriotic celebrations took place on 5 September 1982 and, according to Church estimates, attracted some 300,000 villagers (the SB estimated the number at 150,000). The events stood out as some of the largest of their kind during martial law and, indeed, the last years of the Polish People’s Republic. The authorities, who had so far disregarded the Solidarity movement in the countryside, were taken completely by surprise, finding the homily of Bishop Ignacy Tokarczuk particularly infuriating. Subsequently, they denied the Ordinary of Przemyśl a passport to travel to Rome. Moreover, in the Toruń trial of the assassins of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, Grzegorz Piotrowski deliberately and falsely accused Bishop Tokarczuk of collaboration with the Gestapo during the Second World War.

Organised for the first time during martial law, the Harvest Festival in Jasna Góra started a 40-year tradition of giving thanks to God for the harvest before the throne of the Queen of Poland (it is held on the first Sunday of September). It played a pivotal role in establishing the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship by the Church.

Organised for the first time during martial law, the Harvest Festival in Jasna Góra started a 40-year tradition of giving thanks to God for the harvest before the throne of the Queen of Poland (on the first Sunday of September). It played a pivotal role in establishing the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship by the Church. They also set an example for Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, who organised a similar pilgrimage of workers to Jasna Góra a year later.

Leszek Mirkowicz, a young graduate of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, addressed the assembled brothers and sisters in hardships before the High Mass, speaking as a farmer from a family with a long peasant lineage: ‘We are not an ignorant mob, easily controlled. Lies won’t change our minds, and deception won’t fool us (…).’ More than twenty times, applause interrupted his half-hour speech in which he emphasised the idea of solidarity (alongside a call for the trade union to examine their conscience) and the dignity of peasants.

Before the Mass, a proclamation was read out – it was sent to farmers from the Vatican by the Holy Father John Paul II. In the spirit of fraternal solidarity, he prayed fervently that inalienable human rights be upheld in his homeland, particularly the rights to land and work – the cornerstones of a thriving economy and the holistic progress of the social community.

The High Mass on the mountaintop, concelebrated by priests from all Polish dioceses, was presided over by Bishop Marian Przykucki (the then Ordinary of Chełmno). Bishop Ignacy Tokarczuk (the then Ordinary of Przemyśl) delivered a gripping homily that lasted almost an hour, explicitly stating the position of the Polish bishops on the repression of martial law and emphasising the importance of the value of truth and freedom in the life of the individual and the nation: ‘A Pole will never accept to be a slave or an object.’ He also devoted much of his speech to discussing the situation of Polish agriculture: ‘We need to create an atmosphere where the farmer is respected and treated fairly, not like a poor relative.’

Farmers from various parts of the country attended the celebratory harvest liturgy. They read the beautiful ‘Call of Jasna Góra’, specially written by Father (later Bishop) Józef Zawitkowski. The farmers also recited the intentions of the universal prayer and then made an act of entrustment to the Mother of God. Among the harvest wreaths and altar gifts, the most precious was the Jubilee votive offering from Polish farmers: two pure gold ears of wheat in the shape of the letter ‘V’, tied together by a red and white sash with the inscription ‘NSZZ RI “Solidarność”’ (Rural Solidarity), designed by Jacek Fedorowicz. Actor Krzysztof Kolberger recited stanzas of Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wyzwolenie (Liberation) and Czesław Miłosz’s poem Który skrzywdziłeś (You, who have caused pain). Before people dispersed, the ‘The Letter of the Polish Peasants’ was read out, in which Polish farmers asked the Mother of God for support in their work. The ceremony ended with the singing of the hymn Boże, coś Polskę with the invocation ‘Return to us, O Lord, our free fatherland’.

After the harvest festivities, leading activists from various factions of the Rural Solidarity met in the monastery. They discussed the situation of the union and the creation of a religious fellowship for farmers. Representatives of the Church informed the audience about the concept of Western aid for Polish agriculture. The social enthusiasm of the countryside was an encouraging incentive for new activities on the church grounds.

The first post-war Christian harvest festival, which was genuine and not a charade, was immediately condemned by martial law propaganda. The head of the Office for Religious Affairs, Minister Adam Łopatka, at a conference of the spokesman for the government of the Polish People’s Republic, Jerzy Urban, called the sermon a political statement. At the same time, the communist press attacked Bishop Tokarczuk in anonymous articles, trying to create a split within the Episcopate and between the Church and society. Soon, the SB interned several participants of the meeting with the bishops but failed to identify the real organisers of the Jasna Góra Harvest Festival. The allies of the PZPR were particularly zealous: ‘The secretariat of the Supreme Committee of the United People’s Party (NK ZSL) disapproves of the actions of those who attack the agricultural policy of the PZPR and ZSL and undermine the great accomplishments of the countryside in socialist Poland, which were attained despite temporary problems.’

During the session of the Joint Commission of Government Representatives and the Polish Bishops’ Conference on 7 September 1982, the Church was reproached for attempting to revive the activities of Rural Solidarity under the guise of a religious community. The 187th Plenary Assembly of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, held on 15-16 September 1982, called for the existence of Rural Solidarity. After the Sejm of the Polish People’s Republic dissolved the individual farmers’ trade unions on 8 October 1982, the Church remained the only sphere of freedom for Rural Solidarity supporters.

On 18 November 1982, the Primate of Poland received a Warsaw group of union activists and counsellors, who thanked him for the care he had given them so far and asked that the Episcopate establish permanent forms of pastoral communities for farmers; similar visits were also made to diocesan bishops. The Primate decided that the formation of farmers was one of the most important ministerial duties. ‘Give them the social teaching of the Church, the principles of family life, show them the magnificent history of the Nation and culture, and the initiatives will develop themselves,’ he said to the clergy.

At the 189th Plenary Assembly of the Polish Bishops’ Conference on 1-2 December 1982, the bishops condemned the abolition of trade unions. A decision was made to set up the Commission for the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, but this was not made public. At the 190th Plenary Assembly of the Polish Bishops’ Conference on 23 February 1983, Bishop Jan Gurda, Suffragan of Kielce, was elected as the first chairman of the Commission.

It was assumed that grassroots religious communities of farmers would be established in the parishes. The main directions of their work were set out in the periodical Nasz Gościniec, which Fr. Bogusław Bijak began to publish at the Warsaw Metropolitan Curia in 1983 as pastoral materials for farmers. This extensive programme included not only religious life (services, rituals related to folk traditions, days of recollection and closed retreats) but also activities for the common good (such as charity, mutual help on farms, fighting alcoholism or legal advice), self-education and educational work (including the social teachings of the Church, the history of Poland and the Polish countryside, theoretical and practical issues of agriculture, rural farming and work on the land), as well as artistic and cultural activities. At the beginning of 1983, the first parish farmer communities began to form in the then-capital voivodeship (in Zakroczym, Błonie, Mroków, Tarczyn). In turn, the chairman of the Commission for the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship of the Polish Bishops’ Conference asked the Ordinaries to appoint priests responsible for the Fellowship communities in their dioceses. These actions were swiftly noticed by the authorities. The Administrative Department of the Central Committee of the Polish United Worker’ Party (KC PZPR) reported on 30 March 1983:

We have recently noted the establishment of new structures for the religious community of farmers by the Church. The Commission for the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and similar diocesan units have already been set up. The political danger is that many people associated with the former Rural Solidarity are joining the newly created parish structures of the Fellowship.

Although it was a grassroots initiative of the laity, the communist authorities considered Bishop Tokarczuk to be its inspirer. ‘We must firmly oppose the political infiltration of the farmers’ society by the reactionary part of the clergy and the right-wing activists of the former Rural Solidarity associated with them,’ the Administrative Department of the KP PZPR declared.

Soon, the Fellowship became a widely discussed matter during the meetings of the Joint Commission of Government Representatives and the Polish Bishops’ Conference. The government believed it was a continuation of the activities of Rural Solidarity in a new organisational guise. They warned that this would hinder the implementation of a very important project of the Agricultural Support Foundation and demanded that the Fellowship be purged of politically harmful elements. This applied to the programme (‘The Agricultural Catholic Fellowship as it is framed in Nasz Gościniec is unacceptable. There is an opposition in the countryside that wants to enter the Church unchastised. (…) We strongly ask that the Fellowship programme be limited to strictly religious work’), and to the people (‘The most worrying development is that former Rural Solidarity activists belonging to the radical faction or leadership are beginning to assemble and engage within the Fellowship’). It was stressed that the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship programme was developed with the active participation of the extreme Rural Solidarity activist Gabriel Janowski. The bishops declared they opposed political opposition entering the Fellowship under false pretences.

The participation of farmers in John Paul II’s second pilgrimage to the homeland became a flashpoint in Church-State relations. The secret ‘Political and Organisational Considerations for the Planned Papal Visit to Poland in 1983’, drawn up in January 1983 by the Administrative Department of the KP PZPR, expressed the fear that ‘the Pope would lend his authority to the structures recently created by the Bishops’ Conference, including the Commission for the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship.’

The main meeting between the Holy Father and the rural population took place on 18 June 1983 in Niepokalanów. Earlier in Warsaw, the Pope had received a miniature of the votive offered to Our Lady of Częstochowa during the farmers’ jubilee pilgrimage to Jasna Góra, as well as documents on the situation of Polish agriculture and the newly established pastoral communities of farmers. John Paul II referred to this in his homily:

I know that you are animated by the desire to renew the best cultural traditions of the countryside, to live a Christian life of mutual love, and to improve yourselves through common prayer. I know that you form circles of support, participate in retreats, educate yourselves and familiarise yourselves with the social teachings of the Church. Through this, you wish to rediscover your unique mission, to restore the dignity of farm work and to find joy in its hardships.

The Pope quoted the words of Wincenty Witos to the farmers in the pastoral communities of farmers who, in communion with the Church, aimed to revive rural areas:

In the worst of times, the peasant kept their land, religion and nationality. These three values were the basis for the creation of this state. We could not have it without them. Where a peasant stood, there emerged the basis of future revival.

In his homily delivered in Poznań on 20 June 1983, Pope John Paul II once again addressed the problems of the Polish countryside. Referring to the tradition of the Wielkopolska region’s deep attachment to the land and the tradition of social organisation that secured Poland’s possessions, he recalled John XXIII’s social encyclical Mater et Magistra as a source of support for the contemporary generation of rural workers. The Pope asked all the farmers of his homeland to remember – as a testimony to the great Pole, the great lover of the Polish land – the message that Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński addressed to the representatives of Rural Solidarity on 2 April 1981. The Primate of the Millennium had said: ‘When one gets closer to the enormous spiritual, moral and social power of the rural environment, one sees clearly how right it is to fight for the fundamental rights of the human person, and how justified the additional title to respect for these rights that comes from owning land is.’

In a report for internal party use, it was pointed out that in Niepokalanów, the Pope had supported the Bishops’ Conference initiative to create structures that would replace the former Rural Solidarity…

The authorities were very concerned about the course of John Paul II’s apostolic visit. On the evening of 18 June 1983, during a flight from Niepokalanów to Częstochowa, the head of the Office for Religious Affairs, Minister Jerzy Kuberski, told the Secretary of the Polish Bishops’ Conference that the authorities were afraid of the celebrations in Niepokalanów because the internees and representatives of Rural Solidarity would be addressing the crowds there. The initial satisfaction with the religious course of the solemn and dignified celebrations was no longer found in the assessment drawn up by the Administrative Department of the KC PZPR on 24 June 1983. The Pope’s speeches were seen as an endorsement of private ownership in agriculture; in addition, six banners with the word ‘Solidarity’ written in italics were spotted during his Niepokalanów address.

In a report for internal party use, it was pointed out that in Niepokalanów, the Pope had supported the Bishops’ Conference initiative to create structures that would replace the former Rural Solidarity, while in Poznań, he referred to a statement made during his meeting with Rural Solidarity (the words ‘Rural Solidarity’ were met with applause).

During martial law, the Church in Poland, without neglecting its religious mission, embarked on unparalleled social initiatives for the rural populace. To a large extent, they were a response to the expectations and initiatives of rural communities (the Agricultural Catholic Fellowship) and a reaction to the solidarity of the free world with Poland (the Agricultural Foundation). However, the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic did everything in their power to prevent all these initiatives from limiting the social and economic crisis of the Polish countryside and agriculture in the following years.

Andrzej W. Kaczorowski

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