Rydzyk Reigns: How Poland's Controversial Televangelist Has Wielded Power For 30 Years
Tadeusz Rydzyk, Poland's "father director," has commanded enormous political power through his Catholic media empire, despite his controversial support for priests entangled in the church's child sexual abuse scandals — as well as support for Russia. Is his era finally coming to an end?
“Without media, we have no voice at all,” he continued, comparing the church without the arm of the press to “a mute person."
Over time, Rydzyk's radio station has amassed 1.2 million active daily listeners and he has also created a Catholic television channel. He receives generous state funding for his media ventures and private foundation.
He’s been called everything from “the most important unelected man in Poland” to a “colonizer” of his followers’ minds. His TV channel “Trwam,” part of his Catholic media empire, just celebrated its 20-year anniversary.
But does Poland’s “father director” still hold an iron grip on the nation’s faithful?
An international empire of religious media
Rydzyk founded Radio Maryja in 1991 as a local broadcaster in two Polish cities: Toruń and Bydgoszcz. But his ambitions for something greater soon became clear, and, one year later, Rydzyk called upon a group of 20 priests, some with media experience, to discuss his plan to reach wider audiences.
“Rydzyk told us things that nearly knocked us out,” priest Kazimierz Sowa recalled in an interview with Newsweek Polska. “He would speak of huge numbers of recipients, all of whom could be reached by signal transmission via satellites.” Sowa, who had served as the head of Catholic radio station Plus and television channel Religia TV, was impressed by Rydzyk’s vision, but he admits that at the time, “it seemed like an unimaginable miracle."
According to Sowa, Rydzyk did not share these concerns, especially when it came to funding: “It is a work of God, so the Mother of God will finance it,” he remembers Rydzyk responding.
But the radio station was not enough for Rydzyk or his supporters. In June 2003, he founded a sister television network, Trwam (“I persist”). Unlike most stations, which are either publicly funded or depend on advertisements, the TV network is funded solely by donations. Trawm’s Toruń television studio is currently the second-largest in Poland, and the network has satellite studios in Warsaw and Lublin as well as in Chicago and Toronto.
Like Radio Maryja, Trwam’s programming includes religious content, such as live mass broadcasts from the Jasna Góra monastery, a Catholic shrine and destination for pilgrims.
But the channel, like the radio station, also has a political edge. Trwam’s broadcasts have warned against “gender ideology” and the “gay invasion,” issues which they say the faithful must fight against. Rydzyk's media also take stances against feminism, immigration and the European Union.
For many older and rural audiences, Trwam is one of the only, if not the only, network they receive at home.
“It would only be reasonable that Poland should have the same percentage of Catholic media … as it has Catholics," Rydzyk has said. According to a survey from Poland’s Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS), 84% of Poles currently believe in God. Although that number has been falling in recent years — from 87% in 2020, and 94% in 1992 — it still remains one of the highest in Europe.
But there is a growing gap between Poles baptized Catholic, those who believe in God, and those who practice regularly. The same poll found that only 42% of Poles currently practice their religion weekly — a 28% decline since the 1990s. As an increased number of Poles explore new relationships with their faith, Rydzyk’s brand of Catholicism has become all the more controversial.
There is no Poland without the church.
Rydzyk himself disagrees with popular assessments of his power and influence. “Unfortunately, the church in Poland does not have powerful media, because it doesn’t have the resources,” he said, dismissing arguments that the Church is indeed rich as “propaganda."
Church and state: Rydzyk’s politics
His networks have enjoyed generous support from the Law and Justice (PiS) government, and Rydzyk himself has had close relationships with high-level figures including former PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski and, according to Rydzyk, former Pope John Paul II.
Following the 2015 victory of PiS in the Polish national elections, Kaczyński went so far as to thank Rydzyk for the party’s win. "Without you, father director, we would not have had this victory," he said in a speech in Toruń, where thousands had gathered to celebrate the 24th anniversary of Radio Maryja. “There is no Poland without the church," he added.
Responding to Kaczynski's comments— and a standing ovation from the audience, Rydzyk displayed humility in the third person, saying “God rules the world, and Rydzyk is very small."
In spite of this modesty, Rydzyk’s political influence continued in the elections four years later, where PiS once again won a parliamentary majority. This time around, however, the religious leader made it clear that his support would not be won without a few key conditions, including the party’s backing of further restrictions on abortion — which went on to become law in 2020.
At 78, the Polish priest continues to make headlines for his controversies, finances and political beliefs. But in spite of his continuing power, some are beginning to question whether his reign may soon come to an end.
Archidiecezja Krakowska Biuro Prasowe/wikimedia
But Kaczynski and Rydzyk’s alliance, though mutually beneficial, was not always as close as it is now. “Radio Maryja is anti-Western; it is pro-Russian,” Kaczynski told Gazeta Polska in 1998.
Kaczynski and political leaders were not the only ones to critique the Catholic radio station at this time. Senior figures from the Catholic church in Poland have also criticized Rydzyk for his polarizing politics. “The church must avoid arousing hostility,” Cardinal Józef Glemp, then archbishop of Warsaw, in a 1997 letter, expressed fear in a 1997 letter about the lack of control over Radio Maryja and the politicization of the station’s content. “It would be wrong if evangelical premises were used to make a whip to lash opponents," he added.
“Despite his popularity and widespread support, Father Rydzyk cannot demand special privileges for himself, or stand above the law,” he continued. Aside from state funding, Rydzyk has also received significant tax breaks from the Polish government.
If donors plant a “seed” in the form of a donation, it will be multiplied and returned to them by God.
The amount of money Rydzyk and his organizations have received, both from the Polish state and the ruling party, have long caused concern among critics. As of 2021, he had amassed over 325 million PLN (more than €72.5 million) from the state since PiS’s victory in 2015. Much of this funding came from the Ministry of Culture, the National Fund for Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Justice, according to OKO.press.
And it isn’t just the Polish state: Rydzyk has been a vocal proponent of “seed faith,” a term popularized by American televangelists, which refers to the idea that if donors to the network plant a “seed” in the form of a donation, it will be multiplied and returned to them by God.
Still, the “father director” says that the money he receives, both from the Polish government and his private supporters, is not enough. “A portion of Poles has kept Radio Maryja afloat for 31 years, and Trwam for 20,” he said on his station. "But I will say that it’s only a portion, which is why we are spread so thin."
Defending the church at all costs
Throughout his career, Rydzyk has come to the defense of controversial religious leaders. In 2020, mid-mass, he claimed to have received a message from former bishop Edward Janiak, who had been permanently removed from office by Pope Francis for ignoring and covering up claims of sexual abuse under his diocese in Kalisz.
Rather than condemning Janiak, Rydzyk referred to him as a “modern-day martyr," and said that the Vatican's decision to remove him “Was done by the media."
Earlier this year, when a documentary released by TVN 24 showed evidence that former Pope John Paul II had covered up sexual abuse while serving as archbishop of Kraków, Rydzyk accused critics of “attacking Polish identity" and said that "defamatory publications in the media and TV programs are contradictory to the Polish spirit."
Blaming the war in Ukraine on satan, not Putin
On Sunday, June 18th, Rydzyk once again came under fire for his statements concerning the war in Ukraine, which he made during a youth pilgrimage to Jasna Góra monastary. "There is war in Ukraine and in other parts of the world because these people have no faith in God", he said, "people without God are going in the direction of Satan, which leads to such horrific events".
This is not the Polish revivalist's first time making controversial statements about the war. In a 2022 speech on his television channel, Rydzyk stated: "Support for Ukrainians has been widespread. Thank God, that Poles have such hearts. Let us have open hearts, but let's keep a watchful eye as well. I am afraid that together with the war refugees from Ukraine, those who should not be in Poland, from whom we defended ourselves, may come to Poland," making reference to refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
Some are beginning to question whether his reign may soon come to an end.
Last week's speech by Rydzyk also took shots at Polish journalists, who he called "liars manipulating the public, and turning people against one another in Poland. At the same time, he advertised his own journalism school in Toruń, calling upon his crowds to attend.
The end of an era?
In January of this year, the Trwam channel signed an agreement with PiS, providing them with an additional 39,600 PLN (just under €9,000) in monthly grants for their broadcasts of Catholic masses. This is on top of the aforementioned amounts that Rydzyk and his foundation receive from state funds and government ministries.
At 78, the Polish priest continues to make headlines for his controversies, finances and political beliefs. But in spite of his continuing power, some are beginning to question whether his reign may soon come to an end. Radio Maryja’s listeners, though vocal in their support, have been growing smaller as a group over the past years. And, whether they be religious Poles seeking respite from controversy, or members of a new secular generation, a larger fraction of the country has come out against him.
“Rydzyk is a child of the fallen church," Artur Nowak, a lawyer and publicist who has come out against abuse in the Catholic church, wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza “I want nothing to do with him."
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