Poland's Church Struggles To Follow Pope Francis' Message Of Humility -- And Poverty

Some members of the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church seem to have troubled practicing what the new pontiff preaches.

Basilica in Licheń Stary - the largest church in Poland
Basilica in Licheń Stary - the largest church in Poland
Katarzyna Wiśniewska

WARSAW - What is wrong with this new Pope? When after the conclave, one of the priests was about to put a cape lined in miniver on the pontiff's back, the message from Francis was essentially: No, the Carnival is over.

Pope Francis doesn’t preach the enigmatic and at the same time the ultimately undemanding “idea of destitution.” Instead, he speaks straight from the heart: he wants a poor Church, for poor people.

What does this mean? It may seem obvious, but for Polish bishops this new vision may present some very real risks -- something like a grenade that must be defused.

This is how a vision of a poor Church is understood by Polish auxiliary Bishop Wojciech Polak: The Church has always appealed to solidarity with poor people. What we have to remember is that the Church isn’t a charity organization, but rather a community that essentially preaches for the salvation of poor people. Of course, the Church is also called upon to bring help, but mainly it should be spreading the gospel. It is not focused on satisfying tangible needs, because different organizations can do that.

This is true, we must agree, but is it enough? “Solidarity with the poor” and “preaching salvation” are not enough if the Church doesn’t demonstrate by its activities that is close to the poor. This is what the Pope was thinking when he decided, at least for now, to continue living in Vatican’s modest hotel, Santa Marta.

The Church that talks about the need to tend to the destitute but itself wallows in luxury is simply not worthy of trust. Bishop Polak notes that one real lesson of destitution would be useful for some members of the hieararchy in Poland. (One can't help think of the Archdiocese Of Gdansk, and its current shepherd Archbishop Slawoj Leszek Glodz...)

Too many live in lavish homes and are driven around in fancy cars. Even a parish priest who delivers a sermon on destitution and then gets in his Audi is less trustworthy than the one who drives a beat-up car and resides in a spartan presbytery.

This is not demagoguery. Pope Francis himself, as a cardinal, used public transport instead of just weaving beautiful metaphors about destitution.

Who owns what?

The Pope’s vision has been also interpreted by Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw. He said that it doesn’t mean that “the Pope will banish rich people from the Church.” He also said that it doesn’t mean, as some think, that the Pope Francis will dump all the relics and priceless pieces of art that have been in Vatican for centuries. Instead the real meaning of this destitution is to send a message to those who have become too attached to material things.

Wallowing in luxury Tadeusz Rydzyk (a Roman Catholic priest and Redemptorist, who runs the conservative and controversial Radio Maryja radio station) amused everyone in Poland when he declared that he doesn’t possess anything himself because all of his things belong to the Redemptorists.

There are also some parishes where the priests directly express their dissatisfaction with receiving no contributions from their parishioners. There were recent reports about clergy “buying” good parishes of wealthy laity. (Again, Archbishop GÅ‚ódź of Gdansk can be cited here).

Bishop WiesÅ‚aw Åšmigiel understands Pope Francis’ vision very well. "If the Church gets lost in sumptuousness, and only takes care of itself and of multiplying its goods, then the evangelical mission will be rendered impossible."

In March, after Cardinal Borgoglio had been chosen as the next Pope, this was Archbishop GÅ‚ódź"s reaction: "Borgoglio was called a cardinal for the poor. Pope Francis brings his experience to Rome and will definitely show its value, especially in affluent and inward-looking Europe."

But this wasn’t the new Pope’s point. Archbishop StanisÅ‚aw GÄ…decki of Poznan gets closer to understanding Francis' vision: "The European perspective, which had seemed to be the only one possible, will be extended and force us to practice what we preach: poverty and humility. Everyone demands that the Pope be humble, poor, and open, but it doesn’t change our attitude." Indeed, why do people continue to cling to the Church, but yet also treasure their bank deposits so dearly? Do we risk leaving Pope Francis to be left alone, clinging only to the Church?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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