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Churches and Religious Life in Poland

There are one hundred and thirty-eight registered churches and religious associations in Poland.

The biggest numbers belong to the Catholic Church, approximately 95% of the religious segment of Polish society. Ther are four branches of Catholicism in Poland (viz. all four in communion with Rome): the Byzantine-Ukrainian, Neo-Uniate, Armenian, and Roman Catholics. The last-mentioned is the biggest, and in 1998 numbered over 25 million (9,990 parishes and some 28 thousand priests).

In 1996 Pope John Paul II issued a bull which reformed the territorial division of the Church in Poland. There are now 40 dioceses and 13 Latin metropolitan archdioceses, and one Byzantine-Ukrainian metropolitan archdiocese. The head of a diocese is its bishop. All the bishops together constitute the Episcopate of Poland. Since 1981, the head of the Conference of the Episcopate has been the current Primate of Poland, Cardinal Józef Glemp. Numerous religious organisations and institutions operate throughout the country as well as abroad (e.g. Polish Catholic missions, operating mostly in Third World countries), together with catechist groups (involved in the teaching of religious instruction in schools) and a vast number of monastic orders and congregations, for both monks and nuns (e.g. Franciscans, Jesuits, Michaelites, Salesians, Redemptorists, Sisters of St. Elisabeth, Ursulines, Sisters of Charity, etc.).

Apart from the Catholic Church there are several large Christian churches and a few score smaller churches and religious groups in Poland. The Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church is the second largest official religious organisation. About 550 thousand laypersons and 320 priests belong to it. Most of the Orthodox Christians in Poland are members of the Byelorussian minority in the eastern part of the country. Protestantism, divided into several denominations, is the third largest branch of the Christian religion in Poland. The Augsburg Evangelical (Lutheran) Church accounts for over 85 thousand. The next largest churches are the United Pentecostal Church (ca.17 thousand members), and the Seventh Day Adventist Church (10 thousand members). The remaining Protestant churches have up to 5-6 thousand members each. Poland also has several Old Catholic churches (viz. not in communion with Rome). They include the Old Catholic Church of the Mariavites, the Polish National Catholic Church of Poland, and the Catholic Church of the Mariavites. Their combined congregations amount to over 88 thousand people.

The Jehovah's Witness Religious Association has a membership of approx. 130 thousand. There are several other religious groups operating in Poland, including the Muslim Religious Union (Islam), the Union of Jewish Religious Communities (the Judaic religion), the Karaite Religious Board (a religion which combines elements of Judaism and Islam, and is observed predominantly by the Karaite ethnic minority of Turkic origin), and quite a number of organisations related to Oriental religions, e.g. the International Krishna Awareness Society and the Buddhist Society.

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The characteristic feature of Polish religious movements is a fondness for traditional practices and Christian ceremonies such as pilgrimages to holy places, liturgical processions (e.g. for the feast of Corpus Christi), Advent and Lent retreats, and fairs for parish feast-days. Special significance is attached to the cult of Virgin Mary, revered especially at Częstochowa (the shrine of the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra), at Licheń (the shrine of Our Lady the Sorrowful Queen of Poland), as well as in innumerable smaller shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary and scattered throughout the country.

Religion in Poland gained a new dimension in 1978 following the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Cracow, to the papacy. The Polish Pope, who adopted the name of John Paul II, revolutionised the Catholic Church, opening it up to the problems of the contemporary world. Within Poland, the person of John Paul II is viewed in a special light, and his activities are regarded as linked to the enormous socio-political changes of the 1980's. John Paul II remains an unquestionable moral authority, not only for the religious part of society.

The Catholic Church in Poland is an institution which has always been associated with the concept of Polish statehood. The first important date in the history of the Polish state was the adoption of Christianity by the Polanian Prince Mieszko I in 966. The creation of state structures was connected with the spread of Christianity and establishment of an ecclesiastical administrative network in the Polish territories. Since that time, the Church has supported Polish unity and independence, which proved especially significant in partitioned Poland (1795-1918), during the Second World War, and in the period under Communist domination.

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