Religious Beliefs. The Catholic church is both an important element of Soviet Polish identity and a point of sociopolitical conflict in the former Soviet republics. Polish Catholicism strongly emphasizes the cult of Mary, who is venerated as a suffering, worrying, and bereaved mother rather than as a virgin. Devotion to Mary has significant political implications in this context. The most important icon in the Polish church, that of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, is a primary symbol of Polish sovereignty. According to legend, this icon saved the Polish kingdom from the invading Swedish army in the Middle Ages.
Polish Catholicism is also linked to a romantic nationalist philosophical tradition exemplified by the works of the nineteenth-century poet Adam Mickiewicz. In this philosophy, the suffering of the Polish state will bring restoration of sovereignty, and Poland, as a figure of Christ, will play a messianic role among nations. In this manner, Catholicism continues to play an important role in Polish nationalism.
Most homes have corners in which religious material is displayed. The most common examples are icons of the Black Madonna and portraits of Pope John Paul II, which are hung on the wall. Icons of saints may also be displayed. In general, Polish Catholic practice has a strong orientation toward icons. Icons are displayed not only in homes and churches but in religious processions as well.
Religious Practitioners. The Catholic church in the former USSR suffers from a severe shortage of priests, which influences the nature of religious practice. Most priests serving Catholic Poles are either Lithuanians or elderly Poles who remained in the former USSR after the territorial shifts. The shortage is particularly acute in Belarus and Kazakhstan, where the Catholic church has suffered more persecution. Because of religious repression, Mass is often celebrated in parishioners' homes (even when it is possible to register legal churches), rotating through the homes of the congregation. Some priests allow lay Catholics in remote areas to administer the sacrament when they are unable to do so themselves. The practice of lay baptism is quite common; the baptism is often administered by old women, who form an important local religious authority in the absence of a priest. The lack of priests is perceived as a serious problem by practicing Catholics. Some of the Catholic congregations are multiethnic. This is particularly true in Lithuania, which is a largely Catholic republic, and Kazakhstan, where congregations are often mixed German and Polish.
Ceremonies. Religious weddings, funerals, and baptisms are important ceremonies to Polish Catholics. Infant baptism is strongly emphasized. In regions where a priest is available, Mass is usually celebrated at least once a week. Many Polish Catholics, however, cannot partake of Holy Communion more than once a year.
Christmas, Easter, and All Saints' Day are important holidays. In addition to holy days associated with the Virgin Mary, saints' days and name days are celebrated. Christmas is an important holiday, celebrated with religious ceremonies and feasting. One important ritual of Christmas is the oplatek (wafer) ceremony, which takes place on Christmas Eve. This ancient ceremony (dating from the tenth century) is based on the model of the Last Supper. As soon as the first star becomes visible after dusk on Christmas Eve, the oldest person present or the head of the family begins the ritual, in which unleavened bread blessed by a priest is passed around the gathered company, along with hugs and best wishes for the fulfillment of one's personal dreams.
Polish Catholic religious holidays often include pre-Christian Slavic folk practices. For example, Easter is celebrated by attending Mass, and the ritual dinner includes bread blessed by a priest, but the holiday also includes the elaborate and colorful decoration of eggs. Egg decoration is a widespread Slavic practice that Poles claim to have originated.
Arts. There are numerous Polish arts, including painting, prose, poetry, and theater (the Polish tradition is particularly rich in historical and absurdist theater). Two of the most significant arts are poetry and folk sculpture. Poets, like Mickiewicz, are national heroes. Like poetry, folk sculpture is often religiously based. Two of the most popular figures depicted in art (both sculpture and icon reproduction) are the Black Madonna and Christ, particularly the worrying Christ and the crucified Christ. These arts are intimately connected with notions of Poland's special position as an "outpost" of Western Christianity.