Hugo Young

  • The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe by Colm Tóibín
    Cape, 296 pp, £16.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 224 03767 6

In Kiev in 1992, Colm Tóibín met the Bishop of Zhytomir, who was dressed in his full regalia. ‘He had that wonderful, well-fed, lived-in look that reminded me of several Irish bishops.’ The Bishop surely personified the universal assurance of the episcopacy and, although he had been back in Kiev for only a year, of Catholicism itself. He also had a cathedral, now returned to the Church from which it had been seized in 1937, and available for celebrating mass after half a century’s use as a dormitory, a planetarium, an atheism club and a porn video theatre. The cathedral, however, was almost a ruin. The only place where the Bishop and his three priests could live was in the organ loft. They lacked the most basic artefacts of the religious life, such as chalices, Bibles and books. In the diocese there were 25 churches in need of restoration, but almost no people to fill them. The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches were competition, and the Catholic community no longer existed. The continuity of the faith in this corner of Europe had been just about destroyed. Although the Bishop maintained a despairing loyalty as he surveyed the wreckage, he was, says Tóibín, ‘the first Catholic clergyman I had met who had no power’.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the part played by the Catholic Church in the liberation of Ukraine from Soviet oppression was negligible. Elsewhere the story was different. In Lithuania, although Catholicism had been suppressed between 1944 and 1990, the Church sustained a political as well as religious existence from the catacombs. It was not much of a threat to Communism, and in 1992 only 10 per cent of Lithuanians were reckoned to be Catholics. But its private observances became a mode of resistance. It collaborated with the Soviet state less than the Russian Orthodox Church, and by 1986 was taking risks with what it published. Although religious practice had died out even within Catholic families, the churches are now packed for Sunday mass, their services regrettably dull and normal. So here the Church lives – though in a different condition again from that in Croatia. Of all places Tóibín visited, Croatia is where the politics of religion remain least forgiving. In Medjugorje, a site of pilgrimage where apparitions of the Virgin are still said to occur, he finds the Good Friday service of Our Lord’s Passion conducted as an aspect, almost a celebration, of the Serbo-Croatian war. Peace is not what they pray for. Instead, he writes, ‘the images presented were of sacrifice and blood and violence.’

A still greater contrast with the void Communism left in Ukraine is the amplitude of Catholic practice in Poland. Here, it never died. On another Good Friday, Tóibín walked round Warsaw and found a dozen churches packed with the faithful and obedient. In Cracow, the queue for confession stretched beyond the cathedral doors, most of it made up of young people. In Gdansk, one reason for the vitality of religious observance suggested itself: there was simply nothing else to do. ‘Once the churches closed that night in Gdansk at around eleven o’clock there was nobody wandering in the shadowy streets, and there was no sign of life from any of the merchants’ houses. The city was dead.’ But there was also a submissiveness to authority perhaps endemic in the Polish character. Poland, a young woman writer tells Tóibín, was bad under the Communists but under the Catholics would be worse. On television, instead of having to listen to party propaganda, ‘you had Catholic priests telling married people that if they had a dog they should get rid of the dog and have another child.’ It had taken 45 years to remove the Communists, and was now going to take half a century to get rid of the Church. An unlikely eventuality, even when the Polish Pope has passed on.

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