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Today's word on journalism

Friday, September 1, 2006

"[F]ew things are as much a part of our lives as the news. With the advent of sophisticated mass communication, the news has become a sort
of instant historical record of the pace, progress, problems, and the hopes of society. On the other hand--and here's the puzzle -- the news provides, at best, a superficial and distorted image of society. . . . The puzzle, simply put, is this: How can anything so superficial be so central to our lives?"

--W. Lance Bennett, political science professor, 1988

Poland now enjoys freedom of choice in religion

By Ben Walker

May 3, 2006 | Citizens of the United States enjoy certain freedoms. The country is based on these freedoms. The very first amendment to the Constitution lays out some important ones. Included in this amendment is the freedom of religion.

Today, the United States is a melting pot not only for different cultures, but for different religions. Early settlers left their homes and came to America to worship in the way they thought to be correct.

In the seventeenth century, freedom of religion was a novelty. In the nineteenth century, Communist movements prevented the practice of any religion in countries such as Russia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. But not Poland. While the Soviet Union ruled over the Poles, Polish people continued to practice their national religion of Roman Catholocism. It had, after all, been their national religion since 966 AD.

The Roman Catholic Church even chose Karol Wojtyla, a Pole, to become John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years.

Throughout this time, most Poles chose to be Catholic.

"Personally, I was able to practice in the Catholic Church," said Tomek Tokarz of Warsaw. "People involved with the Communist party, the army, police were the ones who had limits."

"They didn't close our churches, but they couldn't say whatever they wanted to say," said Natasia Skoberla, a Catholic Pole who lives in Logan and moved to the United States seven years ago. "And they would always say good things about Russians."

Some say that since Catholocism was the only choice for Poles, they really didn't have freedom to choose.

Brandon Berrett, a student at the University of Utah, argues this point. He spent two years in Poland as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I think people always need freedom to choose, and you only have that freedom when you actually have a choice to make," Berrett said. "The fact remains that after nearly 16 years of choice, most people still remain with their traditional faith in Poland."

Approximately 90 percent of Poland's 38 million citizens are Catholics.

"You get to be exposed to more religions here than in Poland," Skoberla said.

The Soviet Union was dissolved in late 1991. The Berlin Wall came down. Churches began pouring into Eastern Europe. Jehovah's Witnesses had already established a footing in Poland. Protestant churches such as the Methodists and Baptists began preaching to the Polish Catholics. Buddhists and Hindus began vying for Polish converts. Poland had religious freedom.

Jarek Adamczyk, a non-Catholic Christian youth leader in Krakow, Poland, said, "In 1992 and 1993 there was a big growth in churches. Every church grew and the whole society was interested in it."

Adamczyk said the interest in the new churches has dropped off generally and the new generation of Poles, which doesn't remember Communism, doesn't care about religion.

"When it's harder, there is greater faith," Adamczyk said.

Despite the possible dropoff in religious interest, religious groups continue to preach. The majority of them are Christians, preaching to a Christian nation.

Such a group is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At any given time, the LDS Church has about 110 missionaries preaching in 12 different cities in Poland. A new group of missionaries enters the country every two months and another group heads home. The Church averages about 100 convert baptisms every year and claims almost 1,400 Polish members.

But why are these Christians preaching to one of the most Christian nations in Europe?

"Christian ideology is very diverse," said Lewis Hooker, a former LDS stake president who served a mission in Poland with his wife. "Differences can be extreme. The type of body God has would be one, the Godhead would be another. The Poles need to be exposed to new ideas and to understand others' views. Eventually they may be able to accept more truth."

"I didn't choose to go to Poland as an attack on the Catholic Church or anyting like that," Berrett said. "The right to have a differing viewpoint is one that has only been opened up recently in Poland, and hopefully will not only stay, but grow and diversify."

So while Catholocism continues to dominate the Polish religious scene, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Latter-day Saints continue to preach to the Poles with limited success.

"Generally, I think it's better that we can choose a church that is right for us," Tokarz said. "All churches propose good over evil. In this sense, it's better that there are more churches."

Tokarz was raised a Catholic, but he and his wife became Latter-day Saints in October 2004. "I was convinced of the truth of this church," he said. The gospel and activity in the church have a positive influence on me and on my family. I realize that people in our church aren't any better or worse than others."

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