I attended the fifth meeting of the the International Catholic Reform Network in Warsaw from September 22 - 28. The first meeting was held in Bregenz, Austria in 2013 followed by meetings in Limerick, Chicago, and Bratislava.

At the Warsaw meeting we met with Zuzanna Radzik and Catholics from the Polish Church. We learned about the complicated history of the country and how Karol Jozef Wojtyla's influence was nearly inseparable from the Polish Catholicism that grew up under his leadership. The effects of his papacy are deeply intertwined with the worship of the Polish Catholic Church.

When I go to Rome, I regularly visit churches devoted to John Paul II. I always light a candle and tell him that now he is sitting next to Mary Magdala, Phoebe, Lydia, Catherine of Siena, and a bunch of other women who pioneered our faith, he must undo the damage he did to Catholic women when he tried to end all discussions of women's ordination. (I think my prayers are working :) So, for me, it was a rare and touching experience to hear Halina Bortnowska tell her story of knowing Karol Wojtyla as a devoted friend. It helped me more deeply appreciate his humanity.

Halina is a well known philosopher, theologian, author, activist, participant in the ecumenical movement, and from 2007, chairwoman of the Council of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. She was Karol Wojtyla's student before he became a cardinal. As a student in Leuven, she was exposed to Wojtyla's teaching on Love and Responsibility, a theme that he carried throughout his life. She went on regular excursions with him kayaking and other outdoor activities and remained friends with him until his death. She attended the third session of the Second Vatican Council and was familiar with his work there. She also participated in diocesan synod in Krakow just before he was elected pope.

Halina said that John Paul II was a hero of epic proportions -- a voice of hope -- during the Communist regime. He was deeply influenced by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski who is on the tract for sainthood. After communist authorities "arrested Mary," the icon of Black Madonna, he led processions through Warsaw carrying an empty picture frame instead, thus expressing the faith of the people despite the image’s absence. She was a sign of hope for the millions of suffering Poles.

When asked if she believed John Paul II considered women to be inferior, Halina said that she never experienced herself as inferior with him. But she did say that John Paul II was influenced by "the wrong woman", a woman who had suffered mightily under the Communists, but whose ideas "were not necessarily good for women."

Although she respected and clearly loved Pope John Paul II, she said she did not believe he or any pope should be canonized. That got a few chuckles of agreement from the ICRN participants.

We also heard from younger Catholics who were leading the work for reform in Poland. Their view of Pope John Paul II was not as favorable and believe his legacy has contributed to a very closed Catholic Church where priests are still plentiful and bishops feel free to use their authority to issue anti-Semitic remarks, throw insults and incite hatred against LGBT+ people, and keep women in a second class position. According to these brilliant younger adults, the monarchical power of the Church is still in full view.

After hearing from our Polish friends for a full day, and discussing important events in other regions of the Catholic Church, the ICRN group discussed and took three actions. (see press release)

  1. International Catholic Reform Network (ICRN) supports the ongoing work in parishes that are calling women and men out of their communities to prepare them to preside over the Eucharist and to be responsible for the pastoral care and sacramental life of their parish community.
  2. ICRN calls on the Polish Bishops to comply with Church teaching regarding LGBT people that calls all to respect the intrinsic dignity of each person in word, action, and law (The Warsaw Statement on LGBT is below).
  3. ICRN voted unanimously to support the charter on the Fundamental Rights and Responsibilities of all Catholics worldwide which obligates the entire church to respect the primacy of conscience; the equality of all Catholics in the church; freedom of expression, including the freedom to dissent; the right and responsibility to participate in a Eucharistic community and to receive responsible pastoral care; genuine participation in decision making, including the selection of their leaders; due and just process when accusations are made; protection of children, and others.

Bishops Should Comply with Church Teaching: Warsaw Statement on LGBT from ICRN

The gathering of representatives of the International Church Reform Network (ICRN) meeting in Warsaw, Sept. 21-27, 2019 are saddened by the controversies in Poland between the LGBT community and the Polish hierarchy. When Bishop Wieslaw Mering of Wloclawek defended Professor Aleksander Nalaskowski who called LGBT people “Traveling Rapists,” he did not follow the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s mandate to treat lesbian and gay people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (par. 2358).

The Equality Marches in Warsaw, Gdansk, Bialystok, and Poznan this year were opportunities for the Catholic bishops of Poland to show pastoral sensitivity for LGBT people. Instead the Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda of Bialystok described the Equality March as “an act of discrimination against Catholics.” Such rhetoric no doubt fueled, or perhaps instigated, the attacks of throwing rocks and firecrackers, along with degrading slurs, against the marchers in Bialystok.

We remind the Polish bishops of the 1986 statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which said,  “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons).

We were appalled to learn that Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Krakow, on the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, used the occasion to disparage LGBT people by saying that “a red plague is not gripping our land anymore” but that there is a new plague which is “not red, but rainbow” and that Poland is “suffering from a rainbow disease.”

Such remarks do not show respect for human beings who have been the object of discrimination and social intolerance. We call on the Polish bishops to comply with the Vatican’s instruction that “The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, action and in law” and “to support with the means at their disposal, the development of appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons).

On September 28 and 29 I had the joy of talking with about a dozen women from Poland again in a meeting organized by Zuzanna Radzik, well known theologian and author, and the Vice President of the Forum For Dialogue.

Kate McElwee of Women's Ordination Conference and I were invited to be a part of a recorded video interview speaking about the issues that affect women in Poland and in the wider church.

What I learned from these Polish women is that they feel an urgency to make changes in a church that is indifferent, in the extreme, to the needs of women and LGBT people. They want reform. And these courageous women are willing to pioneer the steps to make it possible. Many of them spoke about a church where their daughters could find their authentic voices and use all their gifts in service of the Gospel.

As a group, they strategized for how they would strengthen their presence and make their voices known to Polish Catholics and heard by the Polish hierarchy.

One comment really stuck with me. One woman told the story of trying to talk to her priest. He repeatedly has brushed her off. Her wish? "I wish that I could just have my priest listen to me."

As they move forward, we will support all they do and stand in solidarity with them as they break down the obstacles to a Gospel-centered Church where women and men are truly equal.

Deborah Rose-Milavec from Warsaw, Poland