My plans to make a documentary film about a supposedly fundamentalist right wing Catholic organisation started today. Anti-Black, Anti-Jew and Anti-Gay where just some of the comments I had heard from various people about the Polish Radio Maryja family, who allegedly operate outside the rules of the Vatican and promote campaigns of hatred and violence behind the façade of a religious group dedicated to following Mary, mother of God.
I was raised a Catholic; I was baptised very shortly after my birth and was frog marched to the front of the altar every Sunday at 10.00 a.m. to sing songs, recite prayers and confess my sins, which was not something I was particularly fond of. I did this until the rebellious age of fourteen, when even after taking my First Holy Communion and my Confirmation, I stopped going to church. I immaturely decided that there was no room for God in my life, and even if there was, I had no intention of sitting in a mass for an hour and a half, listening to a man tell me how much of a sinner I was. It wasn’t until much later when I realised that the act of going to church and attending mass brings comfort and joy to millions of people, and the feeling of spiritual cleanliness, Holy rapture and having faith is more important than the religious eccentricities I had told myself were pointless.
Over eighty percent of Poland’s population are practicing Roman Catholics, which is an overwhelming majority. If that is the case, then why is it that a seemingly dedicated and structured organisation such as Radio Maryja and sister television station TV Trwam, are criticised by the Polish public as being manipulating and aggressive. It is easy to find such information on the Internet as there are scores of smear campaigns and hate mongering forums to digest. I am therefore taking a neutral standpoint in my film, I am only going to talk to people from both sides of the story who have had first had experience with the organisation. Hopefully, with enough footage from both sides of the argument I will be able to piece together the puzzle and make my own conclusion as to where I stand as a newly initiated member of Polish society. . .
I wake up with a splitting headache and a bad memory of what happened to my last night, over the last few weeks I have had little time for social activities but last night seemed to open a gateway of absurdity in Bochnia. Regardless, I swallow a handful of aspirin, gather my camera gear and make my way to the train station where I am to meet the organiser of the Radio Maryja Bochnia section. His name is Andzej and he takes my hand firmly as he introduces me to the rest of the group and pays for my train ticket. He seems like a rather nice gent considering my hung over state and my bag full of electronics. There are only six of us heading up from Bochnia, which is a disconcertingly small number, but apparently some of the team are ill and can’t make today. We are on our way to Częstochowa, which is three hundred kilometres north west of Bochnia, to be part of a day of prayer and celebration. Tadeusz Rydzyk the director and founder of Radio Maryja Poland will be at the event, conducting the festivities and speaking about his organisation.
We arrive at Częstochowa after three and a bit hours on the train, I am strung out and on the verge of sleep but the rest of the team are eager to get involved. I walk to through the centre of the city with the Bochnia team; two young ladies, a chap a bit younger than myself, Andrzej the leader and an eleven-year-old boy named Jacek. We come to a clearing before we get to the Cathedral and I give Andrzej a hand in constructing the Radio Maryja Bochnia sign, which I carry and wave for the majority of the day. The Cathedral is a giant place, like a small Holy village in a park, there are thousands of people crowded around a small stage at the front, each of them as part of a community, waving their town banners and signs high in the hope that they will be seen on the large television screen under a rather graceful podium.
The event is aimed at the younger generation of the RM family and is driven by live music, speeches by a few Polish celebrities and lots and lots of singing. The atmosphere is very communal and full of delight, swarms of people gather around the stage, clapping their hands and singing at the top of their lungs. After a while I hand the sign over to Jacek and take a walk around the grounds, there are dozens of stalls and tables selling Radio Maryja merchandise and cakes. Polish people seem to go nuts for religious paraphernalia so it is no surprise when I come across things like portraits of Jesus and the pope surrounded by flashing lights and glitter. I buy a skin-tight RM t-shirt.
Częstochowa is a place of pilgrimage and so there are hundreds of people walking in and out of the Cathedral and Basilica who are nothing to do with the event. I speak to some people who have not come for the Radio Maryja experience and they tell me they are not bothered by RM but would never take part in one of their celebrations, they tell me the RM is aimed centrally at old Polish people in villages who are encouraged to send money to fund Rydzyk’s private helicopter and collection of cars. This is a complete contradiction to what I see when I head back over to the central stage, there are very few old people here at all, most of the audience is made up of people my age and they all seem to be having a wonderful time.
Amid the singing and dancing there are several contributions made by the two spokespeople at the event, they both look about twenty five and claim to have been saved by RM. They continue to emphasise the importance of listening to RM, and to overcome the embarrassment they might feel in being young and being mocked for being a part of the Radio Maryja Family. It is during one of these contributions that I walk through the Cathedral to the balcony section that looks over the entire event. There is a heavily guarded gate to the overlooking podium where Father Rydzyk and his friends are sitting. Suddenly they stand up and walk to the left hand side of the podium and a group of youths queue behind the guarded gate. One by one the security guard lets them in, seeing that this could be my only chance to get a prime position, I stand in line and manage to get myself up high in full view of the audience with a group of about fifteen people. Suddenly the music down below shuts off and the group I have imposed on become the centre of attention. The group suddenly begins a synchronised dance routine to a song about Jesus Christ! I move to the beat and do what I can but it is clear I do not belong with them. Why I choose to do this I do not know.
Being stood up on the podium and being the centre of attention to a group of thousands of Polish Catholics waving banners and clapping was something of a new experience. It gave me a chance to see first hand, how much fun these people were having and how dedicated they seemed to their organisation. When I was seventeen years old, there is no way you would have caught me at such an event, waving my hands and cheering to songs about Jesus, but here, in full view are lads from sixteen to twenty five, jumping around with beaming smiles on their faces and praising Jesus Christ.
I am allowed to leave the podium without being kicked out of the grounds and so I make my way down to the crowds in time for the mass to begin, it is here that things start to get a little bit strange. A priest gets up onto the podium and begins speaking, he says a few words and the crowd respond with a slow and dreary chant. It is difficult to make out at first but I interpret the priest’s words as being ‘painful agony for him’, and the crowd respond with ‘mercy for the whole world and us’. I know the Catholic mass inside out after going to a Roman Catholic school and being taken to church so frequently by my folks and I know that there is some chanting and repetition involved, but the slogans here today are repeated for about forty minutes, with no rest bite. The chanting is followed by a speech made by the main man, Rydzyk himself. He speaks about Radio Maryja’s bad reputation in the press and blames all negative publicity on the work of the Devil. He urges the crowd to fight the Devil’s evil bidding and to listen to Radio Maryja without any shame or embarrassment.
But this is what I don’t understand, if all these people want is to be good Catholics, then why do they need an organisation like Radio Maryja to help them? What is its purpose and why do people feel compelled to join the RM Family? It is going to take more than a trip to Częstochowa to find the answers to these questions.
The event finishes shortly afterwards and I make my way back to the RM Bochnia crew, we head back to Janusz’s car and he drives us all home. The group seem very happy with how today’s event went. They ask no questions about my filming but instead they ask to keep in touch with me, I am happy to oblige. Today’s experiences were positive, I found there to be no evidence of racism or hatred toward anybody. In fact, the only negative aspect of the festivities, as far as I could tell, was the chanting, but on reflection, this was only a little more extreme than the repetition and mantra I have experienced at church in the past. My time with RM so far has been optimistic, and I for one am interested to discover what I will find next in my inquisitive exploration of this supposedly negative organisation.