The rosary is their weapon. How radical groups take over the Catholic Church in Poland
They invoke God, Christ and Mary, and consider the rosary to be their best weapon, but the members of these movements are treated as if they were in a military group. Oaths, accolades, obedience to the leader, daily (spiritual) war. And national patriotism
This is what some men’s Catholic communities in Poland look like. The clergy’s acceptance of their religious facade is harmful. These new movements rise on the wave of direct opposition to an open Church represented by Pope Francis. And they use God to suit their own purposes.
4 September. The whole chapel on Jasna Góra Monastery [editor’s note: Poland’s most important pilgrimage site] is packed with men in black T-shirts. They stand one by one in front of a young priest who is their leader. “1,500 men, the leaders and members of the Warriors of Mary Movement have entrusted themselves to Mary” — Fr Dominik Chmielewski will later announce on Facebook.
At least several dozen Soldiers of Christ took the oath a few weeks earlier, on 15 August, at the Shrine in Radzymin. “I want to fight, so as not to succumb to the tendencies of the so-called open Church, which preaches false mercy,” they recited in front of the clergy celebrating mass.
There are many men’s Catholic communities in Poland. The website presenting them lists 20, including international ones, such as Knights of Columbus, and local ones, such as Nazareth — the Male Rosary Group. They are there, for example: The Warriors of Mary, the Men’s Rosary Platoons, the Knights of John Paul II, the Alliance of Warriors. Some of them were created for men to pray and share their experiences. Others have a clear patriotic, sometimes even nationalistic characteristics. The symbol of the latter has recently become a massive rosary made of steel balls and parachute cord, sold on the fanpage of the Soldiers of Christ movement. “The rosary is our weapon”, says the slogan of the group, and the appearance of the rosary is such that we can take that statement rather literally.
However, unusual devotional items are not where the problem lies. Let us take a close look at this phenomenon, layer by layer.
Layer I: The Female Catholic Church
When in 2016 the members of the local unit of the Men of God community told a journalist of the Gość Niedzielny [editor’s note: biggest Polish Catholic weekly] about themselves, they stressed that their group was formed in response to the existence of the “Female Catholic Church”. “Today the truth about what it means to be a man is hidden. (…) We are being told that a man should be gentle, even effeminate. From the media, we get a picture of a man — a pretty boy whose only desire is to shine in the spotlight.” The same effeminate image is, in their opinion, promoted by the Catholic Church. And the real man “doesn’t fit this picture”.
The same arguments appeared in an article from 2014, published by Deon.pl. It talks about the “domination of female spirituality”, the effeminate nature of Christianity (due to the dominant attitude of gentleness and lack of acceptance of aggression); about the fact that men have nothing to do in today’s Church and feel unnecessary.
I asked Jarosław Makowski, a publicist, philosopher and theologian how he sees this. The Catholic Church is an institution dominated by men. How can one talk about the domination of female spirituality when there are no women among the clergy?
“The Catholic Church is a male institution in terms of management, but most of those going to the Church are women. For men who are not clergymen, all that remains in the Church is submission to the priest, or possibly involvement in activities of servile nature. This is not attractive for many men, they feel that it deprives them of masculinity, strength, domination. What can you do in the Church? Serve. Help the poor and the sick, or perhaps take care of the daily functioning of the parish: do the laundry, wash the dishes, sweep the floor. From their perspective, it is all simply unmanly.”
Communities are supposed to make up for this deficiency; along with prayer, they are supposed to give men a sense of strength and agency. This is probably the rationale behind events involving, among other things, ascetism and taming one’s own body, such as the Extreme Way of the Cross, which consists in covering a distance of at least 40 kilometres at night, alone. “It must hurt to leave your comfort zone and tell God: I’m not here because I need you to do something for me, I’m here because I want to meet you”, write the organisers. Another idea, that had been cultivated for years, are the knightly communities, that are closed to women, such as the Knights of Columbus. The costumes, rituals, language, hierarchical structure, and even the magazine entitled “Armour” — all this refers to the knightly ethos in which a man appeared strong and invincible.
The Male Siege of Jasna Góra (held in September from 2017), in turn, refers to the historical victory of Poles during the Swedish Deluge (although it is a perverse association: after all, the Swedes who besieged Jasna Góra failed). Thus, it has both a religious and patriotic dimension; it is warlike, but also integrative, which is apparent in the answers to the most frequently asked questions, which are posted on the event website. On the one hand, the participants ask about the preparations for the assault, on the other hand, whether stewed cabbage will be provided. Contrary to its name, an assault is simply a common prayer and workshop, concerning various male roles in life. Women are not allowed.
Layer II: Army
On 4 September, in the Jasna Góra Monastery, the Warriors of Mary — a community led by Fr Dominik Chmielewski — began a new “formation year” and carried out an “act of entrustment to Mary”. The photos are impressive: the whole chapel is packed with men in black T-shirts, with the symbol of the community, the face of Mary and two swords (the statute of the movement says: “The sword is a symbol of the spiritual struggle against sin, Satan and our own male weaknesses, which today destroy marriage and family so badly”). “1,500 men, the leaders and members of the Warriors of Mary Movement have entrusted themselves to Mary”, Fr Dominik Chmielewski will later announce on Facebook. There is no place for women here either, which is also reflected by the address of their website: only4men.pl.
According to a post on the community’s website from 22 September, the movement already has 62 regional groups in Poland and Europe. Its most crucial goal is to “form young men”, and one of the elements of the formation path is the “Fitting of the Swords” which takes place once a year. The “warriors” buy real swords. According to the rules, they keep it in a visible, representative place in their home. It is meant to “constantly recall the words spoken during the Fitting of the Swords — the oath to the struggle to die and to live for the most important values: love of God and loyalty to wife and children”.
Warriors of Mary rely heavily on warlike rhetoric. The invitation for the June formation meeting urged them to “take part in the hardships and difficulties as a good soldier of Jesus Christ”, in mid-September they organised a “prayerful assault on Heaven”. Fr Chmielewski himself is sometimes described as a “true fighter, engaged for years in the eastern martial arts. The clergyman has controversial views, eg on the coronavirus pandemic. In August, a video appeared on YouTube where one can hear Fr Chmielewski claiming that “a pandemic is a pandemic of fear, not a real pandemic”, “some plainspoken doctors admit that they get huge money for specifying Covid-19 on the death certificate”, and the whole situation is “an instrument of Satan, who wants to destroy the Eucharist in the Catholic Church”. He simply came up with a bunch of conspiracy theories about Covid-19.
One of the duties of the Warrior of Mary (apart from prayer and a proper moral attitude) is to obey the leader of the movement. By not doing so or questioning the principles established by him, the members risk being removed from the community. Just as in the army.
The warlike rhetoric is a part of everyday life also in another group, which has recently gained some publicity: the Soldiers of Christ. It was founded a few years ago by Paweł Jaworski, a figure associated with extreme right-wing circles. His photos from 2017 with Robert Winnicki from the National Movement and with Robert Bąkiewicz from the Independence March Association can be seen on Facebook. There are also photographs from the Independence March (also 2017), with a banner saying: “Soldiers of Christ. If I fall on my knees, it is only before God”.
Why did Jaworski establish a Catholic community? As he explained in an October reportage of TVP [editor’s note: Poland’s public television]: “It was grace. I feel it as a grace. I just realised that I couldn’t do it all by myself.” The name of the movement is also almost supernatural. “It was God’s choice. I opened the Word of God and it said ‘soldiers’ right there. That was one hundred per cent certain for me. I was sure that that was our name,” he says in the reportage.
Jaworski also operates in the First Inspectorate of WiN Warszawa. As explained on the portal Nielomni.com, it is “a paramilitary organisation led and founded by well-deserved veterans”. The nature of this organisation is described in the report from the first meeting of the Inspectorate in January 2017: “Colonel Leszek Mroczkowski (…) said what participation in the Inspectorate will imply (…) The Colonel sees in young people, especially football fans, people who will replace him and his colleagues in the organisation. (…) We all act for one purpose — to defend our Homeland. For the time being, we are acting with words, we are forming the group, but at any time we must be ready to fight for the Republic. So help us God!”.
Layer III: War
If you put the Soldiers of Christ in a perspective, you might get the impression that Jaworski is indeed creating “Colonel’s successors”. Their aim is to fight — although, as Jaworski assures us — only in a spiritual sense. The fan page of the Soldiers of Christ, currently followed by 30 thousand users, speaks about it directly:
- “Every Christian is called to fight.”
- “The life of a Christian is a constant struggle — on many fronts and with all kinds of weapons.”
- “Heavenly Commando”.
- “The rosary is a weapon of spiritual struggle, an instrument of God’s great love for man’s life-and-death struggle that has been going on since the creation of the world!”
- “The rosary is the most manly weapon in the world.”
- “The rosary is a weapon to defeat demons and keep you away from sin.”
- “Be brave! God sends His best warriors to the most difficult battles!”
In one of the comments we can read: “Before us there were the Cursed Soldiers [editor’s note: anti-Soviet and anti-communist Polish resistance movements formed in the aftermath of World War II], today there are Soldiers of Christ, Warriors of Mary and the Army of God.” Indeed, in the pictures on Facebook you can see men wearing T-shirts and sweatshirts with the inscription “God’s Army”. Jaworski himself sometimes hangs out in such attire. But when the Centre for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behaviour wrote that this indicates their relationship with the American organisation of the same name, which is considered a terrorist organisation because of its use of anti-abortion violence, the Soldiers of Christ ridiculed this suggestion.
However, the possibility of their use of violence is not ruled out, especially after their actions two months ago, when several people from the movement stood in front of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Cross in Krakowskie Przedmieście, defending it from LGBT activists. According to the TVP report, this was done with the priest’s consent. Soldiers of Christ were asked to “not allow any intrusion”.
“But we are not aggressive at all. We are only trying to pray and give our testimony,” asserts one of the participants of the action in the October TVP reportage.
Soldiers of Christ often join the so-called Public Male Rosaries (practised by several communities and some parishes). This is not an ordinary prayer, but rather a show of strength. In the public place, men stand in equal ranks and pray on the rosary. Sometimes a march with the image of Our Lady is also part of the event. Looking at the photos and videos from these Rosaries, one might get the impression that prayer is only an addition, while the main goal is a demonstration.
“Their language is revealing,” Makowski believes. “In their discourse, everything is directed against someone or something. It does not go in the direction of spiritual development, but informs that the aim is to fight, of course against undefined ‘evil forces’. It is often additionally dressed in a patriotic or even nationalistic costume. These people are convinced that they are defending the nation against moral decay and the homeland against the enemy. For this, they need to be physically strong. Hence the encouragements for physical development that appear. In my opinion, it’s a “quasi-religious” formation, not a religious one,” says the theologian.
Layer IV: Ideology and politics
Soldiers of Christ, perhaps the strongest of all functioning male Catholic groups, combine religion with politics. It is revealed by the photos with politicians from Confederacy, from the Independence March, and also with politicians from the Law and Justice: Antoni Macierewicz and Beata Szydło. There is also a whole series of photographs with Andrzej Duda. In the autumn of 2019, Jaworski had personally handed over the famous rosary from a parachute cord and steel balls to the president in a church. Duda took the gift, looked carefully and was photographed with the donor.
Jaworski also runs his own programme called “In service of God and the Homeland” on the internet TV “wRealu24”, owned by Marcin Rola, who is known for his extreme right-wing views. In the programme, the leader of the Soldiers of Christ touches mainly on ideological issues. On 29 August, “an independence activist revealed facts” about “who finances LGBT”. On 8 August Marek Jurek [editor’s note: influential radical Catholic politician] argued that “the Istanbul Convention is a form of gender ideology!” and thus “We say a firm NO!”. And on 27 June, the programme revealed that “in Sweden, they deliberately kill people with Covid-19”. Interestingly, since the beginning of 2020, the leader of the Catholic community has talked to a priest only twice in his programme. But he managed to interview Zofia Klepacka, whom he called “the cursed soldier of our times” [editor’s note: a windsurfer known for homophobic rhetoric].
As you can see, the everyday war, as Jaworski understands it, is to a large extent a war with ideology; including the so-called open church, now promoted by Pope Francis. This is explicitly stated in the oath of the Soldiers of Christ: “I want to fight, so as not to succumb to the tendencies of the so-called open Church, which preaches false mercy, the need to come to terms with contemporary culture and to accept all kinds of ideology on the front line of the fight against the spirit of this world. I want to fight against the evil that has been taken for granted in my family. I want to fight against the false beliefs of my friends and acquaintances. I want to fight against the fact that something is considered normal .”
Soldiers of Christ (and a few women soldiers!) took this oath on 15 August 2020 during the official celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw, at the Sanctuary of St. John Paul II in Radzymin, during a mass. The oath was read by the clergyman, he also took the oath of Jaworski, hitting him with a sabre and putting a rosary from a parachute cord around his neck. When Jaworski turned his back, an inscription could be seen on his t-shirt: “God’s Hussars.”
“Such communities need the Church. First of all, it serves them by providing ritual, helps to symbolise and embed their activity in the religious space,” says Jarosław Makowski. “Secondly, it gives their activity a transcendental dimension. It becomes a kind of mission, almost a vocation, given straight from heaven. Thus, activists gain a supernatural dimension, acting as if by divine order. We are dealing with an ideology lined with religiousness, not with a truly religious organisation,” he argues.
A similar pattern is presented by activists from the extreme right-wing Independence March, who are friendly with the Soldiers of Christ. They are, admittedly, secular, but they also organise religious events, such as public Rosaries. For example, on 24 September, in Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw, on the festival of Mother Mary. The description of the event read: “The main intention is to glorify the Holy Trinity for the privileges granted to the Blessed Virgin Mary combined with a request to convert Muslims and to repel the invasion of Islam. We will also pray with the intention to reward the profanation and promotion of the sin of sodomy.”
On 17 October, the organisers of Independence March will organise National Rosary March. It is, as they say, “a great prayer that repays God and Mary the profanations and insults that have occurred in our homeland in recent months through activists guided by the neo-Marxist LGBT ideology”. And they stress: “Poland once again has a historical mission to go on, hence this call and the tradition of Polish knights who, with a sword in one hand and a rosary in the other, stood up for the Cross and for Christian civilisation”.
Layer V: Threats
Jarosław Makowski considers this kind of movements to be a threat, on many levels: “their actions ‘against moral decay’ are legitimised by the Catholic Church, and this can lead to the legitimisation of violence. Religion becomes a justification for war, for aggression. God, in turn, becomes a weapon, to attack those who hold different opinions. This is completely inconsistent with the teaching of the Church. Let us remember that John Paul II even apologised for the Crusades,” he emphasises. “At the same time, the fact that the Catholic Church is assisting such communities is repulsive for those believers who think that the Church is a place open to many people. In this way, the Church in Poland becomes a church of the radical right-wing, which takes over Catholicism. Some bishops see it this way. The situation is so absurd that many hierarchs, given the comparison with these new communities, start to be considered liberal and lose control over the radical movements,” he adds.
Makowski is not alone in his feelings. Catholic portals also write about Soldiers of Christ along similar lines. A few days ago, Deon.pl published an article by Magda Fijołek with a significant title: “God, protect us from the Soldiers of Christ”, and in Tygodnik Powszechny, Zuzanna Radzik called this group very directly: “rosary militia”.
On the fanpage “Soldiers of Christ” you can still buy “God’s Army” t-shirts and flyers jackets with the inscription “Soldiers of Christ. Special Forces of Michael the Archangel”. “The massive rosary” has sold out. It’s unavailable, though probably temporarily. As Jaworski revealed in the TVP reportage, the rosary made of steel balls and a parachute cord is hand-made by his 11-year-old godchild. Production is probably ongoing.