On the evening he was betrayed, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:5).
On Holy Thursday Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees, declaring them children of the same God. The root of this tradition can be found in the hospitality customs of ancient civilizations, especially where sandals were the main footwear. Many people watching Pope Francis washing the feet of refugees perceived this ritual as a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks.
While the Pope’s gesture brought tears to the eyes of the migrants, the reaction in Catholic Poland was the opposite of what the Pope intended. The Pontiff wanted to sharply contrast the gesture of fraternity with the gesture of war and of destruction committed in Brussels just three days before Holy Thursday.
The reactions of the Polish faithful? “The Pope (if you can call him that) desecrated the Holy Thursday, ” “Francis! Sorry, but you keep on losing the respect of the faithful,” “It’s a gesture of submission, weakness, and stupidity,” “I wonder whether he will be washing the feet of jihadists when they bomb Vatican,” “The Pope lost his marbles!”
Who are these commentators? Hooligans? Nationalists? PEGIDA members? Unfortunately, similar sentiments are expressed by some of the Polish clergy, often from the pulpit, and politicians. Conservative Catholic politicians have denounced the key issue of the Gospel, so near and dear to the heart of Pope Francis, of welcoming the stranger and loving thy neighbor. Instead, they accuse Muslim refugees of spreading diseases, being barbarian, murdering and raping European women, and wanting to introduce Sharia law in Europe. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, said Poles should be afraid of parasites and other diseases refugees and immigrants bring with them. Some journalists hoped that Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, would want to distance himself from the opinions expressed by Kaczyński, but sadly he only reinforced these fears.
Polish citizens share sentiments expressed by politicians. According to a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center in Warsaw, the majority of Poles opposed resettlement of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. After the attacks in Paris, two-third of Poles (64%) opposed resettlement of Muslim refugees. The same cannot be said about attitudes to Ukrainian refugees from areas of armed conflict. They have always enjoyed higher support than refugees from Africa and the Middle East. At present, three-fifths of Poles (60%) support giving asylum to refugees from Ukraine, while a third of respondents (33%) oppose this policy.
So what is at work here? On the one hand, Poles and the Polish government extol the virtues of adhering to the teachings of the Catholic Church, but on the other hand seem to be very selective in choosing Gospel messages to follow. It seems that a primordial ideal of national identity—ironically often equated with being a Catholic—trumps the card. Poles think that Muslim refugees would always be loyal to their countries of origin and could never be counted on defending Poland.
Poland is not a country for Catholics in the style of Francis. When the Pope visits Poland this summer, government representatives and politicians will shamelessly kiss the papal ring, promote papal masses , and maybe even pose for a selfie with the Pope, but when the Pontiff will call for building bridges, the Poles will continue to call for sealing borders.