East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

The Polish Light-Life Movement and the Roman Catholic Church

Pawel Zalecki

The Light-Life Movement (Swiatlo-Zycie), or Oases, emerged in the 1950s as one of the manifestations of religious revival in Poland. In the 1950s the active policy of the atheist Communist state aimed to eliminate religion from the public sphere. It attempted to confine religious life to the private sphere as part and parcel of its overall goal of gaining total control over the political, cultural, and religious domains. In spite of the new social and political system in post-war Poland and the secularization policy of the Communist authorities, the Catholic Church began to build up religious life. The Episcopate of Poland formerly consisted of 20 bishops compared to more than 100 today.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council met in the years 1962-1965. The Polish liturgy was reformed and the national language replaced Latin. The service became a dialogue between priest and parishioners. This religious revival resulted in new forms of religious associations and movements. One of them was the "Light-Life Movement" which developed fully in the 1980s. It emerged as an informal, spontaneous social group centered around Rev. Franciszek Blachnicki (1921-1987). From the 1950s on, the movement has continuously stressed its strong ties with the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.

From inception, the Light-Life Movement was meant to fulfill the following functions: 1) to transform the individual, spiritual life of its members as well as their immediate social milieu; and 2) to build a "new community" of "new people" who would create and share a "new culture" centered around the ideas of Jesus Christ. The Light-Life Movement did not have its own resources. The movement's communities, "Oases," which were organized by local priests, were allowed to use Roman Catholic Church buildings [and] money to organize religious retreats during vacations. People were recruited by means of private, informal contacts, outdoor evangelization, the church's catechization in schools, and the occasional participation of nonmembers in community activities.

The accompanying chart indicates estimated data on the number of permanent members according to the movement's official data.

Estimated Number of Permanent Members of the Oases Movement Between 1969 and 1992

1969 700
1970 1,000
1971 1,500
1972 3,500
1973 6,000
1974 9,500
1975 14,000
1976 20,000
1978 30,000
1979 30,000
1980 40,000
1981 45,000
1982 50,000
1983 53,000
1984 64,000
1985 70,000
1986 76,000
1987 77,000
1988 77,000
1992* 90,000-100,000

Sources: Central archives of Oases; J. Doktor, J. Kowalczewska, and J. Werbanowska, "Uczestnictwo w nowych ruchach religijnych a poczucie sensu zycia i poziomu niepokoju," Euhemer - Przeglad Religio-znawczy Nr. 4 (1991): 133-46.

*Author's estimate.

The Movement's Two Currents
The movement split into two currents in the second half of the 1980s: the "liturgical-biblical" current and the "charismatic-evangelizing-ecumenical" current. The "liturgical-biblical" current is dominant and can be roughly described as "traditional." Communities subscribing to it seem to focus on personal and communal self-improvement. When they engage in any activities aimed at the outside world, they make a special effort to avoid any social conflicts. Communities subscribing to the "charismatic" current willingly engage in activities aimed at the outside world, even if this results in conflicts. The practices of the charismatic current differ from practices within the Catholic Church. However, many of them, such as glossolalia, prophecy, and baptism in the Holy Spirit, are comparable to the everyday practices of many other Christian groups and movements. The final factor that helps distinguish between these two currents today is their attitude towards "self-sufficiency." The charismatic current engages in various activities that drive it to financial independence from the institutional church.

At the present time, in the liturgical-biblical current, we can observe only a small increase of new members, while many are leaving. The traditional current clearly exercises a much stronger pressure on self-improvement compared to the charismatic. Its members develop strong feelings of sinfulness and imperfection. Since total realization of accepted values is impossible, many people become frustrated and abandon the movement. People older than 25 also leave the movement because of a strong attachment to their work and/or family duties.

The inflow of new members to the charismatic current is significant. As a movement, it covers children, parents, university students, single adults, and whole families. Withdrawals of regular members are rare. Some members of the traditional current move their "significant participation" to the charismatic current. Reverse mobility does not take place.

Out of necessity, Light-Life had to function during the first three decades of its existence within the unfriendly, anti-religious political system. From the point of view of this system, the movement's activities were illegal. The movement was able to operate only due to the resources supplied by the institutional church. This situation gave the church a chance to control the movement. In its initial state of development, only very small tensions in the relations between the movement and the institutional church occurred. They had a rather local character: some parish priests did not like the independent and spontaneous activity of lay persons.

The Movement's Ambiguous Relationship to the Church
The systemic transformation in Poland created new opportunities for the emergence of new forms of public activities, including religious. The spontaneous aspect of the movement gained new opportunities for stronger expression. This gain in autonomy has not affected its symbolic and ideological dependence on the Roman Catholic Church, [which] strengthens its self-definition as a Roman Catholic social movement. The church hierarchy, however, is clearly split in its evaluation of its new activities. During several National Conferences of the Polish Episcopate, especially in 1994, the "problematic questions" of several charismatic communities of the Light-Life Movement were discussed and, at the beginning of 1995, a local bishop excluded three charismatic Light-Life communities from the movement.

The movement itself is also split. Some leaders of the charismatic current have considered the possibility of an official withdrawal to create independent structures. In the 1990s an increasing economic and structural autonomy of the charismatic current became significant. The gradual withdrawal of many charismatic communities from the Light-Life Movement is ongoing. The possibility of withdrawal from the Roman Catholic Church, however, is not being considered.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Pawel Zalecki, "Religious Revival in Poland. New Religious Movements and the Roman Catholic Church" in Pink, Purple, Green; Women's, Religious, Environmental and Gay/Lesbian Movements in Central Europe Today, edited by Helena Flam. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs/Columbia University Press, 2001.

Pawel Zalecki "The Polish Light-Life Movement and the Roman Catholic Church," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Winter 2003), 9-10.

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2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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