The men are assembled along the left, the women line up along the right, and the very young children follow the proceedings from an anteroom, soundproofed behind a glass screen. The dress code is sombre — mostly black, occasionally grey. The women are obliged to cover their hair, though, judging by the sprinkling of Louis Vuitton and Hermes headscarves, there is no injunction against luxury. Silent and perfectly still, the congregation surrenders to the language of the ancient church: “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto”.
For the sermon, the priest switches from ecclesiastical Latin to everyday Polish. “You used to be so passionate about your faith and your national identity,” he says. “Now all that is gone. Why?” The reproach seems to be directed exclusively at the male members of the congregation. They lower their heads penitently.
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The mass was held at a small chapel belonging to the Society of Saint Pius X, an organisation of Catholic priests established by Marcel Lefebvre, a controversial French archbishop who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II, patron saint and supreme icon of modern Polish Catholicism. Performed in traditional Latin rather than Polish, the ceremony at Wawer contained deeply traditional elements that even the most conservative of Poland’s churchgoers might have found archaic. It was arranged at the behest of the Independence March Association, a Polish far-Right organisation that convenes an annual march on Independence Day, rallying tens of thousands of ultra-nationalists to declare their hostility to “cultural Marxism” while affirming their “patriotism” and “traditional” Polish values.
The head of the Independence March Association, Robert Bakiewicz, is the closest thing to a leader for Poland’s extra-parliamentary far-Right. At the mass in Wawer, he could pass for the doorman of an upmarket nightclub — burly physique, smart grey overcoat, military-grade haircut. Contemplating the altar, he is periodically interrupted by uniformed lieutenants equipped with wireless earpieces and armbands.
Bakiewicz is among the minority of Catholic traditionalists worldwide who prefer to attend mass in the original Latin rather than in their native languages. The traditionalists believe the mainstream Catholic way of worship has strayed from dogma and become too liberal. As they see it, the Latin, or Tridentine, mass still preserves the splendour and sanctity of the pre-modern Church.
On social media, the Latin mass is associated with the “trad Caths” — Anglophone internet-speak for an increasingly visible new generation of online Catholics. The trad Caths of Instagram and TikTok share content celebrating the values and aesthetics of traditional Catholicism, in tones that veer between the playful and the unabashedly sincere. Bakiewicz has joined in the fun, but his trad Cath identity is also a political statement. It signifies a rejection of the Polish clerical establishment and a recalibration of the far-Right’s relationship with Church and state. It also underlines his own credentials. To lead the far-Right, you must be more nationalist than the nationalists, and more Catholic than the Catholics. And there is no better way of demonstrating that in today’s Poland than by being seen at Latin mass.
Poland’s nationalists have traditionally been close allies of its Church leaders. Through Nazi occupation and Soviet dominance, they served as joint custodians of national identity, active in the resistance and in the preservation of Polish culture. Over the last decade however, the clergy has been hit by a series of scandals that have weakened its standing, leaving it looking like the junior partner in its alliance with the Right-wing government. Media reports have exposed the profligacy of Polish bishops, who spent donations to the Church on expensive cars, real estate and lavish renovation schemes. More damagingly, senior clergy in Poland have been implicated in committing and covering up child abuse.
The scandals have prompted accusations that the clerical establishment has been behaving like an unaccountable elite, corrupted by power and privilege. Indeed, the far-Right’s criticism of Church leaders has a distinctly populist tone. “I will send my men to protect churches,” Bakiewicz told me in October 2020, as an effective ban on abortions ignited anti-clerical protests across Poland. “But I will never send them to protect the palaces of bishops.”
Matters have not been helped by the current Pope. Hailed as a reformist by liberals, Pope Francis has irked conservatives in Poland and beyond, prompting many to question his judgement. Traditionalists have been particularly troubled by the Pope’s decision to restrict access to the Latin mass, reversing efforts by his predecessor, Pope Benedict, to restore some legitimacy to the ancient rite. Where the era of Pope John Paul II marked the consolidation of the relationship between Poland’s nationalists and clergy, the era of Pope Francis coincides with its weakening. “It’s not like we disobey the Pope, the hierarchs,” Bakiewicz said. “But one cannot ever accept others preaching a false gospel, even if it is — to quote Saint Paul — an angel descended from heaven.”
In the battle with liberal values, the far-Right in Poland is broadly aligned with the government. Led by the national-conservative Law and Justice party, the government picks fights with Brussels, intimidates independent judges and journalists, demonises the campaign for LGBT rights, more or less prohibits abortions, and persecutes refugees and migrants unless they happen to be Ukrainian. Poland’s far-Right movement supports these policies on the streets, and some of its biggest players, such as Bakiewicz, are in turn supported financially by the government. Investigative journalists in Poland have revealed that the government has paid more than €1 million in public subsidies to organisations linked to Bakiewicz.
According to Mikolaj Czesnik, a political scientist and professor at Warsaw’s SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, the government uses far-Right figures such as Bakiewicz to fly a kite for its most hardline policies. “You do not need an army to do that — a few people on the streets of Warsaw is enough,” he said. “The nationalists openly hate Brussels, the people hear that, and this allows the PM to come out and say that he is taking a tough stance against the European Commission because he values the Polish people over some foreign, cosmopolitan greater good.”
Bakiewicz began his political career as a foot soldier in the ONR, the largest and oldest formation within Poland’s far-Right eco-system. The ONR — its initials stand for National Radical Camp — claims to be the ideological heir to an organisation of the same name whose cadres hounded Poland’s Jews and leftists in the run-up to World War Two. Its present-day membership is known for its Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and hostility to LGBT rights, as well as its belief in an ethnically pure Poland. A recent ruling by Poland’s supreme court decreed that the ONR could reasonably be described as “fascist”, although the court stopped short of endorsing that description. The movement rejects the label — fascism is technically outlawed in Poland — even if some of its members have been pictured marching in brown shirts and performing Roman salutes.
Bakiewicz became known at the ONR for his rousing speeches and all-round tough guy image — qualities that, according to his supporters, have helped shake the far-Right out of its anomie and restore its sense of purpose. He was born in 1976 in Pruszkow, a satellite town of Warsaw that acquired a reputation for gangland violence in the post-communist transition. As a young man, he ran a small construction company, filing for bankruptcy in 2011, around the same time as he became active in the ONR. Media outlets also reported that he had been granted a divorce at around this time, with his financial problems cited as a contributory factor. Bakiewicz has refused to speak to the press about this period in his life.
He agreed to our interview on condition that we would only discuss matters of faith. Questions about his financial history were strictly off-limits, and nor was I able to ask him about a 2017 interview in which he used a slur for gay people and referred to homosexuality as an illness threatening the traditional family.
Our meeting took place in Bakiewicz’s office, in a tower block in Warsaw’s genteel Zoliborz district. I waited in a hallway where religious icons hung on the wall. A stack of newspapers beside the chair contained a range of Left and Right-wing publications, many with handwritten comments scribbled on the front-page stories. Bakiewicz tends to avoid speaking to established media outlets, opting to get his message across via his YouTube channel. I began the interview by asking about his enthusiasm for the Latin mass. He responded that the modern mass, replacing the Latin version, undermined the Church’s claim to universality — the claim, in other words, that its teachings applied equally to everyone. “The Church cannot suddenly start changing what it used to preach,” he said, because universality also meant that the institution “needs to be understood in the same way”.
Almost all churches in Poland conduct the mass in the Polish language, a legacy of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), which resulted in sweeping liberalising reforms. Importantly, priests were permitted to celebrate mass in the native language of the congregation rather than Latin. Deeply conservative factions within the Church, however, rejected the changes. Some of these factions, including Lefebvre’s Society of Saint Pius X, were eventually cast out by the Vatican. Bakiewicz embraced the Lefebvre movement three years ago, after a public spat with Church leaders in Warsaw who had refused to host a Latin mass for his followers.
In the interview at his office, Bakiewicz heaped scorn on the clerical establishment. He accused it of taking a passive stance during the protests against the abortion law in 2020, thereby neglecting a fundamental duty to stand up for the faith. He also criticised the clergy over its response to the arrival in Poland of more than three million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia. Ukrainians now account for nearly 8% of Poland’s population, marking a dramatic shift for a country characterised since World War Two by the absence of any sizeable minorities.
The homogeneity of contemporary Polish identity is typically upheld by the far-Right as a virtue. Toward the Ukrainians however, allies in the confrontation with the historic Russian enemy, there is no overt hostility. “These people came to us from a war-torn country,” Bakiewicz said, striking a paternalistic note. “It’s not the time to think about trivial, materialistic things.” But the Polish clergy, in his view, was once again at fault — it had missed an opportunity to bring the Ukrainians, most of whom follow a branch of the Eastern Orthodox church, within the fold. “I am disappointed that the Polish Church is not fighting for these souls,” Bakiewicz said.
The proposed mass conversion of a displaced people may sound like anachronistic fantasy, but it encapsulates a particular view of faith and nation on the far-Right. Some refugees are welcome, in this view, if they can be assimilated into the faith, reinforcing rather than altering it. According to the traditionalists, it is the willingness of the Church to be altered, to change with the times, that lies at the heart of its current malaise. Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has softened its rhetoric towards LGBT minorities, condemned Europe’s policy towards migrants, and sought to find common ground with the leaders of other faiths. “If the Pope suggests that all religions are equal,” Bakiewicz said, “it means that the Catholic martyrs, those who were put to death because they refused to convert, would have died in vain.”
Despite their vocal objections to the current Pope, the traditionalists maintain that they have not crossed the line into outright defiance of papal authority – a move that might call their identity as Catholics into question. One of Bakiewicz’s ideological soulmates in Polish politics, Robert Winnicki, threads the needle between criticism and defiance of the Pope by painting a bleak picture of the Church in peril. “The ship is sinking and the lifeboats are being lowered,” he said. “The Latin mass movement is one of those lifeboats. It will not operate against the Vatican, but in spite of it.”
This story was produced as part of the Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Editing by Neil Arun.