A Warsaw village parish Sunday Mass with just one attendee was typical of the situation in churches around Poland this weekend as the coronavirus threat continues to bite there and around the world.

– Priest: “No one can recall a similar situation”

“I’ll be honest, I’m young but neither I nor the older folks I’ve talked to can recall a similar situation during the last few decades”, Cezary Szadujkis, parish priest of the village of Dluga Koscielna – 20 kilometres to Warsaw’s east – told the AFP.

Szadujkis was referring to the unprecedented situation in his church this Sunday, when instead of the usual 350 people who turn up for Mass he had just one.

That lone attendee at the Dluga Koscielna parish Eucharist yesterday was a woman who had asked for Mass for a special intention, and who received Communion directly on the tongue, in defiance of the advice of both the Polish Bishops and the country’s health authorities.

To date the COVID-19 disease has claimed 119 victims in Poland, with three of those infections resulting in deaths.

But Szadujkis said he was looking out for parishioners’ well-being.

“We’ve been keeping a record of those who enter the church, including their phone numbers, so that we can contact them if necessary”, the priest said.

– “Only a tenth of the usual number of parishioners are here today”

In another Mass Sunday in the Polish capital, at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, attendance was down from the usual 550 or thereabouts to just 38.

At the door of the church, too, another novelty was that ushers were handing numbered tickets, to guarantee the Eucharist would not exceed the 50-person limit on public gatherings imposed by the government to try and halt the spread of coronavirus.

“Our parishioners are obedient. Only a tenth of the usual number are here today”, priest Krzysztof Ukleja told the AFP.

– Polish Bishops walk back order to step up number of public Masses

In praising his parishioners’ obedience, Ukleja was referring to their following of instructions not only of the public health authorities but also of those of the Polish Bishops, who last week encouraged the faithful to take advantage of a special dispensation for Sunday Mass, meaning it would not be a sin if they were to bypass physical attendance at services.

That dispensation represented a certain walking-back of instructions given earlier last week by Polish Bishops’ President Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, who in response to the health authorities’ indications that there should be no large gatherings of people during the coronavirus outbreak asked priests “to increase – as far as possible – the number of Sunday Masses in churches so that a number of believers can attend the liturgy at once”.

After backpedalling on their insistence that the faithful attend Sunday Mass, however, the Polish Bishops were still insisting that “just as hospitals treat illnesses of the body, so churches treat illnesses of the spirit, so it is unthinkable that we do not pray in our churches”.

“We encourage all the faithful to visit the churches outside the liturgy for fervent personal prayer”, a note from the Polish Bishops’ Conference read, adding that it recommended that priests keep churches open all day.

– New poll shows only 5.5% of Poles “strongly committed” to faith

The fact that Poland’s Catholic churches were largely empty this weekend represents a dramatic blow to the country’s proud Catholic heritage, which not even four decades of communist rule was able to rattle to such an extent as the coronavirus threat.

The empty parishes Sunday in the country also came after a poll last week revealed that most Poles are still religious but few consider themselves “strongly committed” to their faith.

Around 60% of Poles display “religious commitment”, according to new data published the government agency Statistics Poland (GUS).

But just 5.5% of the country’s citizens are “strongly committed” to their religion, while 23% are “moderately committed” and 33% “.weakly committed”, the GUS numbers confirmed.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.