In the native country of late Pope John Paul II the cult of his person has acquired forms which stretch far beyond respect for a religious authority. If we were to look for an idea or a symbol which unite most Poles, I am convinced that it would be the image of John Paul II.
Poland is not a happy country. In the 18th century it had lost its independence, and was divided between Russia, Austria and Germany. Even before Partitions it was dramatically mismanaged, and for a long period it was treated by other countries as a no man's land.
Earlier, just after the Reformation, Poland was one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. In the beginning of the 17th century Catholic reaction started. The Church and the noble class stopped any spread of education among the peasants and other „common" people. Towns didn't develop and many of them slowly died out. The Jesuit order acquired a monopoly on schools, which resulted in schooling being changed into religious indoctrination and teaching of prejudice. Almost all social mobility was blocked and the middle class didn't develop.
One hundred years later the Polish State practically collapsed. It drifted aimlessly for half a century and was then partitioned. Two of Poland's occupying powers were of different religious denomination. Germany was Protestant and Russia Orthodox. Not surprisingly Catholicism was often equated with Polishness.
Poland lost its independence for more than 130 years. Then after a short break as a sovereign nation, it became dependent again after World War II, this time from communist Russia. Communism was a semi-theocracy with loyalty as the highest virtue. There was no freedom of speech or assembly, its atheism was based on ideology rather than on reason. The hope to catch-up with better developed countries was short lived and the dream of independence grew stronger with every year. Religion and the Church were once again important as a symbol of national identity.
When in 1978 the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła became the first non-Italian pope in 400 years everybody, even nonbelievers, looked on him as a leader and a symbol of resistance. Nobody expected that the collapse of communism would lead from semi-theocracy to almost real theocracy. Party apparatchiks disappeared and their place was immediately taken by men in black frocks. The Church became not only a strong political factor but one of the most important agents in education, media and other social areas.
Any opposition against this new theocracy is very weak. Rationalist.pl is the biggest website offering a place for free and independent discussion.