BBC and The New York Times: Who listened to Catholics who prayed at Poland's borders?

If you read up on the life and times of the Polish man who would become St. Pope John Paul II, its interesting to note that he learned so many languages during his life that scholars are not really sure which ones he spoke fluently.

Most lists will look something like this -- Polish, Slovak, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Ukrainian, English and Latin. It is my understanding that, in his childhood, he also knew so many Jewish children that he also spoke Yiddish.

What does this fact say about Poland? At the very least, it's symbolic of the fact that in the past Poland has been seized by more than its share of empires. If you live in a Polish border town, it helps to speak several languages. Again, think of St. John Paul II's life in the time of the Nazis and then Communism.

I bring this up because Poland is a land, and a predominately Catholic culture, with a strong sense of national identity. Yet it is also a land that fears -- with good reason -- being conquered once again.

So, why were legions of Polish Catholics standing on the land's borders the other day saying the rosary? Clearly, this is a religious question, yet one with political overtones. So how did the world's two most powerful newsrooms handle this? Here is the top of the New York Times report, which ran with this low-key headline: "Polish Catholics Gather at Border for Vast Rosary Prayer Event."

WARSAW, Poland -- Polish Catholics clutching rosary beads gathered at locations along the country’s 2,000-mile border on Saturday for a mass demonstration during which they prayed for salvation for Poland and the world.
Many participants described it as demonstration against what they see as the secularization of the country and the spread of Islam’s influence in Europe.
The event, “Rosary at the Borders,” was sponsored in part by several state-owned companies and was timed to coincide with the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. It also commemorated the 1571 naval Battle of Lepanto between Christian fighters, under orders from the Pope, and the Ottoman Empire. Organizers noted that in the battle, “the Catholic fleet defeated the much larger Muslim fleet, saving Europe from Islam.”

Once again I wonder: Does the Associated Press Stylebook actually state that rosaries are always "clutched"? Hey Catholic readers: What other verbs might be substituted for this cliche? Just asking.

Back to the story details. All of this drama symbolized, the Times reported, the fact that Poland is a nation "moving increasingly to the right." I would assume that this means the political right, with the focus on issues linked to immigration and Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality.

The bottom line: Quite a few Poles look at trends in France and Germany and don't like what they see. That's a judgment with quite a bit of history behind it, which is understandable in Poland (as I mentioned earlier). Another sentence of two of history would have been nice.

What impressed me about the Times report was that the foreign desk actually quoted several event organizers and the participants. Their remarks were, no surprise, both religious and rather political. For example:

Rev. Paweł Rytel-Andrianik, spokesman for the Polish Bishops’ Conference, said it was the second-largest prayer event in Europe after the 2016 World Youth Day, though it was too soon to provide exact numbers.
“During the prayer, I was at the Chopin airport in Warsaw, and there were so many people that they were pouring out of the chapel,” Father Rytel-Andrianik said. “This was an initiative started by lay people, which makes it even more extraordinary. Millions of people prayed the rosary together. This exceeded the boldest expectations of the organizers.”
More than 90 percent of Poland’s 38 million citizens are Roman Catholic.
Marek Jedraszewski, the archbishop of Krakow in southern Poland, said during his sermon on Saturday morning that people should pray for “Europe to remain Europe.”
“Let’s pray for other nations of Europe and the world to understand that we need to return to the Christian roots of European culture if we want Europe to remain Europe,” Archbishop Jedraszewski said.

If anything, the voices of the pro-Europe, often secular Polish left are underrepresented in this piece. It does end like this:

Krzysztof Luft, a former member of the country’s largest opposition party, the liberal Civic Platform, wrote on Twitter, “A ridicule of Christianity on a massive scale. They treat religion as a tool for maintaining backwardness in the Polish backwater.”

So the past is Polish and Catholic identity and the future is multiculturalism, broadly defined. Yes, that is the real debate and the Times piece pretty much says that. This is a story about a religious event, with political overtones.

What about the report offered by the BBC? Start with the headline: "Poland Catholics hold controversial prayer day on borders."

As GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc has said many times, "controversial" has to be one of the most overused words in modern journalism. If an event is controversial, then the factual details will show us that. So get on with it and avoid using this simplistic label. Alas, here is the overture:

Tens of thousands have taken part in a controversial prayer day in Poland.
Catholics were encouraged to go to designated points along the country's borders for a mass rosary prayer for the salvation of Poland and the world. Church leaders say the event is purely religious, but there are concerns it could be seen as endorsing the state's refusal to let in Muslim migrants.
The feast day marks the anniversary of a Christian victory over Ottoman Turks at the sea battle of Lepanto in 1571.

In other words, this is a political event that just happens to look like a religious event. The equation is turned around.

Still, Polish voices were featured in the report, even as the framework was shifted to stress political themes. For example:

Halina Kotarska, 65, said she was expressing thanks for the survival of her son in a car crash, but also praying for the survival of Christianity in Europe.
"Islam wants to destroy Europe," she said, quoted by the Associated Press. "They want to turn us away from Christianity."
Some priests and Church commentators said the event could be seen as support for the government's refusal to accept Muslim migrants, a policy backed by a majority of Poles.
Organisers said the prayer was not directed against anyone or anything. The border was chosen, they said, because it symbolised their desire to encompass the world with prayer.
Poland, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, refused to take part in an EU deal in 2015 to relocate refugees from frontline states Italy and Greece. The Polish position has put it at odds with the Vatican, with Pope Francis urging greater acceptance of migrants on a visit to Poland last year.

So what is missing from this news coverage of this event?

It will not surprise GetReligion readers that I think it would have been good to include one or two details from the text of the prayers used. Rosary prayers are quite complex and loaded with content.

In other words, is it relevant -- in a story of this kind -- to hear some of the "controversial" words that these "political" demonstrators were praying? In particular, what did the prayers say about the people of the world and the nation of Poland? What about the future? The needs of the poor and refugees?

Maybe it's just me, but I think the content of those prayers is part of the story.

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