Reflections on the Meaning of the Joint Message to the Polish and Russian Nations of 17 August 2012 from the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church

01. Oct 2013

Dr Sławomir Dębski –PhD (Hist.) is Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, established by the Act of Polish Parliament in March 2011. Dr Dębski has been a member of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters since 2008. In the years 2007–2010 he was a Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and the head of PISM’s Research Office in the years 2002-2007. He was an editor-in-chief of the Russian language quarterly “Evropa” as well as the bi-monthly “Polish Diplomatic Review”. He is the author of many books and academic articles as well as several collections of documents of polish foreign policy and history of diplomacy.

Author: Michał Koziczyński, URL:ózef_Michalik_Royal_Castle_in_Warsaw_2012.jpg?uselang=de

The Joint Message of the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church, calling on both nations to look at each other in the spirit of Christian love and to overcome the barriers erected by the memory of suffering and wrongs, became a document of historical importance the moment it was signed on the 17 August 2012 at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Usually, the role of such events in shaping the countries' relations with each other can only be evaluated with the passage of time. However, it is already evident that a new phase has begun in the long process of Polish-Russian reconciliation, because regardless of how that process will continue to unfold, in future it will be difficult to avoid references to this document.

The Significance of the Joint Message

When reflecting on the significance of the Joint Message of the Polish Episcopate and the Russian Orthodox Church,[1] one can hardly forgo a reference to a historical analogy. The Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to their German Brothers[2] of 18 November 1965 became part not only of the history of Polish-German relations, but also of a European heritage. "In the Christian, of course, but also very human spirit, we extend our hands to you", wrote the Polish bishops to their German counterparts, "who are sitting here on the benches of the Council, which is coming to an end, and we grant you forgiveness and ask for it."[3] The Pastoral Letter prompted attacks on the Catholic Church in Poland by the communist authorities and a sizable group of the faithful, who remembered German atrocities in occupied Poland. Many of them were "ready to forgive", seeking in this way to be true to the injunction of Christian morality, but they were unable to accept the logic of the "request for forgiveness".[4] Defending the idea of dialogue, Bolesław Kominek, the archbishop of Wrocław and one of the main authors of the Pastoral Letter, emphasized that it was the opposite of a "war of words", which "is an expression of the evil in man - it prepares the ground for war." Thus "man [should not] help to kindle fire in hearths that sow flames of discord, but should try to contain them and put them out. They in no way serve either peace or the building of a bridge between nations." The archbishop also warned those who embark on the rocky road of dialogue against the temptation to wage a war of words against those who oppose dialogue: "There are still many people, on both sides, for whom any kind of dialogue will seem like treachery." Therefore, what is needed is "goodwill [...] and strong commitment, with no hidden agendas, neither to abuse dialogue, nor take advantage of the partner through dialogue."[5]

For the authors of the Pastoral Letter, dialogue was never limited to mere communication. It represented a certain stance, deriving from the teachings of Christ. All subsequent gestures by politicians that we now tend to associate with the process of Polish-German reconciliation emerged from the context of the Pastoral Letter and the stance they took at that time. The same stance was also taken by Willy Brandt when he kneeled before the Ghetto Memorial in Warsaw, by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki when they gave each other the sign of peace at a mass in Krzyżowa, and by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder when he paid homage to the city and its inhabitants on the sixtieth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

Despite the controversy sparked by the initiative towards reconciliation with the Germans, as early as the 1960s the Polish Episcopate believed that the gesture of a hand held out in reconciliation should be matched by a similar one in the future, but this time towards the East, towards Russians. Yet in the mid-1960s there was no one in the Soviet Union to whom the Polish Episcopate could have addressed a Pastoral Letter to the East.

In Dialogue with History or in spite of History?

Many may find it strange, but the problem of Polish-Russian reconciliation was and continues to be a much more difficult matter than the issue of Polish-German understanding. One of the main reasons for this is that the Germans lost the Second World War and bore responsibility for waging it and committing innumerable atrocities over the course of the war, the gravest one being the crime of the Holocaust. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, while it began the war shoulder to shoulder with the Third Reich, finished it in the victors' camp. It prevented Poland from regaining its sovereignty and turned the Polish state into its vassal. Thus, although Poles fought the Third Reich for longer than any other European nation and although they were in the victors' camp in 1945, they did not regain their freedom. During the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, in the presence of the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk summarized the Polish stance in the following words: "No one in Poland is planning to forget how much blood was left here by Soviet soldiers as they liberated Poland. Our bitter experiences after 1945 do not change that fact. As the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai has said, 'Soviet soldiers liberated our lands, but they could not give us freedom because they themselves did not have it.'"[6] The "brotherly friendship" decreed afterwards by the communist authorities of both countries was only one element of the system of dependencies that tied the People's Republic of Poland to the Soviet Union.

For a gesture of reconciliation to be authentic, it has to be made by the free, in the name of the free. It also has to be based on historical truth, which was difficult to find in Soviet-controlled Poland. The institutional suppression of the truth about the Katyń crime, illustrates this clearly. The greater level of difficulty faced by the Polish-Russian dialogue is also due to differences in the cultures and traditions of the two neighbours. Germany has a much longer history of being a state of law and a democracy, which certainly greatly facilitated the building of mutual trust. The lack of such traditions in Russia reinforces the lack of trust that exists between Poland and Russia.  

But the Polish-Russian dialogue is also complicated by the legacy of Polish-Russian history. Juliusz Mieroszewski, a journalist at the Paris-based magazine Culture and one of the intellectual precursors of the Polish-German and Polish-Russian reconciliation, was thinking of an entire complex of events when he wrote in 1966 that:
"the Polish-Russian reconciliation is something immeasurably more complex and difficult than the settling of Polish-German relations. A new book about Katyń is published every year by Poles abroad. No one writes about Auschwitz. Poles will forgive Germans for what they have done in Auschwitz more easily than they will forgive Russians for what they have done in Katyń. These are imponderables not subject to logical analysis [...]. Poland is in fact the key to Russia and Russia's key to Europe, because without Poland they will not organize a lasting security system."[7]

A year later, Mieroszewski elaborated on his argument:
"The Polish-Russian problem is not a mystical, but a political one. For the problem to be resolved on the political level, it has to be first brought out into the daylight from the thicket of emotions, uncontrolled reactions as well as deep-seated and humiliating hatred. Eternal mutual animosity between Poland and Russia is not in the Polish interest. If the relations between future Poland and future Russia were to be straightened out properly and justly, it would strengthen Poland immeasurably."[8]

When Poland regained independence in 1989, the political stance of Culture, shaped to a large degree by the writings of Juliusz Mieroszewski, became a guide for Polish political elites in the process of developing and leading foreign policy and building relations with neighbours in Eastern Europe through dialogue and understanding.

As early as 1989 Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, in his first exposé in parliament, emphasized the need for a "social ratification" of new relations with Russia. He believed this was a necessary condition for opening "the path to reconciliation [...], which [would] decisively end the bad past experiences and [could] have a far-reaching historical effect."[9] Mieroszewski's recommendation could only be followed once the Polish state was independent. In 2012 Mieroszewski's words appeared in the explanatory memorandum of the government bill calling for the creation of a Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding - an institution founded by the Polish state to carry out and support undertakings designed to further dialogue and understanding between Poles and Russians. 

The creation of the Center of Dialogue and Understanding that support institutional efforts towards reconciliation in Poland and Russia, the resumption in 2008 of the work of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters, led by the former Polish minister of foreign affairs Professor Adam Daniel Rotfeld and Anatoly Torkunov, and finally, the spontaneous kind reactions of Russian citizens towards Poland and Poles after the plane crash in Smoleńsk on 10 April 2012, in which the Polish President Lech Kaczyński and many other representatives of the Polish elite died a tragic death - all of these elements constitute the context for the Joint Message of the Catholic Church in Poland and the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Building the Road to Reconciliation

The talks between representatives of both Church hierarchies were initiated in 2012, although events of symbolical importance had taken place earlier. In the Joint Message to the faithful of the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church, the hierarchs of both Churches called on the two nations to follow the path to reconciliation:
"In the spirit of responsibility for the present and the future of our churches and nations and guided by pastoral care, on behalf of the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church, we address the word of reconciliation to the faithful of our Churches, our nations and all people of goodwill. [...] We appeal to our people to ask forgiveness for harms, injustices and any wrong done to each another. We are convinced that this is the first and most important step to rebuilding mutual trust, without which there is neither permanent human community nor full reconciliation. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, of course. [...] But to forgive is to give up revenge and hate, participate in building harmony and brotherhood among people, our nations and countries, which is the basis for a peaceful future."[10]

Never before had both Churches addressed their faithful jointly on any matter. The negotiations on the Message's content went on for almost three years. Surely, there could have been an easier solution, for example, a consensus based on two separate messages from each of the two Churches. The level of difficulty was therefore immeasurably higher than in the case of the Pastoral Letter, which was a unilateral document. In fact, it never elicited a proper response from the German Catholic bishops. The first joint document addressed to Catholics in Poland and Germany by Polish and German Episcopates was not written until 1995, almost 30 years after the Pastoral Letter. As Andrzej Grajewski, deputy editor of the Catholic weekly Gosc Niedzielny, wrote, "The talks were not easy; both sides had different expectations of the joint document."[11] The authors of the Message wrote that:
"The Polish and Russian Nations are linked by the experience of the Second World War and the period of repression caused by totalitarian regimes [...]. Events of our common, often difficult and tragic history, sometimes raise grievances and accusations that do not allow old wounds to heal. [...]. We believe that lasting reconciliation as a foundation for a peaceful future can only be achieved on the basis of the full truth about our common past."[12]

Thus, the authors of the Message decided against drawing up a catalogue of wrongs done to each other, pointing instead to the faults of each nation that should be rectified. It would have been very difficult to draw up such a catalogue and the result would inevitably have been an approximation. Finally, the task of condensing into several paragraphs a long history of being neighbours, covering endless rivalries and imperial Russia's attempts to destroy the Poles, would have been insurmountable. The theme of the Message and the motivation for writing it was the desire for reconciliation and forgiveness:
"[The] path to [...] renewal is a fraternal dialogue. It is to help [improve] mutual recognition and [rebuild] mutual trust and thus lead to reconciliation. Reconciliation also requires the willingness to forgive the wrongs and injustices suffered. We are thus obliged by a prayer: Our Father [...] forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass [against us]."[13]

These words mirror the phrase used in the Pastoral Letter: "We forgive and ask for forgiveness." The quotation demonstrates that the Message is above all a religious document, appealing to Christian values: love of one's neighbour and forgiveness.

In comments on the document, questions were raised as to its intentions.[14] It was suspected that the Message was politically motivated. Professor Bohdan Cywiński, a prominent Catholic journalist, historian, and expert on religious problems in Eastern Europe wrote:
"The fundamental, evangelical meaning of a step towards reconciliation is a harbinger of overcoming the obstacles that have been placed in our way by an evil history and will make it possible for us to avoid the traps set by politicians to this day. What for believers is the beginning of a road to reconciliation, is for a politician a current statement with a certain meaning for use in propaganda, which can be immediately used on the information markets of Russia, Poland and - probably the most important politically speaking - the forum of international opinion. The spiritual message of the document and the perspective of a long process of working towards achieving religious goals are not grasped by today's politicians and the media, which they control. Tomorrow there will be other news, and at the Royal Castle in Warsaw very different diplomats will be signing very different papers."

Cywiński voiced reservations regarding the political context of the Message. He was worried that it had been inspired by political motivations:
"Who was it - a bishop or a politician - that was the originator and who was the executor or merely a participant in the whole event? I do not know. [...] The message was signed without any ecumenical religious event, without any solemn joint prayer, not in a church or a neutral place open to the public, but at the Royal Castle in a manner typical of diplomatic acts. This emphasized the secular and political character of the event."[15]

Suspicions of a political motivation were common in Poland.[16] As usual, however, they led to gross over-simplifications. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church made efforts to evangelize and rebuild ecclesiastical structures across the entire territory of the former USSR. The state and its apparatus were, of course, natural partners in this process. After all, Church property had belonged to the communist state and had been inherited by the new state that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Thus, the Orthodox Church, acting in its own interest and in the interest of its faithful, interacted with state authorities. It is highly unlikely that instruments, relations and connections between representatives of the Church and the state apparatus that originated in the past did not play a role in the shaping of these interactions. In Russia, the process led to an alliance between church and state, based on an exchange of services. The state helped the Orthodox Church to rebuild itself and regain its monopolistic position in Russia, while the Church legitimized the new government and supported it in its attempts to stop the disintegration of the former empire by strengthening Russian influence. Because of such ties, one can hardly assume that the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church to issue a Joint Message with the Catholic Church in Poland did not take the stance of the Russian authorities into account. However, Andrzej Grajewski rightly points out that relations between church and state in Russia are much more complex than it is commonly believed, and the view of the patriarchate as an instrument of the Russian state's politics is a false simplification:
"It is also a mistaken belief that the patriarch is a passive instrument in the hands of President Putin. When two years ago [in 2010], the Kremlin pressed the Moscow Patriarchate to include in its jurisdiction the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, sanctioning in this way the political consequences of Russia's victory over Georgia, Kirill not only refused, emphasizing that the territory remained within the Georgian Orthodox Church, but also made meaningful gestures of friendship towards the Georgians."[17]

Thus, the Message cannot be reduced to politics.

On the other hand, the Orthodox Church was following its own interests, creating a common platform founded on shared Christian values at a time when both Churches face challenges in a world that is becoming more liberal and secular. Thanks to the Message, the Orthodox Church could demonstrate to its faithful that it is not alone in defending Christian values and that it is able to form a broad ecumenical coalition.

The Message is a document written with a view to the future. The fact that its authors decided to put aside a catalogue of wrongs done on both sides, urging both nations towards reconciliation in the name of common Christian values and calling for the joint defence of these values, unmistakeably reveals the fundamental intention of the document. We read in the Message that:

"today, our nations [are facing] new challenges. Under the pretext of preserving the principle of secularism or the defence of freedom [...], the basic moral principles based on the Ten Commandments are being questioned. [...]. We invite everyone to respect the inalienable dignity of every human being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). For the sake of the future of our nations we express our [belief in] respecting and defending the life of every human being from conception to natural death. We believe that not only terrorism and armed conflict, but also abortion and euthanasia are grave sins against life and the disgrace of modern civilization."[18]

Towards an Alliance of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches

The efforts to form an alliance against the "attempts to exclude the Church from public life" suggest yet another level of interpretation for the document and perhaps also a less obvious agenda. It is a level that goes beyond the context of Polish-Russian relations. It is clear that the Polish Episcopate is not the partner the Moscow Patriarchate is seeking to defend Christian values and positions threatened by proponents of a cultural change that entails the removal of Christian norms, traditions and influences from the public sphere. The Polish Episcopate was the initial audience of the Message of the Russian Orthodox Church, but it was not its addressee, because the Message can actually be read as a proposal of cooperation with the entire Catholic Church. So in fact, the addressee of this signal was also the Pope and the Holy See. Due to the complicated history of relations between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches and the fact that, traditionally, the Patriarch of Constantinople has had precedence in dealings with Rome in the name of the Orthodox Church, it was convenient to formulate the Message as a joint message from the Churches of Poland and Russia. In any case, the Message also marks a change in the logic of relations between the two Churches, which for centuries had been determined by the tradition of the Great Eastern Schism. It confirms the turn away from the logic of competition and rivalry and heralds an intensification of cooperation between the two Churches. Therefore, from the very beginning, the message of the document went beyond the relations between its nominal authors and addressees.

The signal was noted by the Holy See. On 7 January 2013, at a meeting with the diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the Message, claiming that it was of universal value and constituted an example of working towards peace in the world:
"Moreover, in an ever more open world, building peace through dialogue is no longer a choice but a necessity! From this perspective, the joint declaration between the President of the Bishops' Conference of Poland and the Patriarch of Moscow, signed last August, is a strong signal given by believers for the improvement of relations between the Russian and Polish peoples."[19]

The Pope's statement can be read as a positive response to the Russian Orthodox Church's invitation to cooperate more closely. Irrespective of the change in the See of St. Peter that took place at the beginning of 2013, one can risk the hypothesis that if the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia ever meet, the Message will be considered an important factor in the process leading up to that encounter. And any future cooperation between the two Churches, even if it is begun for tactical reasons, can play a significant role in renewing the unity between the Roman and Eastern Churches, which was broken after 1054 and - in most cases - never restored.

There is also hope that the dialogue between the Polish Episcopate and the Russian Orthodox Church will help to defuse the tension between nations that are tied by tragic historical experiences and at the same time, in search of paths of dialogue and reconciliation. 

By engaging in a dialogue with the Catholic Church in Poland, the Russian Orthodox Church took a stance in the ongoing dispute in Russia about the shape and direction of Russian foreign policy and the way it forms Russia's relations with its neighbours. It set an example for engaging a dialogue while respecting the position of the other side. In deciding to compose a Joint Message addressed to Poles and Russians, the signatories to that document rejected the categories of primitive realism that suggest to some that reconciliation between Poles and Russians is impossible and inadvisable and that the rules of a zero-sum game apply in the temporal world: "We believe that the Risen Christ is the hope not only for our churches and nations, but also for Europe and the world. May He make [it] through His grace that every Pole in each Russian and every Russian in each Pole [can] see a friend and brother."[20] In these words the Moscow Patriarchate and the Polish Episcopate advocated respect for Christian values in European politics and in the foreign policies of Poland and Russia. The Message has certainly had an important impact on the Russian debate.

Translated by Aleksandra Michalska


  1. Hereafter referred to as the Message.
  2. Hereafter referred to as the Pastoral Letter.
  3. Orędzie biskupów polskich do ich niemieckich braci w Chrystusowym urzędzie pasterskim, 18 November 1965, Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, retrieved 19 September 2013, URL:
  4. Adam Michnik, Naganiacze i nieobywatelskie postępki, Gazeta Wyborcza (24 September 2005).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Prime minister Donald Tusk's speech at Westerplatte during the international commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, URL:,76842,6987620,Przemowienie_prezydenta_na_Westerplatte.html link nicht mehr abrufbar!!!
  7. Juliusz Mieroszewski, Tysiąc lat i co dalej?, in Polityczne neurozy, Paris: 1967, pp. 64-65.
  8. Juliusz Mieroszewski, Nota od autora, in ibid., p. 8.
  9. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki's statement on the proposed members and agenda of the cabinet at the seventh session of parliament, 12 September 1989. See Ryszard Stemplowski, Wprowadzenie do analizy polityki zagranicznej, vol. 2, Warszawa: 2007.
  10. Wspólne przesłanie do narodów Polski i Rosji Zwierzchnika Rosyjskiego Prawosławnego Patriarchy Moskiewskiego i Całej Rusi Cyryla i Przewodniczącego Konferencji Episkopatu Polski Arcybiskupa Józefa Michalika Metropolity Przemyskiego, Warszawa, 17 August 2012, 9-11, for English translation, see Maria Nalewajko, The Joint Message to the Polish and Russian nations, (22 August 2012), retrieved 19 September 2013, URL:[tt_news]=17309&cHash=2192063ccaf9b967eb5c546d2b91bc08.
  11. Andrzej Grajewski, Polsk-Rosja: Próba dialogu, Dialog. Magazyn polsko-niemiecki 55, no. 101 (2012): 55
  12. Wspólne przesłanie, 12.
  13. Ibid., 11.
  14. Reservations were voiced mainly by right leaning journalists, see Jacek Karnowski, Czekając na przesłanie Cerkwi i Kościoła: chrześcijaństwo nie może oznaczać naiwności, zgody na manipulację i fałsz, (11 August 2012), retrieved 19 September 2013, URL:
  15. Bohdan Cywiński, Pułapki polityków i szanse prawdomównych (na marginesie "Przesłania" Patriarchy Cyryka I i arcybiskupa Józefa Michalika), Arcana 6 (2012): 45, 47.
  16. This type of perspective dominates, for example, in the analyses of the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, see Katarzyna Jarzyńska and Jadwiga Rogoża, Cyryl w Polsce: polityka Cerkwi prawosławnej a polityka Kremla, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia (22 August 2012), retrieved 25 February 2015, URL:
  17. Grajewski, 12.
  18. Wspólne przesłanie, 14-15.
  19. Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, (7 January 2013), retrieved 19 September 2013, URL:
  20. Wspólne przesłanie, 15.

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Documents in Polish

Wspólne Przesłania do Narodów Polski i Rosji, podpisane przez abpa Michalika i patriarchę Cyryla

(Joint Message of the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church)

Orędzie biskupów polskich do niemieckich (18.11.1965)

(Pastoral Letter of the Polish Bishops to their German Brothers from 1965)