Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek conferred and exchanged gifts with Pope Paul VI today in a meeting that could lead to improved relations between the Vatican and Eastern Europe's most Catholic country. This is expected to give a boost to Gierek's shaky position at home.
The major subject of the meeting appears to have been how to improve church-state relations in a Communist country where close to 90 per cent of a population of 35 million are reportedly baptized Catholics, but where the government has set limits on religious education, church building permits and access to the media.
Both the Pope and Gierek avoided direct discussion of their long-term objective of establishing diplomatic relations.
The Pope's lengthy prepared statement to Gierek and his encourage expressed willingness to cooperate with the Polish government at a time when it is confronted with seious economic and social problems "to facilitate the national unity of the Poles."
At a press conference that followed the 80-minute private meeting and ended a four-day official visit to Italy, Gierek said Polish-Vatican relations were developing "positively," and added that both parties were moving in the direction of closer relations.
The meeting with Gierek is another major step in the Vatican's Ostpolitik, or Eastern policy, which began 14 years ago when Pope John XXIII and his successor Pope Paul, decided to normalize relations with Eastern Europe's Communist governments.
In 1967, the Soviet Union signaled its approval of the shift in Vatican policy with a visit by the then Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny to Pope John. Since then President Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria and Hungarian party leader Janos Kadar have met with Pope Paul.
Gierek's appearance at the Vatican comes only one month after the unexpected meeting in Poland between him and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, 76, the primate of Poland, who has been the symbol of moral power there since the establishment of a Communist government after World War II.
The Roman Catholic Church's Ostpolitik characterized in recent years by the frequent East European trips of Vatican foreign minister Msg. Agostino Casaroli - was designed to create the better living conditions for Eastern Europe's 60 million Catholics.
Yugoslavia is today the only Eastern European country to have resumed full diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and East Germany a burgeoning normalization process still has far to go. Czechoslovakia is considered a problem country, and all contacts with the Soviet Union are still on an unofficial level.
In the case of Poland, one of the Vatican's major success stories, the present era of good relations began in 1972 when the Vatican made the concilitory gesture of recognizing postwar boundaries and created four new Polish dioceses in former German territory.
Gierek's recent desire to intensify contacts with the church, first with Wyszynski and later with the Pope, can also be seen as a sign of national crisis.
Experts on Polish affairs say today's situation is similar to that of 1957 when a serious economic and law Gomulka, to request a meeting with his former adversary, Wyszynski, and won the cooperation of the Polish church.
Today the situation in Poland is similar. Tensions that began in mid-1976 when a workers' revolt forced the government to cancel a drastic general price increase have not yet abated. Gierek sorely needs help from the church which for the last two years has consistently sided with those calling for better living conditions and increased human rights.
"A photo of Gierek together with the Pope, or even the very news of the encounter, is probably the only thing that can get Gierek through the winter," said an Western diplomat who recently spent two years in Warsaw.
Apart from his meeting with Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer, Gierek had talks with Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, and other member of his delegation met with Italy's foreign, treasury, and commerce ministers.