Under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, farmers in a growing number of Polish villages are forming groups independent of Communist control to sustain the social, cultural and political awakening brought about by Solidarity.
Blessed explicitly by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Poland last month, the new pastoral movement is attracting a number of former activists in Rural Solidarity, formerly the farmers' sister union to the industrial workers' Solidarity.
While only still beginning, the bold initiative has intriguing potential at a time when Poland's Communist leadership, despite the lifting of martial law last week, is ceding little independence to society.
Some consideration already is being given to using the new groups to funnel aid from the West to Polish farmers through a special agricultural fund the church hopes to establish.
As reported earlier, the fund, which was approved in principle by Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski just before the pope's visit, would provide more than $2 billion in assistance to farmers over five years, according to church officials. However, many important administrative details have yet to be settled.
An effort to create church-sponsored communities among factory workers is being advanced by some clergymen and by lay advisers to Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp, although establishing such groups in diversely populated urban parishes poses greater difficulties than in rural villages. Industrial workers also are less inclined than farmers to give up the idea of reviving Solidarity.
Organizers of these groups stress they are not trying to set up new labor organizations to replace the officially sanctioned unions, which are unpopular with most Poles.
Ostensibly, the mission of the church groups is basically religious. But organizers acknowledge links to Solidarity.
"There were two goals in the Solidarity movement," explained one former union activist now involved in the new religious communities. "One was to improve institutions and the law. The other was to improve the moral and intellectual development of people.
"After martial law, the first aim is impossible to realize. Our only choice is to go with the second one. In that sense, these communities are a continuation of Solidarity."
A church official associated with the farmers' initiative asserted that one of the aims of the movement, on top of encouraging religious and nationalistic values, is "to protect farmers against the Communist system."
In a hall on the cloistered grounds of a Capuchin monastery in this small vegetable-growing village 25 miles north of Warsaw, about 70 farmers gathered last Sunday for a meeting. Their group is considered a model for the new pastoral movement. Chatting excitedly as they had cakes and coffee, the farmers worked their way through a crowded agenda. The voting was done democratically and emphasis was placed on volunteer efforts.
In their meeting the farmers agreed to supply vegetables to the children of jailed Solidarity activists, answered an appeal to provide summer farm work to three people in Warsaw dismissed from jobs for political reasons and confirmed plans to hold a harvest festival in August independent of anything that the authorities might organize.
They also discussed establishing a library or reading room. Earlier, at a Sunday mass in the village's modest stone church, they listened to Polish poetry recited by three visiting Warsaw actors. Strongly nationalistic and defiant in tone, the poetry reading was part of the movement's effort to bring more artistic events to the culturally starved countryside.
Meanwhile, village officials monitored the farmers' meeting nervously. Police phoned during the morning to complain that the long line of cars parked outside the church and alongside the main street in town was blocking passage of farm machinery. Instances of more serious harassment have occurred in recent months.
Organizers tell of being summoned for interrogations by police. In June, four men connected with the movement were detained in the towns of Opole and Skierniewice. Literature they had describing the new religious communities was confiscated by authorities as evidence of troublemaking activity, according to one of the movement's national coordinators.
At the first group meeting here in February, agents were spotted recording the license plate numbers of those attending.
"Authorities here regard the group suspiciously," said a local church official. "They fear anything that people organize themselves."
Government spokesman Jerzy Urban warned the church this month not to misuse its growing political influence. Writing under his widely recognized pen name Jan Rem, Urban cautioned the clergy not "to transcend the framework of their religious mission by attempting, for instance, to ignore the principle of the separation of church and state, questioning the secular nature of state life or the lay character of non-religious organizations."
"I hope," said Urban in the Polish weekly Here and Now, "that our public life will not be threatened by attempts to go beyond the framework defined by the state, by expansion into nonreligious spheres, by tests of strength and conflicts."
The Polish Catholic Church, however, is committed to preserving what it can of the social gains of the Solidarity era, and the new communities are a part of this effort.
After the birth of Solidarity in August 1980, "there was an awakening of society," said a lay adviser to the church. "It would be a pity to lose the opportunities of this awakening and activism of people."
He added, "We face a danger now of resignation and passivity under Communist action. The episcopate and the primate don't want to promote conflicts with the state. At the same time, they can't avoid fulfilling certain social needs in the fields of independent cultural activity, the teaching of history and mutual aid."
Still in their infancy, the farmers' communities have formed in only a handful of villages thus far, most of them located in the countryside around Warsaw. Communist repression and the brutal crushing of Solidarity have made Poles reluctant to invest hopes, time and reputations in a new social movement.
Founders of the new groups hesitate to discuss their efforts, emphasizing the political delicacy of establishing the movement. No membership lists are kept, and local groups have no elected officers.
But the movement is anchored solidly in the church. It was formally authorized by the Catholic bishops' conference in December. Its overseer is Bishop Jan Gurda of Kielce.
A parallel church commission for workers, headed by Bishop Herbert Bednorz of Katowice, was set up some months before but is moving more slowly toward organizing religious communities around major factories.
"The government had to agree to permit the new religious communities because other such church movements exist," said a well-placed church source. "There is one, for instance, for youth and another one for families. Also, the government has itself said that some aspects or ideas of Solidarity ought to be allowed to survive."
A church-published pamphlet describing the farmers' movement has appeared under the title "Our Way." The campaign has its own emblematic pin, too--a green cross bearing a leaf and a red "M" for milosc, which means love.
Significantly, the movement received a papal blessing from John Paul II last month during his second pilgrimage to Poland. Speaking to an audience largely of farmers at Niepokalanow near Warsaw, the pope singled out members of the new religious communities for commendation.
"I know that your aim is to revive the best cultural traditions of the countryside, to renew Christian life in mutual love, to seek perfection through communal prayer," John Paul said. "I know that you form small groups to help one another, that you make retreats, further your education, and study the social teaching of the church. In this way, you wish to rediscover your own specific mission."
The pope was briefed on the development of the movement at a breakfast with three farmers, including Gabriel Janowski, a former vice chairman of Rural Solidarity.
Following the papal visit there was speculation that the Polish church may be preparing to sponsor a new union as a kind of compromise between Solidarity and the officially sanctioned trade unions. In fact, Polish bishops earlier this year considered a motion to start Catholic trade unions but, according to an adviser to Glemp, a majority strongly rejected the idea.
The bishops did not want to appear treacherous to Solidarity, this source said, and are generally reluctant to assume an overtly political role.
But the new religious communities may at least help activists maintain a network of social contacts with tremendous political potential.
To encourage the development of both the farmers' and workers' movements, the church is organizing two major pilgrimages to the Jasna Gora shrine in Czestochowa in the autumn: one for farmers Sept. 4 and one for workers Sept. 18.