I spent the first 19 years of my life in Poland and this media story has always been in the background, in public discourse, in politics, in the Catholic Church - a sort of cultural phenomenon.

Few people in Poland are as well known as Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Redemptorist and, more importantly for this story, the cofounder of the Catholic radio station Radio Maryja. Even fewer Poles attract such polarised opinions.

As the author of Rydzyk's unauthorised biography, Emperor, Piotr Głuchowski, told The Listening Post's Artur Osiński: "Myths about Rydzyk have entered Polish folklore." Many people distrust, dislike or even downright loathe him. However, he also has thousands, perhaps millions, of followers whose reverence for Rydzyk is unparalleled.

As we found out when we talked with parishioners in Torun - the town where Radio Maryja is based - there are those who see Rydzyk almost as a cult figure. For many listeners, particularly the elderly, looking to find their way in the modern world, he offers a haven - and, in return, Rydzyk readily collects their donations.

It is unacceptable in the 21st century that one individual, a monk, can hold such power.

Marcin Kącki, reporter, Gazeta Wyborcza

One of the main issues for Rydzyk's critics is that it's not just his supporters who give him money. It's every taxpayer in Poland, whether they like it or not.

According to Magdalena Chrzczonowicz from the investigative website OKO.press, "since the current populist, right-wing government returned to power in 2015, it has given Rydzyk at least $21m in grants, contracts and donations". Chrzczonowicz also told us that the full data is not available, so the amount is likely to be even higher.

The political power Rydzyk wields through his media empire is staggering, especially when you consider the audience numbers, according to the ratings company Nielsen, it is just a 2 percent share of the radio market and even less for his TV channel - and given how the current government treats news outlets it doesn't like.

Gazeta Wyborcza reporter Marcin Kącki says, "It is degrading that the leaders such as the prime minister, government ministers, drive like crazy to the other side of Poland to make it for a Radio Maryja meeting because this is what Father Rydzyk wishes. It is unacceptable in the 21st century that one individual, a monk, can hold such power."

So why is he so powerful?

The answer is simple: religion. The Catholic Church remains a potent force in Poland. An overwhelming majority of the country is Catholic (even though the number has been falling) and Radio Maryja listeners are among the most devout.

For many, the radio serves primarily as an extension of their faith. For others, the political messaging is made all the more effective when mixed with the Sacrum. It creates a strong, unified, loyal electorate.

As Ireneusz Krzemiński, author of What Does Radio Maryja Teach Us? explains, "If I'm a Radio Maryja listener, I know straight away what my views are, whom I will vote for, who my enemy is."

When I pitched this story, I had expected that neither Rydzyk nor any of his representatives would agree to an interview. That proved true. We were told by a Radio Maryja spokesman that Rydzyk "rarely speaks to media other than his own" and that, "due to years of bad experiences with the media", neither he nor anyone else associated with his organisation would speak to us.

Nor would Al Jazeera be allowed to film inside their newsroom. That was not a surprise.

What was surprising was that not a single right-wing journalist/news outlet outside the Rydzyk circle that I approached (and there were many) even got back to us. Not even to say no. Quite telling.

Arguably, when one individual wields so much power over a government, scrutiny is appropriate, even inevitable. Not so for Tadeusz Rydzyk, it seems.

He is exactly as I remembered him before I left Poland. Only more powerful.


Produced by:

Artur Osiński and Flo Phillips


Magdalena Chrzczonowicz - managing editor, OKO.press

Piotr Głuchowski - author, Emperor

Marcin Kącki - reporter, Gazeta Wyborcza and playwright, Enemy is Born

Ireneusz Krzeminski - author, What Does Radio Maryja Teach Us? and professor of sociology, Warsaw University

Source: Al Jazeera