GB No. 12, winter 1994
STRUGGLES WITH THE CHURCH PART I
"During the communist regime, nobody objected to church bells." Father Tadeusz Szaniawski, the parish priest of St. Stanislaus' church of the Kraków district of Dębniki, does not know what has become both of people and of offices. Whenever the church warden rang the bells during the Communist regime, people rushed to church to pray. Now they keep complaining to the authorities of the bells which disturb their sleep in the morning. And instead of saying that it is not possible to quantify God's praise in decibels, the clerks send over experts specialising in noise to take various measurements. And then the clerks interfere with the liturgy and specify when the ringing of the bells is allowed. When the parish received an official letter from the City Department for the Protection of the Natural Environment last February, informing it about the institution of administrative proceedings "as a result of not complying with the recommendation to limit the ringing which disturbs people living in the area," Father Szaniawski decided to ask his parishioners for help. The following Sunday he read out the letter during four masses, adding his own comments: for 50 years nobody had dared to issue regulations that would put any restraints on using church bells. Bells on church towers had been a permanent element of our religious life. They had disturbed neither the invaders (Austria, Russia, Prussia) nor the communists. Every believer, then, should write letter of protest and send a copy of it to the parish.
A few ladies who were members of the parish council visited the Department for the Protection of the Natural Environment to learn the names of the people who objected to the bells. As this did not turn out to be possible, they warned that a demonstration would be organized in front of the town hall. I had to swear that I was not an emissary of the parish council and that I would not take down any names or addresses before I was shown documents relating to the bells of St.Stanislaus' church. As soon as I read the first letter I understood why such measures were being taken. The letter ended with the following sentence: "I fear being persecuted by the clergy, and that is why I would like to ask you to keep my name and address confidential."
OPPONENTS OF LOUD RINGING ARE OF THE OPINION THAT THEY HAVE A RIGHT TO PEACE AND QUIET IN A PUBLIC PLACE AND NOBODY - NOT EVEN THE CHURCH - HAS THE RIGHT TO DISTURB THEM.
Somebody wrote, "As not everybody living in the area is Catholic (me, for example), I think that no denomination has the right to disturb another. Religion is a private issue and all religious practices should take place in places reserved especially for that purpose, without inconsiderately imposing one's religion on other people."
The defenders of the bells have also embarked on epistolary activities. Their letters bear dozens of signatures and addresses. There are as many as 784 on one of them. Arguments put forward by the parish priest in his sermon are repeated in almost all of them: "If the bells disturbed nobody for half a century, then what has changed now? Opposing them means trespassing upon our freedom of religion and attacking the Church. There was no ban on bells during the communist regime. Now, in free Poland, they want to make the bells, which should be heard in the whole of the parish, ring more quietly. Nowadays it is fashionable to fight the Church and all Christian virtues. In our parish this fight starts with an attack on the bells. . . . Comrades of the Polish People's Republic did not object to the bells, and now they disturb the citizens of the Third Republic."
After receiving the letter informing him of the institution of administrative proceedings, Father Tadeusz Szaniawski asked for the help of an attorney, who presented a warrant to the city authorities. When the attorney talked to the clerks of the Department for the Protection of the Natural Environment for the first time, he was optimistic. He offered to present to Father Szaniawski the suggestion of a compromise, according to which bells would be rung much more rarely and for shorter periods. After a few days he telephoned the office in order to inform them that his client did not agree to the suggested compromise.
There is no getting away from the fact that not until 1991 did one of the inhabitants make a formal complaint. (According to the information we received at the church, the bells have been there since 1936.) The city authorities commissioned the Research and Control of the Natural Environment Centre to carry out specialist examinations.
An official norm for densely built up areas where the traffic exceeds 1000 cars per hour is 50 decibels. There was no doubt, then, that the complaint was justified. After the control the head of the Department for the Protection of the Natural Environment of the city authorities issued the following recommendation: It is permitted to ring the bells only once a day and for no more than 30 seconds on weekdays, and three times a day for no more than 30 seconds on Sundays and religious holidays.
The parish priest of that time, Tadeusz Pater, sent an extremely diplomatic letter to the office in which he promised that the parish would not overuse the bells: "They will be rung in strict accordance with the requirements of the liturgy of the Catholic Church."
Months passed and the way of ringing the bells did not change. People living in neighbouring houses wanted to learn, then, why the parish priest did not comply with the recommendations. There is a note taken during the telephone conversation of the parish priest with a clerk of the Magistrate on file. The priest said, "We ring the bells and we shall continue to do so."
The city authorities turned then to the Voivodeship Office asking them (as a representative of the power of the state) to issue a regulation about the acceptable level of emitted noise.
The Voivodeship Office answered that the state administration can issue such a regulation only with respect to a state owned enterprise, and a church is not one.
Clerks of the Department for the Protection of the Natural Environment asked the Legal Department of the city authorities of Kraków for help. An opinion was issued, and it reads: Article 52, paragraph 2, of the regulation concerning Protection and Shaping of the Natural Environment does not apply when we consider the case of the bells disturbing the inhabitants of the area, because bells are not technical equipment. Technical equipment is a group of elements and instruments carrying out specific actions, which makes man capable of purposeful economic activities.
The members of the council of the 8th District have decided that nobody is entitled to get involved in the problem of the bells. So the citizens themselves are beginning to put forward definite suggestions on the matter of the bells. A certain lady who has a PhD in physics writes: "People who object to the bells should have better windows put in, of the kind used in the vicinity of airports."
She does not specify, though, whether it should be the parish or the city who would pay for this. That is why a suggestion put forward by another lady living in Kraków seems to be much simpler: "There are ear plugs on the market. If someone objects to the ringing of the bells, he should put ear plugs in his ears."
translation from Przeglad Tygodniowy 16/93