WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Bailouts, crisis meetings, and now divine intervention.
With the European Union deep in crisis, Poland's church leaders held a special Mass on Sunday to pray for European unity and the country's success as it holds the EU presidency.
The service in Warsaw, attended by Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and other political leaders, came after Polish church leaders held similar prayers for EU unity five days earlier in Brussels.
With the Masses, this deeply Roman Catholic country is putting its own characteristic stamp on a bloc dominated by more secular Western European nations. The services also serve as a reminder of the EU's huge popularity in Poland, the largest of the bloc's eastern members.
Though Germans and others might be getting fed up with bailing out the Greeks and the Portuguese, the benefits of membership feel very tangible in Poland: EU subsidies have created an economic boom, while Poles enjoy unprecedented freedoms to live and travel across Europe.
Poland, in fact, was the only EU nation to avoid recession in 2009. Its economy is projected to grow a healthy 4 percent this year — although its markets and currency have been battered lately by fears sparked by the larger European crisis.
Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, Poland's top church leader, focused, however, on the more spiritual aspects of European unity, referring several times to John Paul II, the late Polish pope who inspired the struggle against communism and who supported EU membership for his homeland.
Kowalczyk told a packed church that he was giving thanks to John Paul's papacy "and for everything that he did for us so that we might find ourselves in a community of free and democratic countries building the European community."
Catholic Masses are an integral part of life — even political life — in Poland, and the idea of praying for Europe evoked little attention and certainly no mocking or sarcastic commentary here.
Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak, speaking to The Associated Press ahead of the service, said that while Western Europeans are turning increasingly away from religion, it remains an important part of democratic life in Poland, which remembers how the church was oppressed during the communist era.
"In the East we respect religion more," he said, sitting in a front pew along with other state officials. "Religion is a very important component of our lives, especially in turbulent times."