TORUN, Poland — Normally, priests are supposed to be warm and compassionate types, but when Father Tadeusz Rydzyk spied a blazer-wearing stranger standing next to the group of school children he was greeting he had only two words: “Get Out!”
That has been Rydzyk’s normal approach to any reporters he does not control, but that prickliness has not prevented him from building one of Poland’s most powerful media and business empires.
His kingdom is built around the Radio Maryja network, broadcasting from the central Polish city of Torun, and recently expanded to include a television station (Trwam) and a daily newspaper (Nasz Dziennik), as well as a university.
The radio station has been enormously controversial because of the occasionally anti-Semitic comments made by some of the station’s guests and the people who call in to the station’s live programs.
Although occasional comments denying the Holocaust have made the station an object of international condemnation, that has probably helped Radio Maryja and Rydzyk cement a unique place in right-wing Polish politics.
The radio only has about 2 percent of Polish radio listeners, who tune in to prayers, sermons and religious songs. About 70 percent of those listeners are over 60 years old, most are women and many are not well-educated, but they are enormously loyal both to the radio station and to Rydzyk. Blue and white Radio Maryja posters adorn many parish churches, especially in smaller towns and villages. Rydzyk's opponents deride Radio Maryja listeners as “Mohair Berets” for the fuzzy headgear favored by the elderly women who form his core audience, but for them the Redemptorist priest is the only person reaching out to an otherwise forgotten segment of Polish society, left behind by the enormous changes of the 20 years since the end of Communism.
Even gaffes like his recent comment to a black priest: “Oh my God, look at him, he hasn’t washed at all,” do not sway Rydzyk's avid fans.
He has translated that devotion into political power, especially evident during the previous government of the right-wing Law and Justice party, which lost power in 2007. During its spell in government, ministers were frequent guests on the station, and Rydzyk was so powerful that when a new governing coalition was formed, only reporters from his outlets were invited to witness the official formation of the new government.
Rydzyk's reach even spreads to the Americas, where his station has an avid audience among the Polish diaspora. He is a close ally of Jan Kobylanski, the controversial head of Polish organizations in South America who is accused of handing a Jewish family over to the Gestapo during the war. In the United States, he was supported by Edward Moskal, the former head of the Polish American Congress who ended up getting his organization ostracized for his anti-Semitic comments.
Although Rydzyk’s political influence has waned since 2007, when the pro-business Civic Platform party ousted Law and Justice, his skills are increasingly turning to business. An effort earlier this decade to save Poland’s troubled shipyards, the birthplace of the anti-communist Solidarity labor union, from bankruptcy by raising money from his supporters collapsed with the shipyards getting no funds and his foundation failing to account for the money it had raised.
His new project is to build an enormous church in Torun for about $35 million, where the focal point will be a replica of the Vatican chapel used by John Paul II.
He also has undertaken a project to look for geothermal energy near his radio station, and recently signed a contract with one of Poland’s leading businessmen to set up a cell phone network for his followers. One of the early subscribers is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party and a former prime minister.
“I think it’s a great idea that this great family be even more tightly linked,” said Kaczynski during a pilgrimage this summer of more than 200,000 Radio Maryja supporters to Czestochowa, Poland’s holiest shrine.
Rydzyk’s dabbling in politics and business has left some members of Poland’s Roman Catholic hierarchy cold, but even attempts by the Vatican to rein him in have proven to be unsuccessful.
Over the last two years, the dominance of Civic Platform, led by the current Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has pushed Rydzyk into the background, but his political influence is sure to begin growing again as Poland prepares for presidential elections in 2009 and parliamentary elections in 2011.