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Church history for dummies

SANDOMIERZ, POLAND. Sandomierz lies in what Poles call “Poland B,” the poor section of the country that didn’t make very much progress between the world wars — not least because the Russians didn’t do much to improve things when they controlled the area from 1795 to 1918. The location of the Sandomierz railway station, seven kilometers from the Sandomierz old town, nicely illustrates the point: the station would have stood by itself in the middle of the countryside when it was built in the nineteenth century. Why? So the czarist secret police could watch who was going in and out of Sandomierz.

After World War II, Poland’s communist rulers tried to turn a nearby village, Tarnobrzeg, into a major industrial center, moving more than a hundred thousand people there to operate a sulphur mine. The commissars were told that sulphur mining on this scale wouldn’t work, but they were undeterred; heavy industry was their creed, so Tarnobrzeg would become a great mining town. The “new” Tarnobrzeg is now dying, another victim of madcap communist economics. The more optimistic residents talk of turning the mine pit into a lake, in the hopes of starting a vacation industry in the area.

What the Sandomierz region can take pride in is the Sandomierz old town itself: a walled gem whose handsome market square is, after Cracow’s, the largest, most well-preserved such space in the country. I came here to speak to a national gathering of  Poland’s “Dominican family:” lay third order Dominicans, young families involved in the vibrant student chaplaincies the Polish Dominicans run at Polish universities. The priory church in Sandomierz is the oldest brick building in Poland, dating to the thirteenth century. Two years ago, seventy people came to Mass on Sunday. An energetic new prior, Father Andrzej, was assigned to Sandomierz; today, eleven hundred people attend Mass every weekend at the priory church — a magnificently simple, clean Romanesque structure in brick, stone, and wood. It’s further evidence that the Polish Dominicans are at the forefront of evangelical renewal in the world Church.

The priory church is located across a small valley from the Sandomierz old town, which is really the new old town. The real old town of Sandomierz (which had surrounded the priory church) was destroyed by the Tartars in a murderous raid in 1259. While I waited my turn to speak at the priory church, I walked across the little valley to have a look at the new old town with a friend and former student, Father Zbigniew Krysiewicz, a Dominican art historian. After pointing out the rare Byzantine frescoes in the cathedral’s chancel, Father Zbig was taking me down one aisle of the nave, the walls of which featured large oil paintings on the same theme. We were pondering the first in this series when we heard voices, unmistakably American; the voices belonged to two gentlemen tourists who were standing perhaps six feet away from us —

“What’s going on in that painting?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think it’s the Conquistadors. They’re killing the natives. They used to do that, you know, converting them.”

Father Zbig’s red eyebrows went up, quizzically. But gentle soul that he is, he just looked at the floor, slightly bemused. I couldn’t resist. Turning to my countrymen, I said, “Perhaps I could explain. Those are Tartars, slaughtering Catholics, not two hundred yards from where we’re standing.”

“That’s interesting,” one of the men replied, unabashed; “when was that?”

“In 1259,” I told him.

“Must have been at the beginning of Polish Christianity,” he observed.

“Well, give or take about three hundred years,” I said.

Reviewing Philip Jenkins’ must-read new book, The New Anti-Catholicism (Oxford University Press), several critics have rapped the author’s knuckles for allegedly exaggerating the degree to which anti-Catholicism is the default position in upscale American culture. Let the critics come to Sandomierz cathedral. Here I was, more than 4,000 miles from home, hard by a holy place sanctified by the blood of forty-nine Dominican martyrs, and what do I hear? The Black Legend, transformed into the last acceptable prejudice, casually repeated by a well-to-do American tourist who would be horrified at the thought of trafficking in bigotry.

Professor Jenkins does not exaggerate.

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George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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