Thirty years of Poland

It was a two-week whirlwind that changed my life forever, that first visit of mine to Poland in June 1991. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of something H.L. Mencken wrote of a similarly transformative experience: “It was brain-fagging and back-breaking, but it was grand beyond compare – an adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in forty rings.” My first weeks in Poland were all of that, and more. For what I learned in dozens of conversations during that fortnight became the crux of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism; the publication of that book (the first to argue that John Paul II and the Church had played pivotal roles in the collapse of European communism) led to my first serious conversation with the Polish pope; our relationship ripened over the next few years to the point where, in 1995, I rather boldly suggested to John Paul that I write his biography; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the past three decades, I’ve spent about three years, all told, in Poland, much of it in Cracow, a city I’ve come to regard as virtually another home. On this anniversary, however, my mind turns to some extraordinary people I first met in June 1991. Many are no longer with us but I cherish the memory of them, for their contributions to my education in matters Polish was incalculable.

I think of the former Solidarity activists, many of them political prisoners under martial law, who were then members of the Polish government, influential journalists, or academics finally able to teach as they saw fit in a free society.  

I remember Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, a man of great natural dignity, shrewdly chosen by John Paul II as his successor in the See of Cracow. Macharski, for his part, had the good sense not to try to be Karol Wojtyła 2.0 but to be himself – which was more than enough, for he showed himself full of grit and courage when Poland suffered under martial law in the 1980s. It was Macharski who told me of the tradition that the archbishop of Cracow is the Defensor Civitatis, the last line of defense of the people and their rights. Like his predecessor, Franciszek Macharski lived that episcopal role magnificently, as had the wartime archbishop both he and Karol Wojtyła revered, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha.

I think of Jerzy Turowicz, a charming, elfin septuagenarian who for decades ran the only reliable newspaper in Poland, Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), with the protection of the Archdiocese of Cracow. Its editorial staff included brilliant men and women who could not get the academic and professional positions for which they were qualified because they were serious Catholics. And in its pages, a future pope cut his literary teeth as a poet and essayist. 

I remember Father Jozef Tischner, a bluff, hearty son of the Polish highlands, a tremendous joke-teller, and a world-class philosopher. His brilliant sermon on September 6, 1981 at the first Solidarity Congress – a meditation on work and the Eucharist – should be in the Liturgy of the Hours as the second selection of the Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. 

I remember visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time and praying outside the starvation cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe had given his life for a fellow-prisoner – and finding it, like the 12th station of the cross in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, one of the easiest places in the world to pray.

I remember a lengthy Sunday afternoon talk with Father Kazimierz Jancarz, who looked like an NFL linebacker, mocked himself as “just a proletarian,” and then explained to me how his parish church in the industrial town of Nowa Huta had been a center of underground resistance activities during and after martial law – a place where people came to speak freely about a future they could only imagine, but for which they wanted to be educated and prepared.

None of this would have been possible without the assistance of my colleague and friend Rodger Potocki, who was the best of companions, a knowledgeable guide, and the man who made me read aloud all the road signs we passed, so that I could at least pronounce Polish (more-or-less) correctly. 

Three decades of work and conversation in Poland have shaped me in ways I would not have thought possible 30 years ago. For that, I am deeply grateful to a nation that might yet become a model for 21st-century democracy, if it took the social doctrine of its greatest son seriously.  

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COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash