Tuesday, March 28, 2006


It’s funny how I always tell myself that I am going to write another reflection “within a few days,” and then another week passes by without one! Spring has definitely arrived since the last time I made an entry. In fact, there was snow on the ground even three days ago, but now, the temperature has jumped dramatically (into the 50’s), and the fresh spring air, the damp fog, and the rain have arrived. For the past two days, it has been foggy in the morning, and the birds have actively joined together in choruses of morning chirping, singing, and general noise. The air is fresh, and morning sunrises are amazing! The cloudy, foggy, humid air colors the sunrays orange and yellow, and fills the city wit golden splendor. In the early afternoons, the temperature rises, and the general tension in the air is relieved when the big drops of warm water begin to fall, for a few hours. The cold, gray, bitter winter is being quickly transformed into the green and fresh spring, full of the new life that we await eagerly as the end of Lent approaches!

Though it is spring now, it certainly wasn’t last Wednesday, when I went to Slovakia! Following a very impromptu decision, I went to Slovakia with two friends in order to pick up Fr. Maciej Zięba, OP, from his vacation spot. My friend asked me, “hey, do you want to go to Slovakia tomorrow?” Caught off guard, I first hesitated, knowing that I would miss one of my classes, but then I thought to myself, “How often to I get a chance to go to the Slovakian Tatra Mountains, get to see another country, and go swimming at some natural hot springs?” So I went, and it was amazing. The purpose of the trip was to pick up Fr. Zieba from his vacation. He is a very well known priest, a close friend of Karol Wojtyla’s, and the former two-term provincial of the Krakow/Polish Dominican Order. He is also the founder of the Tertio Millennio Institute, and is responsible for bringing thinkers such as George Weigel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak here for the Institute’s summer programs.

Our destination was Liptovsky Mikulas, a small city in the north of Slovakia, located in a picturesque valley, nestled between the “Tall Tatras” and the “Low Tatras.” (Tatry Wysokie and Tatry Niskie). Once again, I was able to experience the Polish road system (or lack thereof)! One of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, is that the Polish government did not build an adequate road system after the fall of communism. (This problem dates back to the communists, who also did not focus on the road system). Unlike in places such as former East Germany, where the West Germans connected and built all of the freeways (autobahns) all the way to their borders, the Polish governments did not focus on the road and transportation infrastructure. Perhaps this negligence has to do with problems with the healthcare system, and economic problems in general, which forced the government to focus on what was more pressing at the time. Now, though, there is a situation in which the amount of cars on the road has doubled (at least—probably even tripled in the last twenty years), yet most of the roads are two to three lane highways. Admittedly, there are a few freeways in Poland, mostly toll roads, and these serve well, but they are only located on minimal stretches. For example, there is no freeway that joins Krakow to Warsaw, but only a three lane road, on which one can often find four lanes of traffic—the people drive much too fast for the conditions of the roads, given the cars that they have, causing a lot of accidents.

We found ourselves on E66, the international highway from Gdansk in the north of Poland, to at least Budapest, Hungary, in the south. The road was basically an old, winding, country road that had been paved, and some parts of it had horse-drawn buggies driving on it, surely local farmers. About thirty miles outside of Krakow, the road turned to this, and remained like this until the Slovakian border.

Once on the border, we were able to exchange our currency to the Slovak Korona (crown), which is about 1/10 of the value of each Zloty, so we all ended up with about 500 koronas, making us feel rich. Of course, this is a lot of money in Slovakia, because the country is very poor. Upon crossing the border, I immediately sensed that we were in a different country. First of all, the road improved. One thing that the communists did in Czechoslovakia was to build an infrastructure of transportation, in the early years after World War II. The most striking thing, though, was the change in scenery.

In southern Poland (podhale), the “gorale,” the local shepherds and “mountain men,” were very patriotic, and the communists were never really able to convince them about Marxist and socialist philosophy. Known for its hardiness and independence, neither was the region was affected so much by the farm collectives, nor by the focus on hard industry. On the whole, the local architecture remained, and the local way of life was preserved. This was obviously NOT true in Slovakia.

The deeper we drove into the mountains, the more beautiful it became. The road entered into the valley of the Orava River, a large mountain river fed by snow runoff and small streams. Above us rose the mountain peaks, some rocky, some wooded. The tallest ones were covered in a blanket of white snow. Looking around, one would think he is in a fairy tale. Every few kilometers, a Slovak village accompanied this picturesque view, with wooden huts (still occupied) that lined the streets, with barns filled with cows, horses, and chickens in the background. At one point in the valley, a sheer cliff jutted out from above the river, crowned with a 12th century intact castle. Apparently, this castle was unconquerable, the reason for its perfectly preserved state. The castle was gigantic—an entire village of towers rose above its walls, which were crowned with a huge battle fortress-like tower at the top of the cliff. The only way to access the castle, now a museum, is to climb a trail that must be at least at a thirty-degree angle.

Now for the TRUE beauty, though. Thanks to the communist focus on heavy industry in Slovakia, not one of these villages was without a factory. Imagine a fairy-tale setting, with a nice big cement factory right in the middle of the valley. The rule I noticed was, basically, if the village had a church tower, then it also had a smokestack. Upon crossing the border and entering into these beautiful valleys, the most striking thing was the change in architecture. The wooden, A-frame Polish mountain homes turned into social-realist cement block homes, each perfectly identical with the next, save maybe the colors, which would have been changed in the last fifteen years. In the middle of these valleys, it was not uncommon to see (and impossible to miss!) the nice fifteen to twenty story cement apartment building. The typical view was a beautiful steep, forested mountain, with a huge clear cut of trees down the middle, with a nice power plant in the front, next to the workers’ cement apartment buildings. Anybody who claims that communism is a good thing should be sent to this area of Slovakia—to see how beautiful the lasting effects of communism are. These villages and towns, the scenery, has been changed forever by these paper factories, power plants, cement factories, and minor factories, as well as the apartment buildings, more akin to those found in Warsaw or Gdansk, than in a scene from Lord of the Rings. What was visible more than anything was the degree of the communist system here in the former Czechoslovakia—a degree that the Polish model was never able to reach.

Another striking thing to see, like a scene straight from Orwell’s “1984,” were the megaphones located in each little village (I am informed that before 1989, they were topped with nice red stars, as a reminder of the true authority). The megaphones would play a riveting Soviet march in the morning, to wake people up, and then the speaker would announce the day’s work schedule. “Street A, today you will be working in field 6.” For me, as an American, but even as a Pole, familiar with the totalitarianism of Polish communism, it was still shocking to see the reality and extent of the aftermath in Slovakia. One can read about the system, perhaps sometimes even with a little bit of cynicism, but until one sees the reality, he does not understand the true human tragedy of epic proportions. The local traditions, the local culture, the local age-old customs were destroyed by fifty years of repression and indoctrination. What quite possibly could have been a flourishing area, similar to Bavaria or Switzerland, if it had been free to develop after World War II, is now left with the decrepit old factories, which will fall apart sooner, rather than later. It is left with a society and culture of people who have been destroyed—ethically, morally, and psychologically. The youth often despair, and don’t understand the reason for the “backwardness” of their regions, or countries; the generations that lived under the iron fist do not want to remember it. The shocking thing, though, is that some look back with nostalgia, since the current economic situation and daily life is very demanding and unstable. The region is now undergoing a transformation. Tourism is developing, for people like us three who went, and ski resorts, as well as other attractions are beginning to open. However, many of the old factory buildings sit empty, decaying away at an astonishing pace, a silent and eerie tribute to an era that one cannot forget, yet does not want to remember. Those factories deemed worthy to keep open have mostly been bought out by foreign companies (such as an Italian paper mill), and are operating on a limited scale. (Some of the factories were only half-functional, with one half operating and renovated, while the other half was empty and abandoned). However, the overall impression that I had was a very uneasy and depressed feeling. I could not help to wonder what will happen within the next twenty years, when many of these cement apartment buildings begin to fall apart, and there will be a mass shortage of housing (which is also a problem that will have to be dealt with in all of the communist-built buildings, such as Nowa Huta in Krakow).

Arriving at Tatralandia, the hot springs, I was greeted by an American flag, as well as a western fort, or “movie town.” It turned out that Tatralandia was an all-year resort, complete with room for 700 people to spend the night, in apartments, cabins, and rooms. Some of the attractions include thermal hot pools, saunas, water slides, a lazy river, the western town, and various shows and productions. It was clearly built within the last ten years, and is a very good example of a modern revival of the region. I was very impressed by the high standards of cleanliness and service, and the fact that everything is written in Polish, Slovakian, and English shows that they must have many tourists from both Poland and Western Europe. After picking up Fr. Zieba and taking a dive in the hot pools, we decided to drive back the same way that we came, and ended up seeing the beautiful remnants of the past era yet again…oh joy.

Back in Poland (after a short shopping stop for Slovakian beer, which happens to be very good, and costs about 60 cents per liter!), we stopped at an amazing Polish restaurant, called “Siwy Dym,” or “white smoke.” It was similar to the one we had gone to a few weeks ago after skiing. The interior was decorated with the traditional mountain wood and stone, with large, long, wooden tables and benches to sit on. We each ordered one dinner plate, but were shocked when we saw the size. I had pierogies (of course), which were very filling. My friend Lukasz had a plate of meats, with potatoes and three types of cabbage salad. We all gasped when we saw the size of his meal—which he did not finish, even after we helped him. I love to go to restaurants such as this one, because they highlight the traditional mountain culture, and also preserve it for the future, as well as share it in a very real way with westerners. I found it funny that, during the meal, the CEO of Polish National Television called Fr. Zieba to ask his advice on when to air Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” on TV. It was quite fun to think that we were having dinner with a Dominican who is known all over Poland. It was a very real way of showing me the humility of the man—here we were, a group of college students, eating at some mountain restaurant in southern Poland, with a man who wines and dines with the Pope, Weigel, and many other famous and well-known Catholics, both in and outside of Poland. He shared with us many stories from his life; only in his fifties, it is amazing to hear what Fr. Zieba has lived through. He told us about the dossier that he now has, but was formerly kept by the Polish UB, who kept detailed records of his activities during communist times. (Recently, a new book was published, which reveals the government agents in the Metropolitan Curia who spied on Bishop Wojtyła when he was here.)

There is so much more to say, and to write, such as my “insider’s view” of the 13th century Franciscan monastery, as well as my visit to Wawel Castle and my interesting meeting there with a priest I randomly ran into. But, those stories will have to wait. I’m off to lead a discussion, in English, for some of my Polish friends who want to practice their English skills. We will be discussing the role of the Church in the Polish government. Then, Tuesday night pizza….

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Theology and Go Karts

It’s back to a Lent-as-usual after the most glorious and splendid feast of St. Joseph, husband of Mary! Here in the residence, we celebrated the feast in most fitting fashion—for dinner, I entered the dining room, only to find an amazing three course dinner! Sitting down at the table, clad with white tablecloth and flower-decorated napkins, I was pleased to find pork roast, potatoes, and olive hors d’oeuvres. Accompanying all of this was a fine French wine. For dessert, we had an amazing coffee and chocolate torte, filled with vanilla crème, peaches, and topped with grapes—quite amazing. All this, of course, was after I had come back from a long and tiring day, making it all the tastier!

Most Mondays are quite busy and tiring. I am trying to check out a few books from the famous Jagiellonian Library, but I am beginning to think that they are not famous for their manuscripts, the medieval collection, and for their building, but for the most possible bureaucracy that there could be in one place at the same time! Last week, my program, the Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities and Social Sciences, was supposed to send a list of their students to the library, so that we could receive library cards that enable us to check out books and other materials. So, after waiting for half an hour in line, I came to the counter, where I was kindly informed that I couldn’t receive a library card, since I am not on any list that they have. Quite frustrating, considering that I have to check out a few history books and write a paper on them! Unfortunately, I am not surprised by the fact that it is so hard for me to get anything “taken care of.” The word for “taken care of,” zalatwic, probably only exists in the Polish language with the connotation, which it implies: a way of “taking care of things” somehow, though it seems impossible with all of the bureaucracy and obstacles. We use this word to talk about “taking care” of paperwork, or bureaucracy somewhere, or to “take care of someone” (in the negative sense, like getting rid of them, or preventing them from getting in my way). Anyway, the word is probably closely linked to the other Polish saying, “Polak potrawi,” which means that a “Pole is always able to.” This refers, cynically, to something completely absurd that somebody did, or it refers to the often-ingenious ways that people are able to get something done, despite all of the difficulties. Sorry for the slight tangent. What I WAS saying, is that it is not surprising that it is sometimes hard to deal with getting basic things done here, because there are still many remnants of the old communist system. Many public institutions (such as the Jagiellonian Library) have not yet out-grown the old mentality of slow, inefficient, sluggish functioning. The library collection is not yet centrally catalogued (anything before 1990 has to be looked up in an index file), and the efficiency of the workers there is less than admirable. But, hopefully as the new generation grows up in a country and society free from the scourge of communism, the way that things function will slowly change. However, knowing how American bureaucracies function sometimes, I am not too hopeful, and also cannot blame the people here too much. I won’t even get into how “fun” it was to change my major at Notre Dame…

My classes are going well, and I am enjoying them a lot. I have started teaching English, as a private tutor, to two students. One man is a contractor, who will be going to the United States in a month, and has never taken English. He wants to learn the basic skills needed to communicate. My other student is my friend Kasia, a doctoral student and the director of the Tertio Millennio Institute. She is one of the last of the generation that was required to study Russian in schools, so she never learned English formally. I will also be leading a “Native Speaker Discussion” here in the house on Tuesdays, providing an opportunity for those who know English to practice it.

A few classes ago, we had fun in my Polish class by talking about various crazy things in the Polish language. For example, people always complain about how many consonants are found in a row in Polish words. Well, here’s the word that has the most consonants in a row: wszczniesz, which is a way of saying “beginning.” Also, the longest grammatically possible word is: Konstantynopolitanczykiewiczowna, which would be a “young woman whose father’s last name derives its name from the city of Constantinople.” Weird.

I am also enjoying my theology courses a lot. Last week, I was the “highlight” of one of my lectures, and felt like a specimen to be observed and questioned at a freak show. No, seriously now. Father Kupczak, the Dominican professor of my Theology of the Body course had asked me to prepare a short (fifteen minute) presentation on the state of marriage and the family in the United States. He asked me to present my thoughts for the reasons that marriages and families are falling apart, and to also explain why I think that the Theology of the Body is the solution to these problems. Of course, this being one of my favorite topics and my passion, I jumped on the idea, and prepared a short presentation, discussing the problems, as well as presenting some statistics. My presentation went well (ended up being about 20 minutes), but then the floor was opened for questions. Before we knew it, the ENTIRE lecture was over, and I ended up being in front of the class for an hour an a half, answering questions about the United States, the Church in the US, as well as listening to thoughts of the Polish students about the state of the local culture here. The class was very fruitful, and concluded by Fr. Kupczak saying, “Now, I’m not going to hide it from you all. My goal is to begin an institute, or some sort of organization of groups that are devoted to spreading the Theology of the Body throughout Poland.” He praised the United States a lot for the serious discussion and reflection that is being carried out in our country “about what went wrong, and how we can fix it.”

Particularly interesting and enlightening was Fr. Kupczak’s discussion of consumerist materialism. Having received his doctorate at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Life Studies in Washington, D.C., he is quite familiar with our cultural situation. When some of the student’s questioned the real impact of “materialism and consumerism” on the make-up of families and family life, and asked about how it could have such a profound effect, Father explained the huge difference between American consumerism and Polish consumerism. Particularly interesting was his criticism of some clergy in Poland who constantly attack materialism as the source of evil. Sometimes, in Poland, those who are deemed “materialists” are simply those people who want to ensure a decent standard of life for themselves, which, given the cultural climate, is very hard and requires very much work. Thus, always criticizing materialism in Poland may not be the solution to the culture’s problems, since there is maybe about one percent of the population that is actually rich enough to spend freely. Otherwise, most people must struggle very much to make ends meet. The constant spending and “having” mentality of the majority of Americans is hard to understand for many Poles. For example, it often happens (I know this from personal experience), that the poor in the US would rather go without food than a cell phone, trendy clothing, or a nice car. It is a matter of priorities. We live in a culture that is so entrenched in a spending and “acquiring mentality,” that often people are willing to forego basic necessities in order to “fit in.” In Poland, it is a struggle to even make enough money for the basic necessities, and if somebody might have a car or two, a nice apartment, and a comfortable life, then there might be more of a tendency to dub such a person a “materialist,” even though he is simply living a basically comfortable life, below that of American standards of a “comfortable life.” Given his distinction between the “Polish materialism,” and “American consumerism,” I think many of the students were better able to see how American materialism breaks up families—from the very first years of a child’s life.

The presentation was very productive, I think, since man students were able to have questions about the “state of Theology in the United States” answered, as well as basic ideas about the culture, and how it pertains to marriage and the family. One thing that I have noticed is that Poles are much more closed than Americans. When asked about how one can “bring these intellectual concepts to the level of a basic ‘soccer fan’ in the streets,” I explained that many people in the United States give personal testimonies. Many speakers will often appeal to youth by telling their own stories of pain, betrayal, and conversion. This way, people can identify with the person speaking to them, who provides a good example and hope for the future (I am thinking in particular of speakers such as Dave Sloan, or Christopher West). However, the American “openness” seems to be a cultural trait that is lacking here. It would be very rare for somebody to write a book such as “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott Hahn, in the hopes of inspiring people with their personal story. There is a tendency to be more closed here, which is definitely a new concept to me, who am used to being among the “Notre Dame Family,” where everybody seems to know everything about everybody else (which can also not always be a good thing!) Overall, the class day was very encouraging, exciting, and we will have to see what comes of it in the future. Who knows—maybe somehow, I will be involved in the spread of the Theology of the Body in Poland, which is actually less known here than it is in the United States. As George Weigel said in Witness to Hope, “The Theology of the Body is a theological time bomb that will explode sometime in the beginning of the third millennium,” and it will change the way that we look at virtually every aspect of our faith!

As should be apparent by now, my time here is not only filled with classes and intellectual discussions. On Thursday last week, two of my friends from the residence and I went go-carting. It was a lot of fun, though quite scary, since I had never been on a “professional” go-cart. We paid to go for ten minutes, which seemed like a rip-off, and like not a lot of time at all, however, after the ten-minute race, I got up sweaty, tense, and my muscles ached! It is amazing how concentrated one has to be when going forty miles an hour, a few inches off of the ground, and around 180 degree turns. My arms were killing me from all of the vibrations on the steering column. It was very fun, however, and I am now prepared to go next time, with the knowledge of what to expect.

Last Friday evening proved a to be a very nice evening, since I went to the “marathon” of the above-described Lenten devotions at the Franciscan Basilica. Afterwards, a few of my new friends and I went to grab a quick coffee, and then…off to the Krakow Symphony for Schumann and Beethoven. The symphony is located right downtown, and of course, young Karol Wojtyla frequented the building as student. On October 15th, 1938, he took part in his first poetry reading in the building, which was the “Catholic House of Culture” before the war. There, he recited a few of his early poetic works, and won acclaim from many Cracovian families. Immediately after the war, the building also housed classes for the seminary for a few months, which Karol Wojtyla attended as a seminarian. It is amazing to think about all of the places here in Krakow that he visited, frequented, and was a part of. The thing that never ceases to amaze me is to think about all of the history that the buildings, themselves, have been witnesses to! There are entire books written within the stones, the bricks, the walls of these silent stone witnesses, immune to the tides of politics, war, and turmoil. Amazing.

On Saturday, I went to the Tertio Millennio Institute to a discussion on Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Though I could write a whole essay on my thoughts from the discussion, I won’t, for the sake of time! There were about eleven of us, and the topic of the discussion (which turned into a debate, at times!) was “Love: A gift, or a duty?” It was great to be able to hear the various perspectives and interpretations of the encyclical, from people ranging from theology professors to sociology students.

On Sunday, I attended another event at the Institute (which seems to be sucking me into more and more activities!) It was time for the monthly “papal Mass,” with a guest celebrant, this week, Fr. Nencek, the spokesman for the Metropolitan Curia of Krakow. After Holy Mass, four of us were able to have coffee with him, and informally talk to him about his job, and about diocesan events being planned. When Cardinal Dziwisz was elevated to the office of Cardinal, the Curia received 103 phone calls from world leaders, ambassadors, and others offering words of congratulations and best wishes. Afterwards, he put the phones off the hook! His job must be very stressful, involving constant travel, interviews, and requiring a spotless memory. He told us about the importance of having to remember “what he said where,” so that there could be no contradictory statements, causing controversy. What a job, and in a diocese like Krakow! He also told us about AMAZING plans for the commemoration of the death of our Holy Father, John Paul II, which will be remembered in a very special way here in Krakow. But, as to the details, I will wait to report on them when they happen—let’s just say: city-wide stations of the cross, and a live feed and address from Pope Benedict at 9:37 p.m. I’m excited to be here, and know that I am very blessed to be here during this special time!

Enough for now! I am going, as usual, out to pizza and (no) beer, since it’s Lent. Until next time, I’ll keep my eyes open for interesting and unusual things.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lent Continues...

Where do I even start today? So much has happened in the past week-and-a-half, that it is almost impossible to explain all of my experiences, activities, and thoughts. I guess I will start with the classic conversation starter. The weather here is still snowy and cold, although signs of spring are in the air. This is evident by the increasing amount of birds singing each morning, the longer days, as well as the freshness in the cold air. Krakow’s weather is quite unique, since the city itself is in a little depression, a valley of sorts, in the surrounding hills. The temperature tends to be warmer down here, and there tends to be less snow than in the surrounding hills, even a few miles away. Over the weekend, however, I was about fifty-five kilometers east of Warsaw, where the country is still seeped in the winter stillness, and about a foot and a half of snow covers the ground. From what I have been told, the winter this year is unusually long, and usually by this time, the weather tends to be warmer, with clear buds on the trees, and the first signs of flowers coming up. Not yet, though. Everything is at a standstill, the days seem to get longer and longer, and yet the cold refuses to leave, and in fact, it snowed a little bit yesterday morning. Which, I guess is a good thing, since I would like to go skiing again.

Two weekends ago, I went skiing to a little “resort,” which consisted of five rope tows, along the length of one big run. It was an interesting experience. Having grown up in Utah, I have been skiing all of my life, and I was not expecting anything good at all. I was surprised, though, when I found the run quite long, about eight hundred feet in vertical rise, and about ¾ of a mile long. Four of us from the residence drove there, to a little village called Laskowa, about an hour southeast of Krakow. On the drive over, I was especially skeptical about the place, since it seemed that, the further we went, there were more patches of mud, and less snow. It wasn’t until we arrived in the hills that the snow cover changed, but hardly enough to be good enough to ski on. However, when we crossed over a ridge to the little valley that the run was in, all of the sudden, the rainy, warm weather changed to a small winter storm. The temperature was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and the snowflakes in the air made the surrounding hills look as if they were in a completely different world than the one which we had just come from.

Upon arrival, I rented some of the top-of-the-line Rossignol racing skis, figuring that I had the chance to try whatever kind of ski I wanted. Of course, I didn’t know what the conditions were going to be like. The snow was quite icy, and there were very many people, so in the end, it was very good that I had rented these skis, since they had very sharp edges, and allowed me to maneuver easily and dodge all of the people. So, it was an interesting first experience. Rather than chair lifts, like in all of our Utah resorts, the lifts where rope tows, which pulled skiers up the hill at a rather grueling pace.

After skiing, Kuba, one of the guys we went with, who happens to be from the area we were skiing in, drove us to a little traditional restaurant that he knew about. There, I was able to have some authentic Polish country food. I had some “Zurek,” which is also known as “white barszcz,” a type of sour soup, with eggs, potatoes, and kielbasa in it. It was very delicious, complete with homemade kielbasa. For the main dish, I was served “Hunter’s Pierogies,” filled with meat, and topped with mushroom sauce and melted sheep’s cheese. Needless to say, it was all very delicious! The restaurant was new, though built of wood and stone in the traditional mountain style, a typical example of the many “inns” that have come into existence since the fall of communism. They are usually located on pieces of property that people have owned for a long time, which they have decide to develop, and contribute to both the preservation of the traditional culture, but also to share it with tourists. The very idea that somebody could to this, of course, had been completely foreign in the communist world of centralized farming cooperatives, and generic “Restaurants.”

So, overall, our ski trip was very educational and rewarding. We got some physical exercise, I got to see a part of Poland that I had never been in, and I was able to simply get away from the chaos that accompanies life in a busy city. In fact, it was my first trip outside of Krakow during my whole time here (not counting the monastery, which is only 8 kilometers from here). Sunday of the same weekend was also very interesting.

I was able to go to Mass at the Franciscan Basilica, which dates back to the 13th century, when the Franciscans entered Poland only a few years after the death of St. Francis. In the evening, I was able to attend the “bitter laments,” or “bitter passions,” a traditional Polish Lenten devotion. The devotion is very beautiful, and dates back to the eighteenth century, when the Missionaries of St. Vincent de Paul began the devotion in Warsaw at the Church of the Holy Cross (now a minor basilica). The devotion is comprised of three parts, and consists of texts that are spoken and sung, introduced by prayers, and carried out in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a monstrance on the altar. Most people kneel for the entire devotion (which last about 45 minutes to an hour)! The texts are very beautiful, pious texts which focus on the Lord’s suffering and passion, and include the “soul’s conversation with the Lord,” as well as texts that focus on the suffering that Mary faced as she watched her Son give Himself out of love on the cross. “Dear and elect Son, share your wounds with your mother. It is I, dear Son, whom have carried you in my heart, who have served you faithfully. Speak to your mother, that she may be consoled, for already you leave me, oh my dear hope.” The sung texts are then interrupted by a Lenten homily, given by a priest of friar, and then conclude with Benediction. Needless to say, in a country like Poland, the church is packed, with people kneeling, sitting, and standing, wherever they can find a free spot.

Of course, another Lenten devotion worthy of mention, and unique to Krakow, is the Lenten devotion of the Archbrotherhood of the Passion of the Lord. This organization of laymen dates back to the sixteenth century, when the archbrotherhood was founded by one of the bishops of Krakow. Their solemn service is a reminder of man’s mortality and depraved state without Christ, and a very striking reminder to repent. The service takes place in the Chapel of the Passion, which is the chapel of the archbrotherhood that is now administered by the Franciscans. It is attached to the side of the basilica of St. Francis. Entering into the chapel from the rear, the members of the archbrotherhood, donning black, hooded cloaks, process in, chanting, “Memento homo mori,” or “remember death, oh man.” Now, when I say “black hooded cloaks,” I mean KKK style, complete with long, pointed hoods with slits for the eyes. The symbolism, of course, is that these are the clothes that executioners wore, clearly evident by the fact that the members of the archbrotherhood process in carrying stakes. Two of the stakes are crowned with human skulls, and the rest resemble the instruments of Christ’s passion, such as the spear with the sponge soaked in hyssop.

The members of the archbrotherhood chant this phrase repeatedly, and then alternate with the priest, who kneels at the altar, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and prays in reparation for all of the sins of mankind, for the sins of the country, and for all of the individual sins for which Christ chose to suffer and die. In the middle of the chapel, lies a huge crucifix, before which members of the archbrotherhood prostrate themselves completely, lying on the floor in the shape of a cross. This, of course, visibly expresses the depraved state of man, and the power of redemption—that God the Father, in His great love for mankind, chose not to condemn men, and allow them to justly suffer what they deserve, but rather, that He chose to “send His only begotten Son,” who endured the pain and suffering of all of the individual sins of all people throughout all of the ages.

At the end of the devotions in the side chapel, the black-hooded men lead the faithful in a Eucharistic procession. The presiding priest carries the monstrance under a canopy, through the main basilica and into the Franciscan monastery courtyard. There, young boys and girls join the procession, carrying banners depicting various saints, as well as images of Mary. The procession sets out through the courtyard, where one is surrounded by huge portraits of medieval (and modern) bishops of Krakow, which gradually fade as the incense from the thurible fills the dark hallways. Then, Franciscan friars begin the solemn singing, in Latin, of the traditional Marian sequence, the Stabat Mater. Processing in this fashion, the few hundred people enter into the basilica, and the procession ends at the high altar of St. Francis, in the front of the basilica. The members of the archbrotherhood process out, and the priest concludes with benediction and reposition.

Ultimately, one could definitely say that all of these beautiful Lenten devotions are every Protestant’s nightmare, and would be very uncomfortable for many American Catholics. They illustrate, in a very graphic way indeed, that the “liturgical renewal” of the Second Vatican Council did not “do away with devotions,” like many western Catholic claim. In fact, these devotions gain their strength and find their source in the Liturgy—are they not all focused around the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist?

They are present in Poland as a result of traditions that date back many centuries, of severe penance and fasting during the time of preparation for the coming of the Lord. In the middle ages and the period of the Renaissance, many people in Poland would fast on bread, water, and dried fish for the entirety of Lent. Perhaps such extreme fasts are not called for in the modern day, and may not even be recommended as the appropriate penance for Lent (and are certainly not practiced anymore), there is still a sense of serious preparation. Lines in the confessionals, attendance at Mass, and the amount of Lenten devotions all increase. The above devotions are only two examples of what takes place at one parish here. There are hundreds of churches, and each church has many, many Lenten days of recollection, organized by the so-called “movements.” For example, the Neo-Catechumenate Way at the Franciscan Basilica is hosting a catechetical series on Deus Caritas Est, in preparation for Easter, and most especially for the coming of the Holy Father in May.

So perhaps the gray, cold, dreary weather right now, here in Krakow, is a very fitting reminder of this time of year. The purpose of Lent, as we can see from these various devotions, is to prepare ourselves for the rising of the Divine Sun. Unlike the sun, which may or may not come out soon, we know that we have a Son who will rise, and has redeemed us from our wretched condition. Though our present life is marked with suffering, and trial; though it is marked with hard work and weariness, we look forward to the day when “all things will be made new,” and when the hard work, sacrifice, and weariness of this life will be exchanged for eternal splendor, glory, and rest. Until then, we must continue on this road, aware of our historical reality, and conscious of our final destination. Perhaps we can make this time of Lent, this travel through the cold, gray, and unrewarding, an intense time of preparation for the day when the Son will rise and reveal the beauty of creation and a redeemed humanity to us. The words of the archbrotherhood resound in my ears, though, and serve as a conscious reminder of the purpose of these forty days: Memento homo mori.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Poland and the EU

Wow, we are already well into March, and I haven’t even begun to journal. It has been a crazy past week, with many, many activities, and the constant awareness of, “I need to write a reflection,” but I simply haven’t been able to do it.

Lent began with a trip to the Benedictine Monastery at Tyniec, where I had been about two weeks ago. I liked it so much, and I decided that, in the spirit of Lenten penitence and sacrifice, I would make a pilgrimage there to attend Ash Wednesday Mass. The liturgy was amazing. Though the church is only about eight miles away, it takes about an hour to get to, since there is no easy mass transit route to get there. From my residence, I have to first take a trolley to the old part of Krakow, then I have to walk across a bridge on the Vistula, and only then do I board a bus, and ride it for about forty five minutes to get to the Abbey of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. The abbey church also serves as the local parish church, and I was lucky to get there early enough to get a seat, since the church was so full that there were even people sitting on the steps of the Baroque ambo. The abbot of the monastery, donning miter and crosier, celebrated the Mass, assisted by about fifteen to twenty concelebrants. After the Mass, Fr. Jerzy (see above entry) stopped me, and asked me to wait. He took me inside the courtyard area of the cloister, and gave me a small book with pictures entitled, “Protect the Good,” a series of pictures from the life of the monastery, intertwined with John Paul II’s letter to mark the 950th anniversary of the founding of the abbey. Let me quote from the letter:

“There are forces today that have a powerful means at their disposal and the spirit of Christian Europe is inconvenient, is a stumbling block for them. Therefore they want to destroy it by all possible means. But can we go so far as to be deprived of this great heritage? Can we renounce it so easily—as Europeans and Poles? What other foundation can secure support and survival for us?”

These words, though spoken twelve years ago, seem to be even more important today than they were then. For truly, Europe, and Poland to a lesser extent, faces a true challenge: what will become of its Christian heritage, its very cultural and social foundation? Already in Western Europe, we are seeing the growing problems of strong non-Christian minorities, and the consequential rise of new nationalist movements. Already, we can see the effects of the rejection of Christian morality and standards, such as the high rate of divorce, cohabitation, children born out of wedlock, and the falling birth rate. Indeed, some of these problems are apparent in Poland now as well. Simply put, Poland is dying. Everyday, there are less and less Poles, since the birth rate is about 1.68, well below replacement level. What does this mean? In Western Europe, it means a growing and rapid influx of laborers from Islamic countries, coming to fill badly needed jobs that are not being filled by the local population. In Poland, it means strains on the economy, on the healthcare system, and on Poland’s future as an influential nation in the European Union, since the population is aging, and there are less and less young people to fill jobs, to provide for the elderly, and to rise to positions of power and influence. In reality, the situation is very similar to that of Western Europe. There are major differences, however.

In my humble opinion, I think that Western Europe’s chances of regaining a large Christian majority, not of those who call themselves Christians, but of those who actually live their faith, are fairly low, at least in the next century. Though there are young groups of faithful Catholics, and some evangelical Protestants, it will be along time before they are able to actually have an influence on the culture, on society, and on politics. As it is, a sort of “spirit of indifference” has taken hold of the people; the culture has adopted a post-modernist mentality, where everybody is entitled to their opinion, and as long as they have a set worldview, then everything is ok. The most important thing these days is to be educated, and to stand for something, be it gay rights, the environment, or cage-free chickens. God forbid that anybody should propose that there is an objective truth though. There truly is a “dictatorship of relativism,” as Pope Benedict observed. As long as one stands for something, some modern idea that will serve for “progress,” then everything is fine. “Progress” has become the goal in Brussels, be it progress in space technology (the EU plans to join efforts with Russia to send a manned craft into orbit soon), or progress in “human rights,” such as homosexual marriage, which each member country “must” adopt. Of course, then there is the question of what laws from the Euro-Parliament are binding, and which are not, since technically the member countries have autonomous constitutions, and are entitled to their own laws, yet if these constitutions contradict the European constitution, then its laws must be followed. Thus, the European constitution itself is contradictory (and sort of a lame-duck, since it has not been ratified due to France’s rejection of it last summer, and nobody really knows what to do with it). The funny thing is, though, that after it was signed, the original copy was launched into space, as a sign of victory, of new beginnings, of a quasi-divine document to guarantee freedom and progress. The only place that the original is located now, is in the heavens above this New Continental Order. Except that it was a failure. And as the constitution looks down upon Europe from its orbit in space, Europe seems to be paralyzed, with a growing split between the poor and rich countries, and a rising sense of a loss of identity among member states.

The difference between Poland and the West is that in Poland, there is a spirit of optimism, and hope. The lukewarm, lazy, and nonchalant attitude of Western Europe is not present here at all, possibly for a few reasons. First of all, Poles have always been very political. Looking at the history of Poland, and especially at the exceptional rights of the nobility in the early modern period, one can see an avid interest in politics, quarreling, and a genuine concern about the welfare of the Polish state (intermingled with trying to assure personal gains, of course). The Polish nobility enjoyed unprecedented freedoms, compared to Western Europe, and were always able to have a say in the direction of their country, as is evident in the three hundred years of electoral kings. Yet, the elections were always characterized by bitter argument, quarreling, and debate as to who should be king. Many times, there were even two kings elected, and whoever could come to be crowned first would end up the king. Perhaps these elections were the origin of the saying, “where there are two Poles, there are three opinions.” Either way, this spirit of quarrel, debate, and interest in politics has remained to this day, and so Poles are actively involved in daily debates about the government, about the EU, and about the future of Poland.

Secondly, I would say that communism, for all it was worth, might have at least been an indirect cause of optimism. While the West was going through the sexual revolution, the change in worldviews of the 1960’s, the Polish people and the eastern communist states were suffering under the persecution of totalitarianism, repressed and persecuted. Now that communism is gone, Poles can finally actually have a chance to take part in politics, and in the political process. Compared to the United States, even, it is very easy for an ordinary person, like a school teacher, to be elected to the Polish Sejm, the legislative body. What requires money in the United States requires good wits, rational argument, and optimism in Poland. Thus, while Western Europe stagnates and faces a general apathy for life and culture, Poland grows in optimism, which the last presidential elections show. The post-communist SLD party, after having nearly 70% support when it came to power in 1995, lost the last election, and gained a support of 4%. The new president, Lech Kaczynski, belongs to the Law and Justice party, a party that prides itself on preserving Polish national identity through an embracing of Poland’s cultural, religious, and historical heritage. Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz enjoys a popular support of 70%! Why? Because the new government has awakened in Poles the spirit of pride in their country, and in their culture. They have reflected upon the sacrifices the previous generations made, such as in the Warsaw Uprising, which has sort of become a political symbol of the “new Poland.” They have resisted the homosexual agenda, for which Western Europe, and especially France, hates Poland. As President of Warsaw, Kaczynski banned a gay parade in the city, in which about a few hundred Poles from around the country wanted to participate, joined by delegates sent here by the EU from Germany and Denmark. Though the media and the EU try to heavily push the liberal agenda on Poland, their efforts have been fruitless so far, as shown by the presence of a few hundred activists from a country of thirty eight million people. The Polish people and government resist.

Which brings me to reason number three that distinguishes Poland from the rest of the EU. Faith. The faith of the Poles has undergone trial and persecution for centuries, and yet has continued in strength. The “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and as Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, who was brutally murdered by the communist authorities for preaching freedom, said in 1984, “If one were take a handful of Polish soil, and squeeze it, the blood of Polish martyrs would trickle out onto his hand.” Indeed, Poland has probably had more unnamed martyrs than any other country, be it during the bloody Cossack uprisings of the 17th century, the Austrian, Russian, and Prussian partitions of the eighteenth century, which wiped Poland off the map of Europe until 1918, or during the 20th century, when Poland was the battleground of three wars, only to end up under the influence of the Soviets, largely due to the concessions of Roosevelt. Throughout all of this, the Church stood strongly and resisted, be it through the strong leaders such as Karol Wojtyla, or Cardinal Wyszinski, or the saints whose acts of love were only visible to God, such as the “martyr of charity,” St. Maximilian Kolbe, or the messenger of Divine Mercy, St. Faustyna. In the face of repression, the Poles had to place their hope in God, who was so often their only hope in the face of terrible darkness and suffering. This faith of the Poles remains today. For example, Poland currently produces one third of Europe’s vocations. While the West wonders what to do with its churches, and places like Amsterdam are converting church buildings into bars, nightclubs, and brothels, the Polish churches are full, and new shrines are being continuously built. An example is the new Shrine of Divine Providence, being built in Warsaw, or the Shrine to Our Lady of Lichen, a new shrine that was built, and is the seventh largest church in the world (as far as I remember). Why, then, are the divorce rates rising, the birth rates falling, and the population dying?

“Nobody can lead a life free from temptation,” St. Augustine once said. Perhaps more people have lost their faith in Poland in the last fifteen years than in all of the years of communism. The western materialist culture and consumerist outlook on life is taking hold of the country. When the market was starved, western companies saw it as the perfect opportunity to make big money, and came with their French “hypermarkets,” German pornography, and American restaurants and investments. Many people have fallen prey to the power of money. The Church has become an obstacle to their consciences, an inconvenience that tells them what they “have to do.” The problem in the Church is not the “spirit of dissent,” so often present in the U.S., but rather, a spirit of complacency. People are baptized, they go to Church a few times a year, and “God is fine with it.” There are, however, many, many so-called “movements” which are active in many parishes, especially here in Krakow, and also in the entire country. Perhaps Poland will be spared, to an extent, from the “mustard seed” model of the Church, which Cardinal Ratzinger suggested a number of years ago. Whereas in the West, the faith is now found in small, scattered groups, that are strong in their faith, here in Poland, that model is not yet in place. Perhaps it never will be. The younger generation, like in the United States, is very split in their opinions and beliefs, but those who understand their cultural heritage are very actively fighting to defend it, and will not give in to the utilitarian and materialistic approach to life in the West. They understand and have taken to heart John Paul’s message at Tyniec, as well as his universal teachings. Truly, Poland cannot “go so far as to be deprived of this great heritage. Can we renounce it so easily—as Europeans and Poles? What other foundation can secure support and survival for us?”

On that note, I leave to go to my Polish Language class, which makes almost six hours of lectures on Mondays!! I will have to write about my weekend skiing excursion next time.