|01-11-2009 - Traces, n. 10
A Fortress Beyond the Iron Curtain
Looking at the first encounters with the young Italians in the 1970s, the visit of Fr. Giussani, the struggles of Solidarity, a nursery school born of a Christmas gift, and the budding Companionship of Works twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, we visit the Polish communities to go to the heart of a friendship that, just as then, can challenge the reigning confusion.
by Alessandra Stoppa
The cathedral bell tower is blackened. As you look at it from below, it seems covered in soot, unable to slough off so much time and history. And yet, here and there you can make out the light clay of which it’s made. “It’s dusty, like us,” says Krystyna, speaking of her country. She’s just come back from the Beginning Day of the Movement in Poland, where, together with five hundred others, she listened to Fr. Carrón’s lesson, broadcast to those assembled at the sanctuary of the Black Madonna in Jasna Góra. She heard that in life you can “remain speechless” before a certain way of feeling and looking at the human and “two days later, forget it,” think no more of it. “This is Poland,” she says.
She needn’t say anything else. Her blue eyes fixed on ?widnica Cathedral, she thinks of the great history of her nation, one that is none too distant. Less than 30 years since the striking Gdansk ship yard workers on their knees mesmerized the slumbering West, since lives were sacrificed to undermine the Communist regime, “Poland too has forgotten and is immersed in confusion.” Krystyna is cold in the fog of this little city near the Czech border. She speaks of Poland, but she’s speaking of herself. When Fr. Giussani first came to Olsztyn, Poland, in 1983, he said that Christianity existed at a “physiological” level. To her, a girl on fire with enthusiasm about liberation, these seemed discourteous words, even unjust. “Instead, they were prophetic. It was like being told that life can be steeped in the faith, all the more powerfully because of people’s reaction to the regime, but in an unconscious way, almost mechanically.” Krystyna is still amazed at Fr. Giussani’s farsightedness. Or perhaps he saw in depth what was already there.
“He saw it better than all of us,” bursts out Fr. Józef Jo?czyk, arriving breathless and sitting with us in a tavern in downtown Cracow, with Zofia, Anna, Stanislaw, and Jacek, friends of this community of almost 30 people, most of whom are adults. The CL University group (CLU) is here in the person of Stanislaw, in his fifth year of Engineering and Telecommunications. Today is Friday, a day on which Polish people abstain from meat. In his haste, Fr. Józef had forgotten, and ordered meat. Then as he eats, he smiles because the chicken is tough. “It must be my penance.”
The Pope’s sadness. A net of relationships. He talks about Fr. Francesco Ricci, one of the first friends of Fr. Giussani to follow the life of Poland’s Church, culture, and newborn Movement. He would always say, “A tradition that isn’t conscious of its origins doesn’t live.” He asked the young Poles he had just encountered to go deep into the matter, to come to understand their tradition, which, from its unity with life and ideal force, gave birth to freedom, empowering the luminous testimony of the Solidarity workers’ movement (Solidarno??). “You have to know, to be conscious, because it’s difficult to love something you don’t know,” says Fr. Józef.
He himself learned this the hard way. In his tenth year of priesthood, he had the sudden insight that the way he lived his faith “was insufficient for facing life.” His work among the people was bearing no fruit, and he began to question everything, thinking that either his way of working was mistaken or that what he was proposing was not a solution. “I was frustrated. Then, the encounter with Christ through the Movement saved my life because it made me understand. I realized that my way of living was ideological.” Today, he adds, people aren’t happy with their life because they don’t understand it. “This is why cynicism is spreading in Poland.”
The reports in the news say that there have never been so many suicides of young people as in these years. “Now that there’s freedom…” hints Zofia. Fr. Józef thinks that these times are like the 1950s in Italy, when Fr. Giussani met some young people on a train and saw that they were far from the faith. “Today among us Poles there’s confusion about the reasons for existence. The fact is that you can’t live without faith. I pity those who don’t have it.” Then he stops, looking paternally at a boy at the other end of the table, and raises his voice, “Don’t make me pity you, Francesco!” Francesco, who is eighteen years old, and the other young people here at dinner are “the children of the Church,” jokes Fr. Józef. Literally. They were born of the encounters with the first Italians of the Movement who came to Poland because of a network of relationships, when parents first met on pilgrimages to Cz?stochowa or during the construction of churches. Luigi, Francesco’s father, rushed here along with other university students from Rome to help build the church of Sant’Edvige in Cracow, met Anna here and married her. She was eighteen then, and now at dinner is eating with her youngest child, Maria, in her arms. “My friends and I were Catholic, but what struck us all was the unity of these kids who’d come from Italy.” They seemed like they had been friends all their lives, but they had just met on the journey to Poland together. The children at the table listen to their mother talk about her marriage with Luigi, how she saw him grow in faith as the family grew, and how she saw him leave them in the span of ten days when the doctors had given him two years to live. “From that moment on, everything that has happened around me has been done by the community. God did it.” The night and day shifts, the food, “everything we needed, they offered us. And in that everything, I realized that I am not alone.” Fr. Józef gazes again at the littlest ones. “The world pushes you toward the nothingness in which the young people like your father were living in Italy, and from which he was saved by following Christianity. What happened there back then is now happening here in Poland.”
The Pope’s sadness. TheTThe sadness of the Pope. The older people at table lived through General Jaruzelski’s martial law, the suspension of civil rights, and censorship, but now they are worried about the advancing attack on life. “Today, people are questioning things that were always unquestionable before. Just a few years ago, these things were unimaginable.” And yet the signs were there even back in 1991, during John Paul II’s journey to Poland, when he spoke very harshly at the Radom airport about the fifth commandment and abortion and was criticized for the first time. They didn’t understand why he should raise his voice in Poland, of all places. “Instead, he realized the danger. He returned to the Vatican very saddened,” recalls Fr. Józef. And yet it was precisely a visit by the Pope, in June of 1979, that “marked the beginning of the fall of the Iron Curtain,” says the Archbishop of Cracow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, then the Pope’s personal secretary. “The fall of the Wall began there, not in Berlin!”
Then, having re-conquered freedom, “we’ve become more concerned about possessing than about being.” states Fr. Józef. Today in Poland, there’s controversy about the case of a woman who asked to abort because she was at risk of losing her sight. When she wasn’t allowed to do so, she appealed to the Court in Strasburg and won. Her nine-year-old daughter has witnessed all this.
Life behind the Iron Curtain was made up of a sharp separation between truth and lies. “Nobody had any doubts about the space where man could exist and where, instead, he would die,” says Zofia as we leave the tavern. In the Polish streets you seem to breathe this spirit marked forever by the country’s history. The dark and silent streets seem as if under curfew, yet the warm lights at the windows of the houses glow all the more intensely for the darkness and cold outside. These stone streets of ?widnica were the Soviet district, housing the Red Army. Today, there is the Ut unum sint Foundation nursery school, hosting the children of the city’s poorest families and some orphans. It’s like a little mountain chalet, prepared for them with myriad thoughtful details, such as embroidery at the windows, miniscule chairs, and painted wardrobes. The little ones who come from homes without electricity have breakfast in the company of an elegant grand piano. Danuta is the jack-of-all-trades director. Her life took shape together with this work of charity. On the feast of Saint Nicholas, when she was sixteen years old, out of gratitude for the encounter with Christianity, she and her friends brought gifts to the neediest children. From that day, she has never left them, becoming their sister, mother, and grandmother. Today the nursery school welcomes the children of those first children. Danuta takes them in from morning to evening, has them baptized, and raises them to adulthood. In the afternoon, there’s an after-school program for young people as well as language courses, laboratories, and sports. Ut unum sint has given rise to another educative work in Zdzieszowice, near Opole, called Otwarte serce (Open Heart), with an after-school program. “None of this would exist without the friendship that sustains me,” says Danuta. “I couldn’t even possibly think of doing it. You could be very good at doing things, but alone, you would wear out.”
I had heard the same thing the day before from Jacek, a thirty-five-year-old builder in Wroc?aw, through whom the Companionship of Works is being born in Poland–through him and a professional “failure” of his. This year, his company had an important contract for the construction of the stadium for the European Cup of 2012. The work started well, but then complications set in, and they ended up withdrawing from the project. “It was the lack of unity. Not even a big, beautiful goal like the stadium is capable of keeping people together. It was a defeat for me, and shook me deeply.” Then his friends told him something simple and revolutionary: “That I’m bigger than the stadium project.” He called together his collaborators with these words ringing in his head. “That day, they told me that it was the first time in their lives that they had approached work in that way. I could see that what makes me grow isn’t the work in and of itself, but the chance to know what I am made of in the things that happen. What saved me was the judgment, and this judgment was formed in companionship.”
In this way, around this massive wooden table, in front of steaming coffee cups, the Companionship of Works, the foundation, the nursery school, all fall into their places. “They are only a consequence, a help,” says Fr. Jurek Krawczyk, the responsible for the Movement in Poland, which today counts communities in many cities of the country, from north to south. “Nothing is enough if my ‘I’ is missing. It doesn’t matter what I do. The problem is Who fills the lack that I carry within. Here I realize that we all need great help. This is the work proposed to us on judgment. I realize this because lately my life has been turned upside down.”
After 22 years of priesthood, 13 of them as a parish priest, Fr. Krawczyk had to return to the seminary, to serve as spiritual father in Opole. “I could think that it’s just a change of assignment, but it’s very clear that God is speaking to me. He’s educating me through the facts, stripping me of everything to make me see what I need.” Twenty years later, he understands what Fr. Ricci told him at the time of the historic encounter between Soviet President Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II: “For you, the ferocious struggle is over. Now you will be reached by the godless culture. You will become lost if you do not stay together and let yourselves be educated.” He thinks of the phone call he just received from a Ukranian couple who came to Poland precisely because the country is Catholic. They work on a farm, and on Sunday when they go to Mass everyone derides them. “This couple called me to ask what has become of Poland.” Young Jacek says that he finds the true Poland at the Sanctuary of Jasna Góra, where there is always a great throng. “When I saw young people from all over Poland going there to pray, I said to myself that Poland isn’t finished.” This brings to mind the words of Cardinal Dziwisz before the university students on pilgrimage to Czestochowa: “You are the realization of the words of John Paul II: ‘“Do not fear! Open–no–throw wide open the doors to Christ!”
The Pope’s sadness. TheTThe mantle of the Virgin. The Virgin Mary’s mantle. It’s the same here, today. The church of Jasna Góra is full to overflowing. The people kneeling here in their heavy overcoats and long scarves are silent. This is a people for whom kneeling is as familiar as sitting. Among the bowed heads is the very blond one of Annette, a German who came to Poland 20 years before to follow her husband Wojciech, the Mayor of ?widnica. Today they are here for the CL Beginning Day, though yesterday Annette received a phone call from her mother with the news that her ill father had worsened and could die at any moment. “I wanted to leave right away for Heidelberg, but instead I came here. Praying and offering all the fear is the most important thing for them and for me.” She came to entrust herself to God.
Bouncing along in the bus through the countryside, you leave behind Cz?stochowa, the hill, and the mantle of the Black Virgin, who has always watched over the truth of the Polish spirit, and you think of the Fr. Ricci’s words: “If you let yourselves be educated, you will be a fortress for Poland.” You want to see this fortress right away. In ??widnica, Annette returns home and hurries to call her mother. She sounds serene, comforted: “He’s no longer afraid of his coming death; she told me that she had a day full of love and affection with my father.” In recent days, her father couldn’t even speak, but today, when the priest came to give him the Anointing of the Sick, he sang the hymn to the Holy Spirit. “This is the work of God,” says Annette. “God answers me and frees me when I entrust myself to Him.”