Day of Witness
Translated by Christopher Adam Zakrzewski
I had the undeserved privilege and providential grace of being a member of a group called Swieta Lipka (Holy Linden, the name of a monastery in the Mazovian Lakes region where the group was formed during a summer retreat in 1958) whose spiritual pastor and scholarly mentor was Bishop Professor Karol Wojtyla. The students and faculty of the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, made up the core of the group. I was studying theater directing in Warsaw at the time but I was invited to join Swieta Lipka by my sister, Maria (then a student of the Catholic University, now a professor), and some of my Warsaw friends.
Over the course of the following years we had sporadic meetings with Bishop Karol Wojtyla. My wife, Zofia, and I had already read and studied Wojtyla's book Love and Responsibility. In fact, we have based our marriage upon it. News often came down to us from Cracow about the bishop's activities and utterances, even after he became cardinal. As a rule this news was passed down by word of mouth since the official press or TV did not broadcast it in the Communist-ruled country. Then, on the sixteenth of October, 1978, we heard the news on the radio that Wojtyla had been elected Pope. This was stunning news that took our breath away. It pierced our hearts with joy, rousing us to expressions of thanksgiving to God. We began avidly to study John Paul II's teachings. We tried to join ourselves to his prayers and imitate his witness.
Gradually the fragments of Day of Witness began to take shape. The novel is constructed on three levels: on three kinds of witness. The first and most important--which also constitutes the point of reference of the entire work--is the witness of Pope John Paul II: the witness of his faith, hope and love; his personal daily witness to Jesus Christ through his every word, rosary, encyclical, pilgrimage, suffering and Holy Mass. The second witness is that of the hero of the novel, Father Andrzej. This young priest strives to model himself on John Paul II, listens to his teachings and follows his example. He tries, often ineptly, to witness to the Pope through his own everyday priestly duties. In particular, he gives honor and witness to the Pope on the sixteenth of every month, and especially on the sixteenth of October of every year to commemorate the anniversary of Karol Wojtyla's election to the Chair of Peter in 1978. The narrative of Father Andrzej is what knits the novel together. The third witness contained in the novel is that of the author himself.
It is presented through literary device. What I have written is fiction indeed, but it is solidly rooted in history. Thomas Merton aptly characterized this kind of fiction when he observed that the "integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it." (The Seven Storey Mountain Harcourt, 1948, p.3) The fortunes of my fictitious hero, Father Andrzej, are rooted in reality and based on real events. The biography of Karol Wojtyla, his deeds and teachings, are accurately presented. The background to the narrative is true as well: the history of Poland during the first two decades of John Paul II's pontificate (1978-1998). It embraces the period of the collapse of the Communist totalitarian order in Poland; Solidarity's sixteen-month bid for freedom (beginning in August of 1980), the dark years of martial law (beginning December 13, 1981), the final demise of Communism in 1989, and the restoration of the nation's sovereignty, with all its attendant hardships, frequent bitterness and great hope as well. The numerous clerics and lay people appearing in this book, the politicians, journalists, scholars and ordinary men and women, are all taken from real life, although naturally transformed by the literary imagination. My own recollections of my contacts with "Uncle Wojtyla", as we called him, also constitute part of the real-life backdrop to the novel.
There are many excellent, well-documented biographies of John Paul II. I would not attempt to add to them. Many people have given accounts of their contacts with him and it would be improper of me to place myself beside them. I will however share this one recollection. In 1961, as a young director on the threshold of his professional career, and as a member of Swieta Lipka as well, I found myself in Cracow. I dropped in for a chat with Bishop Wojtyla. As always he took a lively interest in the theater. He plied me with questions about the various performances, the theatrical milieu and my own plans as a director. Then he charged me with a task: to write a paper about the moral problems encountered by the young director of the day. Not about theatrical styles and aesthetics. Not about modes of expression or my plans. No. About the moral problems. To a young director this was something strikingly new. But this was exactly Wojtyla's manner of teaching and ministry. He presented his students and charges with practical, precise, and at the same time fresh tasks and challenges. He expected us to do the research and carry out the task on our own. The study fostered talks, discussions and the drawing of conclusions. I wrote the paper and took it to him. After a while we met again. He gave me his appraisal and suggestions as to how to deal with the issues I had marshaled in the study: how to approach them in day-to-day life, and how to transform them into the material of prayer.
In my work in the theater I have often forgotten those suggestions. But they have stood as a constant point of reference to which I could return and find my bearings. In time I came to realize how radically different his vision of the theater was. What my mentor and pastor was steering me toward was unlike anything I had studied at drama school or been immersed in for years in professional theater. I believe this was one of Wojtyla's peculiar gifts: pointing to new possibilities in every domain of human activity, beginning with the spiritual life and branching out into politics, economics, and even art. This gift, among the many other charisms he possesses, he has shared with humanity at large. His gift has been to restore a proper sense of order to life. He has helped us find our lost bearings. His catch phrase "Be not afraid!" has both a religious and moral dimension: Be not afraid of affirming Christ and living out his teachings. It has a political and social dimension: Be not afraid of demanding freedom from tyranny and defending human rights. It has a psychological and spiritual dimension: "Be not afraid!"--says my hero, Father Andrzej, at the conclusion of the book--do not be afraid since you are redeemed. Do not be afraid since the Blessed Mother is with you, and she did not fear. Do not be afraid since the apostles, martyrs and saints did not fear. Do not be afraid since the light shines in the darkness and no darkness can quench it. Be not afraid since the power of Christ's cross and resurrection is greater than any evil!"
This man, this Pope, has enabled people to put fear behind them. Like a broken reed he has raised and made whole our hope. He has fanned the sparks of faith into a flame. Above all, he has embraced all in unconditional love. My book is a testament to the fact that this has really taken place. And continues to do so.
New York, January 2000
October, 16, 1985, North Lake, Michigan
He looked out at the spacious parking area behind the church but did not see much through the rain-streaked window. In the dim glare of the porch light-bulb he could scarcely make out the rectory steps. A gray mass of heavy raindrops splashed over them. Farther out loomed a puddle bristling with moving colonnettes of water that vanished into the surface as if someone were constantly prodding it with a needle from below. Beyond this, all he could make out was the blackness of asphalt barely ruffled by the rain that fell obliquely in sweeping gusts and gleamed in the cones of light cast by the nearest lamp-posts. And beyond this he could no more than sense the bulking mass of the neo-Gothic church.
"No one's going to come to evening Mass" thought Father Andrzej.
Ever since he had found himself in this Polish parish numbering no more than twenty odd families, he had been unable to come to terms with saying Holy Mass in an empty church. On weekdays, especially in the evenings, this happened quite often. On Sundays there were never more than a handful of elderly people attending. Now and then the number was increased by guests visiting from Poland.
Andrzej would eagerly say Mass for them in Polish. The monsignor no longer said Mass in anything but English and did not hesitate to make use of his "acting vicar" (as Andrzej called himself). Depending on his mood he would treat Andrzej with a mixture of respect and suspicion. Some days he would see him as the protégé of the local ordinary who a year ago had asked him to take in this priest from Poland; other days, as someone deserving the harsh treatment of an exile banished by the bishop of a Polish diocese whose name he mangled terribly; as indeed he mangled everything in that Americanized Polish of his. When in exuberant spirits he would see Father Andrzej as a heroic freedom- fighter for the old country where he had been persecuted by the communists to the point of having to flee for his life overseas. In each of these attitudes there was a grain of truth, half-truth and falsehood.
The truth of it was that Andrzej's superiors, his pastor and bishop, had urged him, indeed all but begged him, to leave the country for a while. And they had done this without holding the priest to his vow of obedience. He had so run afoul of the authorities that they were now poisoning his life without let-up. Things might have got much worse.
Thanks to the intervention of the episcopate at the highest levels, Andrzej had once again been released from prison. But the procurator's action against him remained in effect. It was just then that the underground brought to light a set of instructions issued by the PZPR Central Committee. They covered a broad range of methods in dealing with the church, priests and the Catholic faithful. Clearly Father Andrzej could expect no respite. The instructions were quite explicit. They included: a total ban on the building of new churches; the curtailment and closing down of church publications; boosting the anti-religious indoctrination of youth; fragmentation of the Church by preferential treatment of religious sects; purges of teachers, believers and prominent Catholics. In addition, they provided for the outright harassment and persecution of individual priests. With the beating of Father Bardecki, the burning of the church in Zbrosza, the attempts at slandering Bishop Tokarczuk of Przemysl and Father Chojnacki of Juszczyn, and especially after the slaying of Father Popieluszko of Warsaw, these instructions boded ill for Andrzej--and all too clearly at that.
The bishop and pastor both agreed that he might well be next on the list. They decided to come to his rescue. Sending him abroad, even if just for a while, seemed to be one way of cooling the ardor of the priest and removing him from his persecutors' line of fire.
At first Andrzej would not hear of it. Then he prayed over the matter during long hours of adoration. He decided he would simply be making an extended retreat abroad. Even Christ urged his persecuted disciples to flee from town to town. He agreed to leave.
A chance acquaintance struck up during a session of the Rome synod prompted Andrzej's bishop to turn to a bishop of Polish descent in America. The latter immediately took the matter in hand, fraternally and conscientiously. He understood (perhaps he did not understand all that well since his command of Polish was limited) that Father Andrzej had to be carefully concealed from his persecutors, and kept in a state of maximum isolation from both communist agents and the new Polish emigration.
The parish where Father Andrzej ended up was near the city's downtown core and hence, now, its moribund section. The district once pulsated with cultural, commercial--and Polish--life. Gradually the black and Hispanic population forced out the Poles who with increasing haste sold off their long well- maintained and now depreciated houses and left for the suburbs. The city converted these deserted homes into housing projects for the poor living on relief. In no time the buildings were brought to rack and ruin. The lawns were turned into trash heaps, the sidewalks into places for drug-dealing, the streets into drag-strips for drunk drivers. The district fell into economic decline. The streets became unsafe. Increasingly, the metropolis abandoned the residential quarters of the old inner city to the poorest of the poor. At the same time it proceeded to develop outwards, swallowing up large tracts of surrounding park- and farmland with new suburban homes on huge allotments. It was here, a good distance away from the old city limits, that a decade or two ago an enormous university campus was built. Poles would visit the downtown church only on Sundays. But the journey was burdensome and the numbers dropped off. New arrivals from Poland sought out better districts, and those who were attracted to living here because of the cheap housing did not go to church anyway. Consequently, the Sunday collections were small and insufficient for the upkeep of the parish. The newcomers moved out quickly. The remaining group of parishioners was made up of the most settled and poorest, old-world Poles--descendants of the first Carpathian settlers who had arrived at the turn of the last century--and remnants of the postwar soldiers' emigration. Some of these never set foot outdoors for weeks at a time for fear of their houses being burglarized.
The huge basilica built by the Poles about a century ago reared up like a petrified dinosaur--an anomaly of former ostentation in a sea of neglected, run-down slums. The adjoining rambling rectory and large school building also constituted relics of a bygone time. No longer was the complex the central point of the Polish district. No longer did crowds pack the church or the school halls seethe with youth, resound with the shouts of hundreds of children. The pastor used to occupy the rectory with five parochial vicars. Countless people would pass through the office, requesting baptisms, weddings, funerals, begging visits for their sick, inviting the priests to wedding receptions. Now all the school windows were boarded up, the ground-floor rectory windows were mounted with bars, every entrance was equipped with alarm devices. The rectory was a rusting, drifting wreck, a hopelessly embattled fortress.
Rumors made the rounds that as soon the pastor retired the church would be closed down and the parish disbanded. The church would no doubt be dismantled, the pews and altar-pieces sold as interior decoration for restaurants, the holy pictures stored away into the basements of Polish clubs, the candlesticks and candelabra consigned to the scrap heap. In any case, there was little left of the church's reliquaries, banners, statues and memorabilia after the sweeping housecleaning that had taken place in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. (The artifacts found their way to the vault beneath the main nave and were already gathering mold there. Father Andrzej had peeked down there once, and emerged shaken.) What remained was the church's splendid nineteenth century architectonics, its rich frescoes, coats-of-arms of all the districts of pre-partition Poland, stained glass windows portraying a gallery of Poland's patron saints. But no one had any use for old architecture. The murals could not be removed and the stained glass windows were falling into disrepair anyway. No one would be interested in buying them for their restaurants, bars, hotels, or business boardrooms.
So the parish was doomed: pastorally, because there were not enough parishioners; materially, because it lacked funds for the necessary repairs. The roof leaked. Wind whistled through the cracked windows, and mold was steadily eating up the frescoes.
The dying Polish flock was tended by a pastor of Polish descent. So it was only logical that the guest from Poland should be directed to him. The pastor was almost of retirement age and kept himself busy with little more than the Polish cemetery, which alone continued to flourish. He had long done without the aid of a vicar, so he was very pleased to receive an unexpected helper, especially as the chancery office had agreed to pay for his upkeep. Now the monsignor could occupy himself with more interesting things than ministering to a handful of old-world Polaks. Like speculating regularly on the Stock Exchange, or gambling at the casinos, a moderate habit of his. Then there were the trips he took in his recreational vehicle, complete with bathroom, kitchenette, satellite antenna on the roof and TV in the parlor. He would drive down to Florida, to Las Vegas or Atlantic City for a "rest" or a "cure". In fact, he was also escaping his crumbling church and memories of more glorious times. The rectory housekeeper would accompany him on these excursions.
"Someone has to cook for me" he curtly explained to Father Andrzej. "I'm on a very special diet."
Andrzej would remain behind. He spent less time in the rectory and more inside the church. Several times a day he went inside, to say Holy Mass, for adoration, to read the breviary, say the rosary. To him the expected fate of the splendid building had already been accomplished in spirit: there were no longer any people in it. Only the red vigil lamp beside the tabernacle revealed the presence of the church's most important occupant, but even the Master of the sanctuary awaited eviction. "Foxes have holes and birds of the air, nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." So it was in Christ's lifetime and so it was to be repeated in this parish.
While praying, or conducting the liturgy in the empty church, Father Andrzej at once accepted Christ's desolation and rebelled against it.
"An empty church defeats the purpose of the Sacrifice" he thought. "After all, it's a sacrifice for the people. I offer it up on behalf of people. How can one offer it up alone? Sure, I was forced to do it in prison. But that was in the nature of the totalitarian system. I understand that. But here the church doors are wide open. Hundreds of thousands of people live all around. Where are they?"
He waited for the faithful every day, at the altar, in the confessional. At first, a small number of people came to him for confession. "Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ" they would whisper in Polish through the grille. He was delighted and devoted a good deal of time to them. But the flow of penitents soon dried up. When he brought the matter up at the dinner table, the monsignor only smiled enigmatically and made no comment. Immediately the housekeeper informed Father Andrzej that people had come complaining to the rectory (it wasn't clear from what she said whether they had come to the monsignor or to her). They had griped about the length of the confessions and the unusual penances the priest from Poland was giving them. She lost no time in lecturing the new arrival on the fact that here in America, priests didn't turn confession into a psychotherapy session. That's what therapists were for, and one shouldn't rob them of their clients.
Apart from this, she was very nice to Father Andrzej. She lent him her car without which traveling about a city deprived of public transport would have been impossible. He did not go to the commercial centers as she suggested to him. Instead every Sunday, after saying the Polish Mass, he would head out to the American churches; each week to a different one, so as to "learn from the American Church" as he told the monsignor. He also went out on weekdays. On one occasion he attended Mass at the church by the local university campus. He walked out, terribly upset. Later he went to have a talk with the director of the Catholic campus center but he was unable to strike up with him, a priest in secular dress, and spiffy dress at that.
The liturgical customs and conduct of the American faithful surprised him. Sometimes they filled him with outright fear--fear of being a witness to sacrilege.
Before Mass people would greet one another aloud in front of the church. They carried their conversations inside, sipping on cups of coffee, picking up parish bulletins and reading them right away in their pews. Few genuflected on taking their place. Nowhere did the Blessed Sacrament occupy a prominent place. In some churches one was hard put to find the tabernacle. During the sermons the priest would tell jokes, provoking roars of laughter. For the Our Father everyone held hands, raised and shook them in the air. In sharing the sign of peace they hugged, kissed, slapped one another on the shoulder, greeted one another loudly. Everyone went blithely down the aisle for holy communion which eucharistic ministers would hand out under both species, while the celebrant sat cross-legged on his chair by the altar. Right after the final blessing loud talk, shouts, greetings would burst out in the church, gradually receding as the people went down to the parish hall where donuts and soft drinks were served. The priests would stand at the nave entrance, hug and kiss the parishioners, then go downstairs to join the others. Clearly both priests and parishioners regarded Sunday Mass as a social occasion. And clearly they felt comfortable in such an ambiance. But where was prayer in all this? The Lord searches their hearts--said Father Andrzej to himself--it's not my business to judge.
Yet at least these churches were packed, while their--Polish--church stood empty, even though the liturgy there was a traditional one. Why? And why was it that both the American and Polish churches--the distinction itself was sick since they were all Catholic churches, at least in name--rarely displayed at least a picture of the Pope?
He once raised the point at the dinner table during desert. Once again the monsignor dodged the question with a joke. But the housekeeper expressed herself with unexpected vigor:
"Americans are disappointed with this Pope. Our cardinals regret voting for him at the conclave."
"What do you mean?" replied Andrzej, surprised. "His visits to America attract huge crowds at his Masses."
"America's big. Thousands come to see the Pope, that's true. But there are millions of Catholics here. Sixty million, to be exact. Over three hundred bishops. How many of them go to see the Pope? Well, Monsignor, how many?" she asked dramatically.
"I know, but I won't tell you" he replied, once again turning the matter into a joke.
"Monsignor won't tell you, Father" chuckled the housekeeper, "because you're from Poland. The bishop sent you here, and who knows what you'll be telling him about us. . . "
"Me, an informer?" said Father Andrzej, bridling up. "It's me that's been informed on all my life. I've never denounced anybody. Never! Do people inform on one another in America as well?"
"Come on, Father, no need to get upset" said the housekeeper, backing off. "I'm not accusing you. All I'm saying is that this Pope of yours isn't very popular in America. He's backward somehow. Has a one-track mind on the subject of abortion. To the point of tedium. As for celibacy, he's not in step with the times. It won't be long before there's no one wanting to become a priest. And when it comes to women's ordination, he's so riled up the feminists they're spitting fire."
"But surely you don't want to be a priest" asked Andrzej hesitantly.
"I'd certainly be better at confessing than you, Father!" she riposted. "No, I'm in no hurry to get up on the altar. Wouldn't have time to do what I love: cooking. But I know how many nuns are aching to get there. Then there's all the parish secretaries, not to mention the receptionists at the chancery office. Together they represent a formidable force of womanhood which the Pope takes lightly and pushes away. They aren't all bad, stupid women, as he seems to think. The vast majority are well-educated, active, sacrificing and socially disposed. They can't bear the idea of someone placing obstacles in the path of their career, preventing their access to power. Still, for all practical purposes most of the decisions rest in their hands anyway. America won't put up with such discrimination of women much longer. No doubt the same goes for Western Europe. I don't know how it is in Poland, but I'll bet there's more than one dame with an aspergillum in her handbag. --she joked--I've done a bit of reading her and there, Father Andrzej. It's not just pots and pans I'm good for."
Andrzej sat crushed. Before him lay a plate filled with twisted pieces of deep-fried pastry called chrust. He had just helped himself to a few but suddenly he did not feel like them any more. He sat silent.
"Don't you like my chrusciki, Father" asked the housekeeper, looking suddenly concerned. She used the Polish émigrés' diminutive name for the sturdy Polish chrust.
"They're marvelous. . ." mumbled Andrzej, "but I seem to have lost my appetite today. . please excuse me. . ."
"Oh, what are you talking about!" said the housekeeper genially. "I know very well you love to eat, Father. I make no mention of the sin of gluttony. Quite the reverse, I'm delighted you enjoy my cooking."
"You're quite right" replied Andrzej who was doubly distressed: by the remarks about the Pope and about his own gluttony. "I eat much too much. You're much too good a cook. . . As for your pastries. . . simply superb. . . I'll mend my ways. . . Well, maybe for Lent. I give you my word."
"No need to mend your ways. . . I'd be angry. Gluttony's the least of the deadly sins. Gourmands always have good hearts. Remember Pope John XXIII? So, go ahead, Father, pitch into my chrusciki!"
Andrzej offered no further resistance. He munched on the pastry, sipped on a cup of good tea, and was doubly ashamed: for giving into his appetite and for not being able to refute the housekeeper's criticism of the Pope.
She watched him sympathetically. She regretted having made fun of him and purposely changed the subject:
"Strzeblinski's travel agency was broken in again. Third time this month. They took everything. Computers. Photocopier. Fax machine. The old man's closing shop and getting out of the city."
"Who? Who did it?" inquired Andrzej.
"You still have to ask, Father!" hooted the pastor. "Our neighbors!"
"Then we need to get down to evangelizing them," replied Andrzej seriously.
"Who? The blacks?"
"Well, we are running short of Polish parishioners. What if we tried to invite all our neighbors, draw them into the church, evangelize them!"
The monsignor laughed out, then added seriously:
"Be sure you don't tell anyone of your intentions!"
"You don't know America. God forbid anyone should try to convert anyone here. If you were to run into a Baptist or Calvinist of strict persuasion, he'd go and tell his minister you were intruding on his privacy. Then you'd end up with a court case on your hands: for limiting religious freedom. And if it was an atheist, or, what's much more likely to be the case, some religiously indifferent person, he'd bawl you out on the porch. And woe betide you if were reckless enough to step inside his house to continue your evangelization. He'd simply shoot you. Perfectly within his rights too. Besides, are you prepared to dance with them during Mass? It's a completely different culture."
"Missionaries in Africa join in the dancing. This way they can evangelize better!"
"This is America. It's only our liberals that bring barefooted young ladies prancing into the Catholic churches. I'm too old for that. I'd never allow it in my parish."
"I wouldn't necessarily have to dance with them. A bit of singing and guitar playing would do the job. I'm sure we could make contact through the medium of song."
"Do you really think these young mothers of umpteen kids have any interest in religion? Do they even bother to have them baptized?"
"Well, there you go, we have to at least baptize the children!"
"If you paid so much per head to have their brats baptized--a hefty bonus, mind you--the mothers might agree to it," retorted the pastor ironically.
"What about the fathers?"
"You're naive. The mothers often haven't a clue who they have kids by. The kids rarely know their fathers. And it's the rare man who's keeps track of how many kids he brings into the world, or by whom."
"Then maybe we could organize a meeting of the neighborhood and talk to the people heart to heart. Invite them to our church. Put on a movie for the youngsters. Set up a family information center for the adults. A soup kitchen for the homeless. Maybe even a shelter. The old parish school is empty. The Holy Spirit would help us talk them into it. They'd come."
"The Holy Spirit isn't allowed into the neighborhood. Too dangerous. And watch out for yourself. Not just in the evenings either."
Thus cutting off the conversation, the monsignor pulled out an enormous cigar, unwrapped it, snipped off the tip and lit it. It was a regular evening ritual of his.
The entire rectory was permeated by a sour odor, made all the more noisome by the presence of another regular inmate: a huge German shepherd, now old and decrepit, but still capable of barking up a storm whenever a stranger appeared at the door. Living in the "darkies' quarter", as the pastor called it, made keeping a dog an absolute must. After lighting his cigar he switched on the TV. He was in the habit of watching late-night movies in his own peculiar way. Using a satellite dish and a modern wide-screen TV, he would watch two, three, sometimes even four movies at a time. After programming them into separate "mini-screens", he proceeded to watch, or rather scan them simultaneously. From time to time he enlarged a particular screen that caught his attention. Andrzej sat politely with him a couple of times but soon found himself going dizzy. He got up and left.
He watched TV only when the pastor was away, when he was out of town or when he went to play bridge with his old Polish parishioners. Andrzej could then spend many hours in front of the set. Out of the several hundred channels available to him he would watch only one: Mother Angelica's EWTN in Alabama. He found there a wealth of excellent programs. Who knew, maybe this would come in handy after his return to his country? Maybe they could launch a Catholic station in Poland? It would be worthwhile learning how to put on good Catholic TV programs, as a means of evangelization and witnessing to the faith. He listened with interest to the lectures and discussions of the theologians, all conducted at the highest academic level. The shows for young people fascinated him, as well as the witness talks by converts (the program was very aptly titled, The Journey Home). Then there were the documentaries on the Holy Land and the Marian shrines all over the world. He was especially impressed by the station's topical news reporting. He found the live broadcasts of the devoutly-said Masses edifying, avidly followed the current coverage of the Pope's visits throughout the world, and was moved by Mother Angelica's live telephone conversations with her viewers. Although now well on in years and physically disabled, this nun displayed a deep knowledge of theology, an unswerving loyalty to the traditions of the Church and the Holy Father, and a ready wit bristling with earthy humor.
Those evenings when Andrzej could not watch TV he would go to his room. There he would often struggle with bouts of loneliness. Why of all places did Providence bring him to this sick and dying parish?--he would think at these times. Why did he have to hit on a pastor who was torn from his national roots and separated from the wellspring of his priestly vocation? America, after all, throbbed with lively Polish Catholic communities. Where was he to find them? America had her Polish Catholic monasteries, radio stations, choirs and church organizations. Somewhere there were Polish priests and priests of Polish origin--self-sacrificing priests, devoted to serving God and their parishioners--who had tirelessly tended their Polish flock in America for a century and a half. Where were they? They were around surely. He wanted to work with them, under their direction. Evidently he didn't deserve this. Who was he to rub shoulders with sacrificing priest- missionaries, with priests who were leaders in their Polish immigrant communities? He drove away such thoughts. He tried to grasp the meaning of his experience. He prayed for the pastor, for the parishioners--few as they were--for himself, a superfluous vicar.
Going up to the altar of that empty, or all but empty church, he accepted this as a reminder of Christ's desolation on the cross, as a particularly galling penance.
He experienced this all the more in light of the sharp contrast between this empty nave and the churches in Poland where only recently he had addressed hundreds of people. With that single gesture of raising the host he would cause the knees and heads of whole congregations to bend. His intoning of the responsorial liturgy evoked refrains from powerful choirs. The emotional phrases of his sermons would give rise to a forest of hands, fingers outspread in the sign of victory. Why had the Lord brought him from those packed churches to these empty walls? Maybe, after all, this had been neither an act of obedience to his bishop, nor a conforming with the advice of his pastor, nor an acknowledgment of the rightness of his friends' arguments, or even the will of Providence, but an escape, a reflex of panic?
His pain of solitude and desolation, his yearning after his lost community, his hunger for dialogue, caused him to say Mass as though he were blundering from word to word, action to action, as if he were grappling up a steep mountain with increasing difficulty and lack of breath. Despite this, he said Mass regularly every morning. And when he scheduled additional Masses or evening services he went ahead and said them, even if the church was utterly empty. Still, this habit of dependability and trustworthiness which he'd brought with him from Poland seemed pointless somehow.
It looked as if he was once again preparing to say Mass without the faithful. He gazed once more out on the dark and empty parking lot. "They'll come" he said to himself, "if not today, then next time. If it's not Poles, it'll be our Afro-American brothers. Young people if not the old. But will they come today? It's cold. Pouring with rain. October. Dark."
He carefully zipped up his jacket and pulled the hood over his head. For a while he struggled with his umbrella on the rectory steps. A sharp gust of gust turned it inside out. After wading through the puddles, he fiddled for a good moment with the rusty sacristy keys as a stream of icy water poured over him from the cracked gutter that led through a dragon's mouth.
It was peaceful inside the church. The rain drummed on the roof. From time to time a loose sheet of tin clattered in the wind. Andrzej went into the sacristy and switched on the chandelier lights illuminating the main altar at each end. He knelt down for a moment in front of the Blessed Sacrament, then went up the foot-worn aisle of the main nave and stopped beneath the choir-loft. There he opened a wicket mounted with an enormous grille which separated the church interior from the vestibule. The main church doors were always open from dawn to dusk. The vestibule was provided with kneelers where the rare visitor who chanced to enter could pray facing the altar. But the way inside was barred by the grille. It had been installed a good few years ago and was opened only in the morning on Sundays and in time for Holy Mass on weekdays. This had proved necessary ever since the number of homeless people had risen sharply in the neighborhood. They had been especially numerous in the summer and had got into the habit of using the church as a place for sleeping off the effects of their cheap wine and costly drugs and then making off with the contents of the donation boxes.
Father Andrzej swung open the grilled gate. No one was waiting in the vestibule. He went back to the sacristy, switched on the main altar lights and lit the beeswax candles on the eucharistic table. Then going back to the sacristy, he methodically flicked the rest of the lighting panel switches. Returning to the sanctuary, he could see all the chandeliers burning, the lamps alight on the side altars, and the great fluorescent light of the transept already beginning to glow to full brightness.
"Well it is supposed to be a votive Mass. And sung at that. So it should be on this great anniversary " he said to himself.
The candle flames flickered in the gusts of wind that blew in from the neighboring lake, tore through the city street canyons, roared over the roofs of the houses surrounding the church, and pressed in through the cracks of the stained glass windows.
The priest knelt down on the once burgundy, now reddish, carpet covering the altar steps in front of the tabernacle.
"Lord Jesus, empty me of myself in this empty church. Empty me, then come inside and pray to the Father as I pray to Him inside these empty walls. Remove far from me the wind and the downpour, and my anxiety, and what's left of this rain, and my life over there in Poland so filled with anxiety, and this day in America, so full of disappointment. Here I am before you. In the emptiness of emptiness. Make of me an empty vessel and then fill me with your plenitude."
Often at such moments, Saint John of the Cross's parable about the sunbeam and the piece of glass would come to mind and stir his imagination. The parable was about God working on man's soul. Andrzej did not chase it away at this point in his prayer. On the contrary, he always tried to evoke and meditate on it. The ray fell on the glass. If it was dirty, streaked, or unpolished, the sun was unable to shine through it, pierce or penetrate it. The more dirt it encountered the less it was able to shine through it, and the cleaner it was, the better the sun was able to penetrate it. So the continued passage of the light depended on that piece of glass. The sun is. It continues to be. It was, and will continue to be. It constantly sends out its rays. But those rays can glance off a dirty piece of glass, or shine through it only feebly. If, on the other hand, they strike a piece of glass that is clean, unblemished, untainted, transparent, they can permeate it entirely, so that the sun itself will burn in that piece of glass. The glass and the sun shining in the glass are separate entities. But the glass can partake of the brilliance of the sun. It can be its conductor, enable the sun to penetrate deep inside, inside the home, the soul. God is the light of existence. Man's soul can be the dwelling-place of the divine light. The more it purifies and strips itself down, the more it receives the light.
Andrzej gradually descended deeper into his prayer.
Stripping himself of all sound. The hardest thing was that piece of tin sheeting on the roof, ceaselessly trying to break loose, like a dog tearing at its chain and abruptly being pulled back.
Stripping himself of images. This was easier when he closed his eyes and allowed the darkness of the October evening to fill the interior of the nave, and then to penetrate him himself. Just as long as the shape of the cross remained.
Stripping himself of words. Painful to a homilist and popular leader whose crowd-stirring words rang constantly in his ears. One word remains. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. But that would last for only as long as he, Jesus, would allow it.
Gradually Andrzej groped his way toward a state of contemplation. He felt like a swimmer rising to the light through a dense layer of water after a deep dive. The process of concentration and stripping himself of all surrounding distractions was hard indeed. With increasing fixity of purpose he brought his will to bear on that most difficult act of the will: depriving oneself of will altogether. Gradually the light of the dark night of faith began to embrace him. Hope's cool stream began to flow inside him, warming him. He found refreshment in the flame of love. A brimming emptiness yawned within him. A vast wealth of poverty grew inside him. For a timeless moment he felt himself tumbling upwards into an absent Presence--a moment as brief as the eternal expectation of dawn during a sleepless night, and as long as the fleeting passage of a bird's winged shadow.
Finally, dazed like a swimmer bursting up out of the surface, eyes blinded by the light, mouth gasping for air, Andrzej prayed out in thanksgiving, and once again learned afresh the meanings of words, sounds, colors and shapes.
He rose from the kneeler and went to the sacristy. There he carefully put on his vestments, praying half-audibly all the while, and at the same time listening for the creaking of the church doors. Would a gust of wind usher in at least one, single soul? Alas, no. On stepping out toward the altar after ringing the entrance bell himself, Father Andrzej entered an utterly deserted nave, laid bare all the more by the blaze of all the church lights. He was alone.
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam."
He said this instinctively. "Just can't shake off the old Latin from my altar-boy days" he muttered to himself. It seemed more fitting somehow, in this solitude. Anyway, few people understood him when he said Mass in Polish. They'd forgotten their native language. And when he said Mass in English, they understood him even less, since he hadn't had time to master American pronunciation. So he might just as well stick with the Latin today. At least he'd understand himself.
He switched on the altar microphone and drew it closer to his lips. We went on with the Mass in Latin, loudly and slowly, listening to the echoes of his voice issuing from a dozen loudspeakers as though to spite the surrounding emptiness. But he was unable to shake off his sense of loneliness, desolation and exile. An inner gloom enveloped him. The feeling of emptiness grew in strength. All the more he strove to intone the words of the liturgy, aloud and distinctly, to carry out with precision the symbolic and efficacious actions of the priest.
Light gains strength in darkness, a cry carries farther in the silence of desolation.
October 16, 1989, Wola Zgórska
A chilly autumn wind greeted Father Andrzej on the rectory steps. He closed the door quietly behind him, so as not to wake the still sleeping pastor. He hoped he had not disturbed him earlier with his morning ablutions; he had tried to be as quiet as possible. It was the very same monsignor, now old and ailing, who had drilled him as an altar boy and packed him off to the seminary. The pastor had always been proud of his charge, and after Andrzej no longer had a family home in the village, welcomed him warmly as a guest of the parish rectory.
Father Andrzej held a hefty bunch of church keys in his hand. It was still gray outside. Before Mass he still intended to read the morning breviary, recite the joyful mysteries of the rosary, meditate in his pew, then contemplate on his knees in front of the tabernacle.
There was lots of time. He went around the church, opening the grating locks of the main and side doors. He unlocked the sacristy door but did not go inside. Instead he went to the churchyard wall and looked out on the valley.
October 16, 1989, and still he was on the road. Still at the crossroads of life. He'd come from God knows where, bided a while, was forced to leave, and was none the wiser as to where he has heading. This state of suspension and prolonged apprenticeship was taking a toll on the forty-two-year-old priest. By now his seminary peers and colleagues were pastors and professors; one was already a bishop, consecrated, like Karol Wojtyla, at the early age of thirty eight. Well, he wouldn't become a Pope, but great things were expected of him.
Meanwhile here he was, still wandering about, running somewhere, fleeing something, unable to settle down or put down roots. He was constantly meeting new people, changing academic institutions, parishes, surroundings, even countries; constantly beset by new problems, tasks, and labors. True, all this had been imposed on him by external circumstances, by the nature of his assignments and the Enemy's never-ending attacks. He was ordered to study in Rome even though he did not feel suited to academic work. Even then, thanks to his industry and conscientiousness he achieved results which others, quicker-witted than he, and resorting to short cuts, simply did not achieve. The secret police had effectively put an end to both his overt and covert work as a workers' pastor and a chaplain among Solidarity's underground circles and theatrical groups. Again, it was his bishop who'd asked him to put aside this work. North Lake, Michigan, was only a temporary placement. There he had had occasion to see up close, and with striking clarity, the dangers that the Church in Poland would soon be facing. But this knowledge proved to be useless. No one in Poland inquired into his American experiences, and when he talked about these, urging "caution for Poland", his interlocutors would merely laugh it off.
It was hard--ever harder--being a priest in the modern world with its secularism, materialism, relativism, distractions and temptations. From the point of view of the isolated village one saw this with particular clarity. Resisting the inroads of civilization caused isolation. Isolation caused loneliness. While this blessed and enriched the life of a hermit, it was an obstacle to a diocesan priest who had to work with people. How to reconcile this?
But maybe this was precisely the nature of his vocation--thought Andrzej. Not being tied to any particular place. Constantly meeting new people. Maybe this was to show him more clearly that he had only one homeland, a heavenly one, only one permanent place of residence: the one the Father had prepared for him. He had only one constant companion and guide for his pilgrimage--Christ. As Christ's witness, Andrzej had to cede to Him the places where he was sent, all the while remaining a stranger, a transient, witnessing to Him before the people, losing himself in Him.
It was painful wrestling with such thoughts in his birthplace, the place where he was first called to the priesthood. Didn't his village bind him with special force to a specific region, anchor him to a particular community? But perhaps it was precisely here that he had once again to embrace his vocation as a laborer going out to the harvest: going not where the best harvest lured him, or where a beautiful landscape and pleasant climate beckoned him, but simply where the Lord wished to send him.
In 1987 he was called back to Poland to work in the press bureau for the next papal visit. It was the third time he was serving in this capacity. This time he found the busy occasion especially frustrating. Day by day it became clearer to him that after his long hours of solitary contemplation in the old North Lake church he had lost interest in journalism, the activity which had once given him so much satisfaction. Spent was his old enthusiasm for involvement in current events--an enthusiasm so powerfully linked with the Solidarity movement.
Drafting press bulletins interested him much less than gathering more of "John Paul's little flowers" as he used to call them. This time, in addition to the Pope's own glances, gestures and reactions, Andrzej's eye was struck by flowers 'farther afield', as it were. For example, all those attentive gestures which the master of ceremonies lavished on the Pope: discreetly straightening the hem of his chasuble which the wind blew over his crosier, indicating with his finger the exact place in the sacramentary from which he was to read, carefully holding up the umbrella so as to protect the Holy Father from the rain or the scorching heat, adjusting the distance of the microphone from the Pope's lips; at every Mass new liturgical assistants would position the microphone and Monsignor Franco Marini always corrected their movements with the greatest care and patience. During the Pope's sermons and addresses Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz would also present him with "flowers" of discreet and precise assistance. Always at the right moment he would hand John Paul the right set of pages with the correct text and then collect them with brisk, careful movements, always receding back into the background. So many people showed their love for the Holy Father by their conduct and glances. It was absolutely clear that underlying this palpable texture of solicitude for the Pope was a great stratum of prayer.
Instead of delivering bulletins and communiqués, thus putting his day-to-day assignments at risk (every evening he reproached himself for this during his examination of conscience), Andrzej would hide himself in a corner of the press tent with a rosary in his closed fist, or sneak out to listen to the Pope's sermons.
During Mass in front of the Palace of Culture and Sciences in Warsaw he simply fled the press bureau, melted into the throngs of pilgrims, to witness with them the turning of the great wheel of history. The name of Joseph Stalin was still visible, inscribed in the sandstone of the palace, forming the backdrop to the papal altar. That vast edifice had witnessed the greatest single assembly of Poles in the post-war period. They had come here in 1956 to demand freedom. Gomulka pacified the multitude with mendacious words. But with every passing year it became clearer that the days of communism in Poland were relentlessly slipping through the hourglass. No one knew how many days remained. Time dragged mercilessly on. And then, in June of 1987, against the backdrop of that very same edifice before which, in 1956, Comrade "Wieslaw" had addressed the nation, the Pope rose up and emptied the hourglass of its last grain of sand. Once and for all he demystified the work of Stalin. Exorcised the shade of Gomulka. Rendered void thirty years of slavery. Gave sense to a thirty-year quest for freedom. The circle of history had closed. It was clear to all present that the old era was over, and that a new era was beginning. No one yet knew how much pain would attend the nation's rising out of the ruins, out of the devastation which communism had wreaked on Poland's economy, her environment, her people's consciousness and souls. But the threshold of the new era lay before them.
After the Pope's departure Father Andrzej returned to his old parish in the Warsaw suburbs. He tried to resume the broken thread of his pastoral work. But the country was different now. People had changed during his absence in America. His patriotic sermons struck no responsive chord. His meditations on the theological and moral aspects of the Holy Father's teachings were met with indifference. The leaders of Solidarity were becoming entrepreneurs. Actors neglected the underground theater. Neither had any more use for a pastor.
Only the secret police continued taking an interest in him, as if to drum into his head that he had been mistaken in returning from America. Nobody wants you here, so better go back overseas! They wasted no time in giving him a good fright, and in the event that he did not learn from it, they had further measures in mind: measures aimed at a final liquidation of the problem that he represented. They got busy with him right away, at the airport, as he soon as he disembarked. A thorough inspection of his baggage and a humiliating body search were meant to show him what he had come back to. Then there was the burning of his room, which almost caused the entire rectory to burn down, and after that, an especially severe beating one night while he was returning from one of his traditional post-Christmas pastoral visits.
The opposition was in the process of winning political emancipation. Party officials were dropping their committee posts and heading for industry. The press was shrugging itself free of censorship. Meanwhile, the war with the Church and harassment of individual priests went on in the same old way. In January of 1989 they murdered the upright and ingenuous Father Stanislaw Suchowolec--this already in the climate surrounding the imminent "roundtable" talks which both Party hardliners and fiery independence advocates were stubbornly trying to torpedo. Father Suchowolec was found dead in his room at Our Lady's parish in Bialystok. He had clearly been punished in this way for fostering veneration of his fellow-martyr, Father Jerzy Popieluszko. The fanfare attending Solidarity's winning of the June 1989 elections had barely reverberated throughout the country when, in July, Father Sylwester Zych died at the hands of unknown killers in Krynica Morska. The event seemed calculated to remind everyone that the secret police still held nightsticks, knuckle-dusters and bullets in reserve, and were still at large in the country to do just as they pleased. It was precisely this point that the bosses of the Ministry of Internal Affairs wanted to get across.
Andrzej found himself racked by periodic bouts of fear. He was constantly under stress. He felt heavy at heart. His religion lessons fell flat. During sermons he lost his train of thought. He told his pastor that since his return from America he was unable to find a place for himself in Poland. He'd lost his old contacts and couldn't establish new ones. The threats were taking a heavy toll on him. Perhaps it would be a good thing if he started a new chapter in his life with an extended retreat? And then, after a while, to take on a completely new assignment?
Proving very understanding of the priest's plight, the monsignor spoke to the chancery office. Andrzej was granted a two-week leave to take a retreat at his childhood parish in Wola Zgórska. After that, he was to report to Radom and there write a book on Saint Casimir, patron of Poland and Lithuania. Since Radom had been Casimir's regency capital in the years 1481-1483, it was still possible that the local chancery and cathedral chests contained undiscovered materials on the saint's office.
Thus a new temporary assignment in Andrzej's transient priesthood began to take shape. He accepted the will of his superiors without protest.
He was now standing with his hands on the sandstone slabs of the broad wall encompassing the parish church of his native village. Since seminary he had seldom returned here: naturally he had come for his first Mass, then again shortly afterwards for his father's funeral, and his mother's which followed soon after. They passed away within a few months of each other. A priest friend of his told him then that this happens in instances where the spouses were deeply in love with one another. They reposed in the nearby cemetery. Andrzej buried them himself. Yesterday he had been visited them again. Two other small graves were there, those of his twin sisters who had died two days after birth. He was a year old then.
If he were to look at his life from the vantage point of this parish church--he thought--there would be only two chapters: the first--his life as an altar-boy; and the second--burials.
What was in the first chapter? Learning the faith, discovering his vocation, seeking after the priesthood. The journey started with his mother carrying him in her arms, then his father leading him by the hand, and finally the pastor introducing him to the church. One by one he climbed the steps of the sacraments: baptism, penance, first holy communion, confirmation. From there he went on to mount the steps of sanctuary service: helping his sacristan-father clean and take care of the church, serving at Mass, leading the altar-boys' circle, visiting his parents and the parish--now in a seminarian's cassock. These trips from the seminary caused him a certain amount of spiritual hardship. On the one hand, he tried to give an example of piety; on the other hand, there was a touch of pride in the way in which he paraded about in his cassock. The virtue of humility got mixed up with the sin of pride. Everyone in his home village seemed to scrutinize him, as if they were checking on his conduct, deciding what kind of a priest he would make. He found this hard to bear. Would he bring them honor or shame?
The second chapter? Professing his faith and carrying out his priestly duties. His first Mass was a festive event for the whole village. Proud as Punch, his parents held a sumptuous, wedding-like reception in the May-time garden, with tables for two hundred guests, huge pots of various kinds of meats, with hams and sausages, flans, cheesecakes and cases of wine. He learned that vodka was flowing in limitless amounts behind the cow-shed, but what could he do; he couldn't spoil their fun. He sat in the place of honor to the right of the monsignor, his parents on either side of the two priests. The garland which the children had brought to the church hung on the cottage door. It was a feast. After that, he would make only rare, brief visits. Just two years after his first Mass, a telegram summoned him home for his father's funeral. Andrzej said the requiem Mass and accompanied his father to the cemetery. Then his mother. He passed on the family cottage to his relatives. All that remained were visits to the cemetery with brief stays as a guest of the pastor. He was doing this now.
So, first he'd walked from the house to the church. And now it was from the church to the cemetery. A simple pattern. Its simplicity could help him bring order to all those twists and turns, pursuits and flights characterizing his whole life. Indeed, one's home parish was a good place for a retreat and collecting oneself.
He gazed down into the valley, on the gentle slopes with those small parcels of plowland--tawny-, russet- and gray-hued at this time of the year. Brown, muddy roads crisscrossed the fields. Etched in the distance were lines of dark-green forests. Field greeted field, hill bowed to hill, road converged with road.
The world of his childhood--he thought--extended from one end of the village where the sun set to the other, where the sun rose. The west side was more important, since the setting sun was always visible from his cottage, and he would always walk home from school into the setting sun. The church stood on a hill at the center of this world. When he went there in the mornings, it would loom up against the backdrop of the rising sun. These two points were the most important: his home and the church. Linking them was the road.
The road from his house to the church sloped upward, and the road from the church to his house--downward. In autumn the road was always filled with deep puddles. The path running alongside was slippery, every now and then vanishing under a huge pool of water. On his way to rosary devotions he had to go around it, leap over the wet spots. On the feast of Saint Martin a smattering of snow would dust the mud. Come Advent, the first frost would congeal the road. The puddles stiffened, their icy edges crackled. Walking on a hard road to early morning Mass was a pleasure now. By the time the first, second and third snowfalls came the road was solidly frozen. The fourth snowfall, the one that fell during Christmas Midnight Mass, would rarely thaw. The cartwheel ruts were replaced by sleigh guide-runner tracks. He could walk along them, beat his own path or tread in his father's footsteps ahead of him. When the snowstorms swept away the tracks made by people, horses or sleighs, he'd have to forge his own path through. With early spring, the mire returned. Spring dried it out. Summer turned the road into airborne dust. Passing storms yielded puddles again. Subsequent heat waves brought back the dust. Autumn came and the mud returned.
What was home for a child? First of all, a window etched with hoarfrost patterns or shaded by sunflowers. Lightly bending, gray, creviced floor boards--dark until they dried off after their Saturday scrubbing: by Sunday morning they were almost white. Brown ceiling boards. The knots and dark spots emanating from the timber at the cut-off points created fantastic faces above the child's eyes as he fell asleep: black eyes, amber-colored, resinous beards, throngs of grim, stern-looking house-guardians, dead ancestors and fairy-tale kings. Holy pictures in the corner of the room. Rather high for a child; somewhat lower for a growing young lad. The prodigious weight of the front door. The dull groaning sound it made when it was closed shut. Didn't all those studs and panels have to heave constantly inside so that the door might come to the defense of the house? Flames flickering through the open crack of the flimsy kitchen door. The reflected light dancing over the gray walls. The creak of the door when his father entered with an armful of firewood. Father's figure way up at the front of the church, preparing the altar, lighting the candles for Holy Mass. Andrzej's swelling pride at the way in which Papa ruled the roost in the church. Mother leaning over her pots at the kitchen range. Mother's fingers peeling the potatoes then dropping them with a splash into the water-filled pot. Those very same fingers turning the crumbling pages of her daily missal. The steaming potato soup on the table. A child's eye, practically on a level with the edge of the deep earthenware bowl, had a particularly good view of it. His mother sat in front of him. He could see her wooden spoon up close, his father's too, beside him. The dark-veined hands holding the spoons had thick, toil-worn fingers, with cuts, and dirt under the nails. Those same hands fingered the rosary beads. The same hands, wound by those same beads, lay joined at the breast in the coffin. With dignity. Quietly. Too quietly.
The open coffin rested on the table. The deceased lay inside, festively dressed. The same person he'd seen before, but no longer the same. It was very hard to accept that he'd never again see that person alive. On this earth. Only in heaven. The son found it hard to believe. Even though he was a priest.
When he knelt down to pray by the coffin, he had difficulty gathering his thoughts. In vain he sought out regions of solace. With every breath he took he ran up against the absence of breath in the deceased. He began reciting the rosary aloud, to stifle his own internal sobbing. The others gave the responses, but not the voice that had so often replied in the past. The son recited the prayers louder still, storming the heavens for perpetual rest, for an annulment of death, for eternal life for his parents. After completing the entire rosary, all three parts, he sensed his relatives, guests and pallbearers fidgeting behind him: he was taking too long, they had to leave for church now, the horses were hitched to the cart. Once more he recited the Credo, so as to be able to end it with the words: "... and the life everlasting. Amen." He repeated these words aloud three times: "I believe in the life everlasting. Amen."
Only then did he rise to his feet. He let the pallbearers close the coffin. The nails were driven home. Then, taking his place at the head of the procession, he led them in song up the same road he had walked so many times to church with his father, with his mother. He said Holy Mass at the altar, facing the coffin. The altar merged with the coffin, the coffin with the altar. He sprinkled the casket with holy water inside the church and then sprinkled it again at the gravesite in the cemetery. Putting aside the shovel offered him by the altar boy, he bent down and grasped a handful of soil in his bare hand. Then crumbling it into dust, he scattered it slowly over the casket-lid--over that person hidden by the lid. But the planks would soon rot away and the body would mingle with the earth. In scattering the dust, he was returning the deceased to the earth with dust. Thus two hearts had burst, one after the other, while he had to take the wounds of those hearts into his own. Too much pain for a single son's heart.
What was church for a child? First of all: a stone floor, well-worn, hollowed out in many places, always cold; in winter--freezing. Confessionals. They were like huge cupboards for locking up naughty children. Stained glass windows. Fascinating for their myriad colors. So many gaps. The shattered ones were replaced with plain glass. Through them he could see the clouds and the swaying crowns of the lindens growing by the church. The altar evoked rapture. In the center--the image of the Mother of God crushing the serpent. Beside her were statues of the apostles: Peter with his enormous keys, Paul with his silver sword. Below, the gilded tabernacle, its doors of gold, a gilded baldachin surmounting it. On it would be exposed the golden monstrance with its flashing beams.
The many-ribbed vault of the chancel reared heaven knew how high. The dome over the nave was painted sky-blue with yellow stars. One could count them for ever, although sometimes this would prompt a rebuke from the priest or some old lady sitting behind: his pulled ear would smart painfully.
The side altars would temper the boredom of the divine services, interminably long for a child. At one of these altars he would imagine himself stripping the columns of their ornamental gold plating. There were four columns and any number of plates. At the other altar, he could plunge into the still-life stream of blue water flowing from the pail which Saint Florian held in his hand. Clad in silver armor, the saint quenched the flames of the burning church.
From time to time his mother would bring him along to make the stations of the cross. Gradually the sculptured figures and colors would draw him in. He would place himself at the head of each narrative. He insinuated himself into the crowd of onlookers in front of Pontius Pilate pointing at the bound Jesus with a bulky finger. Suddenly he'd see himself letting fly with his sling-shot, hitting Pilate right in the forehead, just as David felled the proud Philistine with a stone from his sling. He knew the tale from his mother's stories. Pilate would fall to the ground, and in the confusion Andrzej cut Jesus' bonds and freed him. The station showing Jesus being nailed to the cross terrified him. He forced himself to look at it, treating it as a 'mortification'. This word he also learned from his mother. Later he would pick it out in Monsignor's sermons.
The staircase to the choir loft was dark, steep and winding. The steps creaked. Sometimes he'd be sent up to blow the organ. He'd jump up to the bellows' handle, pull down hard, and swing slowly down to the floor, let go of the handle, leap up again and drag it down to the dusty floor boards. And again. And again. It was hard work but the view from above was splendid: nothing but kerchiefs, bald spots, hair and shoulders.
The many-branched candle holders were like silvered shrubs. The boy used to count the branches. There were four, then another four, then two more, and another one on top. That made eleven. Eleven thick candles were mounted in them. They were lit for High Mass, and they'd weep wax. A votive offering from the late village squire--before the war. In gratitude for his little daughter's cure from meningitis. So Andrzej's mother had told him once in a whisper. Then the squire vanished into the depths of Russia. For the first time the boy heard the unintelligible name "Katyn". Then, in the winter of 1945, she, the little daughter, along with her mother, the squire's wife, and five other siblings, were forcibly evicted and transported to town in a peasant's cart, never to be seen again. The manor was plundered and the land parceled out.
Tall, slender, single candlesticks stood on the altar. Papa would let him light them with a long pole tipped with a taper and extinguisher. They were hard to light. After Mass the little altar boy would punish them for their stubbornness, spitefully snuffing out the flames as though they were snakes. His father would also allow him to roll up the colored altar cloth before Mass. This wasn't easy either: rolling it up nice and even, then rolling and smoothing it out again after Mass; and covering it over with another white cloth. And woe betide him if he forgot to put on his surplice for this holy service. Nor could he forget to genuflect and bring his knee down squarely on the carpet upon entering the sanctuary.
The hand bells gave him tremendous joy. For the Sanctus and Per Ipsum you gave them three sharp rings twice. The Consecration was the altar-boy's proving moment: three rapid, sharp rings of the bells, then three, slower, quieter, distinct strikes of the gong, followed by three rapid, loud rings of the bells again. The trick consisted in holding the hand bells in such a way that the tongues of the many component bells didn't get snarled and lose their sound, so that the sound came out as a clear, resonant jangle, rather than as a scraping of the tongues on the metal. The other trick was when you'd have to switch from the bells to the clapper on Holy Thursday. Here you'd have to wave the thing briskly back and forth, but not too hard since then the hammer would jam and the clapper would give off a choking sound, which was an absolute disgrace for an altar boy.
Being thurifer was the finest duty on the altar. First you had to light the charcoal. Then you'd swing the thurible for a good while in the cemetery outside the sacristy until the coals glowed red. On handing the thurible to the priest inside the church you'd have to know which chain to pull and which to let out, how to ease it down, hand it over nice and level, so that the priest could take it smartly without the charcoals spilling out. Another boy would open the incense boat and the priest would spoon the grains out onto coals. After that, the most important thing was to produce lots of smoke, which depended on brisk swings of the thurible.
The sacristy was always dark. One had to speak softly there. On the walls hung old photos of Popes: a thin Pope and a fat Pope. Beside them was a photo of the current Pope. This one was thin. No doubt the next one would be fat again. His father told him they were Popes, but Andrzej was afraid to ask him why they took turns in being thin and fat. But when the bishop arrived for Confirmation, his hair was no longer dark but silver. He didn't much resemble his likeness on the picture.
The sacristy sideboard had so many drawers. You'd never find one with so many in any of the village cottages. Chasubles. Albs. Stoles. One of them contained the altar boys' surplices: small-sized ones at the top, and larger ones at the bottom. Folding them was an art in itself. It was the first thing a new altar boy had to learn. As the years of his altar service progressed, he went through all the sizes.
Once, while putting away the priest's vestments into the sideboard (his father was always giving him new duties), he carelessly touched the chalice nearby. The reverend pastor saw him and bawled him out: you never touched the sacred vessels!
"Go and kneel down this instant in the sacristy confessional. Sacristan, please leave while I confess this little heathen monkey. It's a terrible sin to show disrespect for the sacred chalice."
From that time one, he remembered that the gilded vessels--the slender one for wine and the fat one for communion hosts--were sacred. They contained the Body of Christ.
"Never dare touch the chalice with your unworthy fingers," explained the priest. "You see, Andrzej, even the priest first washes his fingers before picking up the divine Host. Then he holds it between his thumb and index finger, so as not to sully or dirty the holy wafer with something unworthy. It's a great mystery. You're too foolish to understand it. Even a wise man can't comprehend it. You have to believe. Believe. We can never show enough respect for God, or have enough fear of Him. But then you're a good boy. You didn't mean to sin. Say three Hail Marys and God will forgive you. By the power vested in me by Him, I absolve you of your sin."
How could the priest forgive him? How could the priest hold God's Body in his fingers? Why did everyone kiss his hand? Because it touched God? The priest's hand poured water over the head of the squawking infant at the baptismal font. The priest's hand blessed the congregation at the end of Mass, cordially sprinkled the bowed heads of the faithful, the coffin on the catafalque. The words whispered by the priest brought God down on the altar, changed the white wafer into the Jesus' Body, the wine into His Precious Blood. What awesome power. What a mystery.
The little altar boy racked his brains. How could all this be? As a teenager he wondered less at the signs, but he would strive all the more to fathom what they concealed. By the time he was in his senior high school years, he knew that the mystery would always remain a mystery. But he could consciously stand before it as before a dim light shining in the darkness. He could enter into its circle through faith.
The parish church tabernacle represented the center of the child's entire known universe; the axial vantage point from which the boy gazed out at the revolving horizon; the nucleus of the adolescent's ever- widening homeland, as discovered during a trip to Wawel Castle and a retreat in Cracow. It remained the center of the world exploding around the young man as he left for the seminary, there to study philosophy and theology, deepen his knowledge of the Bible, read the early Church Fathers. It was always from the tabernacle that the trajectory of the ever-expanding galaxies was measured. At the same time it was always a place he could come back to.
The altar boy knelt on the altar steps, his back always to the people, facing Our Lord Jesus. Then all of a sudden the pastor received a letter from the chancery office ordering him to install a new altar. The old altar had to be abandoned. The new Mass had to be said facing the people. For an altar boy--and, as he was convinced, for the priest as well--this proved to be a terrible distraction. In the old days you went directly to the altar without looking at the people. Now you went to the people first. Your eye immediately sought out your friends, relatives and girl friends. At the new altar you didn't kneel with your back to the church but sideways. The temptation was to kneel not quite at right angles, so that with the slightest movement of the head you could plainly see the whole church; who was standing or kneeling where.
He experienced his worst temptations serving at the altar just before leaving for the seminary. It was then that he sought out someone in the church he didn't want to see. Already the whole village knew he was bound for the priesthood.
They began eyeing each other seriously in the final grades of high school. She showed up a little after the start of the school year, in October. "The new girl." Her mother was hired on as a saleswoman at the cooperative store next to bus stop at the intersection. The girl had no father. That meant her mother didn't have a husband, which prompted a good deal of gossip in the village: "the demoiselle with the child", or better still, "the dame with the child", or simply "the tramp". Her daughter was known as "the illegitimate girl" or "the one without a daddy". When he heard this he felt sorry for her. At the same time he found her irresistibly attractive. They traveled to and from high school in the same bus.
Her name was Marzena. Very original; he didn't know any other Marzenas. She had a full-bodied figure, prominent lips, light blue eyes, red hair, and a freckled face--the butt of nasty gibes. His friends said this kind had freckles everywhere. He didn't want to hear it. "Holy Joe" they'd call after him, while to her it was, "Watch out for him--he's a Holy Joe. Going to be a priest. They're the worst sort. He prays under a statue but the devil lurks under his skin!" He'd drop his eyes on seeing her; at least he'd try to. But try as he might he could never tear his eyes away from those freckles peppering her cheeks, neck and even behind the ears. The sight of her breasts--so alluring under every blouse or jersey--distracted him to no end. She saw him one Sunday serving at the altar.
"Will you be serving for the rosary devotions?" she asked him the next day at the bus stop.
"Of course I will."
She came for the rosary and waited for him in the shadow of the old bell tower. It was already getting dark. She went up to him and told him she was afraid to go home by herself. Boys taunted her. She was new. Who'd protect her? He went with her. They stopped by her house, or rather on the steps behind the store. She lived there with her mother in a single room. They couldn't bring themselves to part. They chatted awhile, holding hands. It got darker. There was no light in the window. Her mother must have been busy with the store accounts after hours.
Marzena suggested they sit down on the steps. On mounting the steps, she swayed and pressed her bosom against him. The same breasts he'd stare at with a hypnotic gaze. Now they were touching him. He felt their fire inside. Immediately she moved away and sat down, pulling her skirt over her knees. He sat down beside her and clumsily cuddled up to her shoulder. Then she raised her arm, maybe to smooth her hair, and once again he felt her breast brushing against him. Then suddenly, quickly, they taught themselves how to kiss.
The light in the window went on. Stealthily, like a thief, he went down the steps, tiptoed around the yard and regained the road. Walking home, he felt shocked and terrified. Something terrible was happening to his body. As he passed the church, he felt like going in and making a confession, but by now the church was locked. He went on, shattered.
He couldn't very well avoid seeing her. Every morning he went to serve at Mass, and from there to the bus stop and ride into town, to school--with her. He was with her in class. He came back with her. On coming home, he'd hurry past the church, wolf something down, do his homework and then lie to his mother that he was going to a friend's to get an exercise book, or that they had to study together. Other times he'd simply steal away from the house. . .
And meet her. On the steps, in a dark nook of the outbuilding, in the shack, in the garden. With guilt feelings and unutterable delight. With growing fear. In the darkness. Whispering. Kissing. Touching.
He never talked about the seminary with her. At least he didn't say anything; and she didn't ask. But he kept thinking about it. He realized he couldn't reconcile the two. Twice on his way to her, he almost passed the church, then slowed down, entered the churchyard through the rusty gate, and stepped into the church through the main doors. There he knelt down on the flagstones. Finally he went into the confessional. After doing this a second time, he understood he would have to make a choice. And with terrible sorrow he realized that he would not chose her.
Avoiding her at the bus stop or inside the bus was impossible. At school it was difficult. Not seeing her was easier in the winter, but then again terribly difficult in the spring. She came to the May-time devotions every day and stood with the young women at the front of the church right behind the altar rails. Always in a light blouse. And he knew what was under it. He tried not to look at her, but one or two glances were inevitable and then always their eyes would meet. After May was over, she would stand under the bell tower, alone or with a group of girl friends. They'd giggle, joke or give him the eye. He'd bolt for it by the other gate, then creep right round the church wall so as not to see her.
She disappeared somewhere for the summer holidays. In September, at the bus stop, he told her he wanted to talk with her. He wanted to tell her unequivocally that he was going for the priesthood after graduating. She told him she didn't feel like talking with him. She left the bus stop shelter and lit a cigarette. Until then she hadn't smoked. She boarded the bus by herself, then moved away from him on the jolting seat. She avoided his gaze in the school hall. In vain he sought her out during the rosary devotions. During the winter he saw her in church only once, at Midnight Mass, with her mother. They didn't come to church on Sundays.
When Lent came round he decided once and for all to have done with it. He no longer tried to talk with her at the bus stop, or sit with her on the bus, or catch her eye in the school hall. Everyday he served at Mass. The matriculation exams were approaching. His studies consumed him. They'd stare at each other absently in school. By now he was certain he'd broken free, cured himself, regained his composure.
Then on the last day of May she came up to him. She was waiting outside the sacristy. With a resolute stride she approached him and took him under the arm. He stiffened. She led him down the road. The altar boys coming out of the sacristy saw them. Marzena's giggling girl friends saw them from under the bell-tower. The village women saw them. The organist saw them. The whole village saw them.
She led him down the road, by the arm, in full view of everyone, but she spoke quietly, so no one might hear:
"I can't stand this any longer. . ."
He was terrified. She went on in a whisper:
"You have to marry me. . . We have to be together. . . Or else I'll do something that. . ."
And here he was--with his application already sent to the seminary! Terrified at first by her turning up like this, then angry, he finally collected himself. He didn't want to wound or hurt her. He wanted to put it delicately but found himself at a loss for words. Finally he blurted out:" But you know I'm going to be a priest."
Nothing more. He fell silent. He could think of nothing else.
She stopped and caught her breath spasmodically. No sob or sigh followed, only a soundless cry. She opened her mouth. Her lips quivered. He saw her swallow her saliva. Her cheeks turned white, if this was possible under all those freckles. Her eyes opened wide, as if she were gazing deep down into herself.
This lasted only for a moment. Withdrawing her arm from under his, she raised her head, at the same time lifting her shoulders, as if her neck was in pain. She stood facing him, looking at him. But he could have sworn a fence or wall stood between them.
"You'll regret it" was all she said.
She walked toward him--not toward him but toward that invisible wall. He moved aside. She brushed past him and went on down the road to the village. Her head was stiff and erect, still pressed into her shoulders as if her neck were hurting her.
Summer followed: spiritual retreats, entrance examinations, and his return home with a letter of acceptance from the seminary. Holidays. Harvest time. The last Sunday Mass before his departure. As he led the priest onto the altar, he couldn't help looking out for her eyes. He didn't see them. Relief. Great relief.
After his first year at seminary, he paid a holiday visit to his parents. As before he went to the sacristy to serve at Mass. It was his first time in a cassock and he was proud as a peacock. He purposely put on a short surplice so as to have the garment clearly seen. Blithely he stepped out toward the altar.
Marzena was standing in the first row of young women. She had an enormous belly. She looked at him. Fear seized him. He dropped his eyes, felt like making a run for it. Had she done this out of spite, as a perpetual reproof? Or maybe it was her way of blaming him for having brought her to this, pushing her to this extremity?
He had no way of escaping these questions or avoiding her gaze; no place to go but to the altar, to pray.
After Mass, afraid to leave the church, he fled to the tabernacle and remained in front of it for a long while. He came out fearfully, with unsure steps. She was nowhere to be seen. He spoke to no one about her. Nor did anyone tell him anything about her.
As the years went on, he came to understand ever more clearly that this experience had taught him much about his weakness. Only grace and prayer could transform it into strength. It tempered his priestly service, the service chosen for him by his unseen God. He was to serve God alone. Yet this service was to have a visible, human, public and social dimension. The priest was immersed in the world. He rubbed shoulders constantly with people. With men and women.
How many times after that had he gone out to the altar of this same church--as a seminarian, then as a priest--and unconsciously cast a glance at the spot where he last saw her? He prayed for her and for her child. It was not his child, so he never inquired about it. He begged forgiveness for himself and for her. He prayed that all might be well with her, and that she would forgive him.
He never saw her again until that evening when she suddenly appeared before him, when he was dressed in that funny Saint Nicholas costume. He never longed for her but he never forgot her standing there, behind the altar rails in the church of his childhood. In a painful way she had helped him once and for all to recognize and choose his vocation.
But maybe he still hadn't fully received it? Or to put it in another way: maybe he'd received it in its entirety, but had to discover it all, step by step; and this was a whole life's task. No doubt there were those who received that grace once and for all, all of it. Such people are summoned directly by the voice of God himself, anointed by an outpouring of light from the Holy Spirit, led by the hand of Christ himself. It wasn't like that with him. In calling him the Lord had made use of simple signs of piety: the piety of his parents, his pastor, his parishioners. He'd handed him ordinary objects and instruments: a rosary, a bell, a thurible. Every year he'd repeated to him the same readings from Scripture. He'd put him through the motions of prayer, recitation of the litanies, serving at the altar, which subsequently deepened into profound habits. He'd led him through expositions of the Blessed Sacrament, the Lenten psalms, vespers, May and June devotions, rosary services, Holy Masses, on Sundays, Advent mornings, daily Mass--ever more frequently. And he'd subjected him to countless trials: in the village, at school, in the army, in the seminary. So it continued even now.
Once, while serving Mass, Andrzej had seen a small child break free of its mother and begin climbing the altar steps. The mother went after it. Maybe that's what his vocation had been like, and still was: a clumsy groping up the altar steps, one by one, ever upward?
At first, the child mounts the steps spontaneously, merely out of curiosity. Then the growing boy brings his will to bear on the process. He acts on the basis of choices. In every moment of weakness or temptation, at every opportunity that presents itself, he chooses whether to accept the call or to reject it, whether to continue up the road leading to it or to close it off. A thoughtless act might easily sidetrack him. Subsequent trials and choices either increase his certainty in, or cast doubt on the reality, the authenticity, the strength and sense of his vocation. And then there he is on the threshold of the seminary. All sorts of twists and turns still lie ahead, but Scripture study, the liturgy, Holy Mass, living the sacraments, spiritual direction, prayer and grace straighten the way for him. A mature love develops. And then the priesthood itself. With every step forward Christ becomes more and more real. Paradoxically, the journey will bring him down lower, to the level of man; Christ will be his companion so as to enlarge him, make him stronger, impart an eternal dimension to his earthly life.
Yes--thought Andrzej--at every step of his priestly journey, he had to make that same fundamental choice: whether to accept his vocation or to reject it. He had to make it here and now, during his pilgrimage, to this place from which he had first set out in response to the call. Once more he would set out from here in response to that call.
He pulled his hands away from the cemetery wall.
Time to go into the church. He still had his prayers to say: the breviary, rosary, meditation and contemplation. Then Holy Mass. Today it was for the Pope.
He looked around. Everything was in its place. The landscape. His memories.
Shutting off the horizon in front of him was the heavily wooded mountain with its three peaks. Behind him stood the church, surrounded by spreading lindens. To his left stood the rectory and the village road descending into the valley dotted on both sides by crofts, while rearing over them was the vast dawning horizon. The sky to his right was still gray over the cemetery path and the road that led home.
A recently recurring dream flashed through his mind:
He was following that same road, along ripe grain fields, on a pilgrimage to Jasna Góra. It was warm and sunny. He was walking to the left of the Pope, delighted that the Holy Father had called him to accompany him for a while. The Pope was in his white soutane, a staff in his left hand. The other pilgrims were walking behind. Suddenly Andrzej realized there was a third person walking beside them. Another pilgrim? It was a small child walking on the other side of the Holy Father. The Pope was holding his hand. A young boy, seven or eight years old. His head was down. The sunny breeze was blowing his hair over his brow. Andrzej hastened his stride so as to get a better look at the boy on the other side of that white soutane.
Then the boy raised his head, blinked his eyes in the sunlight and Andrzej saw his face. It was his own face--as he remembered it from a photograph commemorating his First Holy Communion.
From Dzien Swiadectwa by Kazimierz Braun. Bytom. Oficyna Wydawnicza 4K (Plac Wolskiego 4, 41-902 Bytom). 1999. 389 pages. Paper.