An Episode in the Ministry to Students

By Janusz A. Ihnatowicz

When on my ordination day in 1962 I opened the envelope containing my first priestly assignment, I discovered with surprise and trepidation that the bishop wanted me to organize the pastoral care of students in the institutions of higher education that were beginning to appear in the episcopal town of Kielce at that time. In this way I joined the company of those priests whose task it was to try to preserve the presence of committed Catholic Christians amidst the Polish educated classes. This was a complex and daunting task in the best of times, while in Poland, ruled by Comrade Wieslaw Gomulka, it was particularly delicate and hazardous. For Gomulka, the elimination of religion from the life of the nation was of primary importance.

I was stepping into an apostolate that had certain methods already worked out. Now looking back I see how these methods of doing things were influenced by pre-World War II approaches to the same goal, often inspired by foreign models such as Jeunesse Ouvriere Catholique, a Belgian youth movement adapted to the administratively hostile situation in Soviet-occupied Poland, or the scouting movement. It was this constant threat of authorities that forced us to exercise great ingenuity and the spirit of improvisation. In these remarks I would like to share with you my memories of one episode of this work where the risk was especially pronounced and the ability to improvise especially important.

Communist authorities punished severely students and priests who went on camping trips together, under the pretext that they broke the law about "illegal public gatherings."

Every "Center" for the pastoral care of students (duszpasterstwo akademickie) had its public side such as Sunday masses designed specially for students, annual retreats and public lectures. In this way, every such Center resembled a regular city parish. But the public side was not its only side, and in a sense it was the less important part of our work. Like our foreign colleagues in Belgium, we realized that a more individual and personal ministry was necessary, if we were to form young men and women into intellectually and morally mature Catholics. Thus other, discreet and less visible work was going on. Every Center began to generate groups of students who were more deeply engaged in their Catholicism than most of their colleagues, and who were not merely recipients of care but contributors to the working of the Center. Summer camps, in which these groups of students accompanied by a priest spent time together during their vacations, were an important element of this process.

There was general agreement about the necessity of such arrangements. I suppose that the inspiration came also from the experience of pre-World War II scouting, a movement of strong moral and patriotic force which similarly focused on summer camping activities. Father Karol Wojtyla was one of the original promoters and practitioners of this idea. It was during one of his camping trips that he received news of his appointment as bishop. Cardinal Wyszynski approved of these practices as well. I stress this because thirty years later, it is fashionable to accuse Wyszynski of indifference or even hostility toward the "elitist" and personalized apostolates. His support was expressed by his use of the special powers granted him by the Holy See, sometimes (I conjecture) stretching them to the limits, to grant all sorts of permissions, such as saying masses anywhere at any time, which was unheard of in those ancient pre-conciliar days.

Why was there agreement and emphasis on an activity which called for much labor, was disproportionally expensive for our limited budgets and, in Gomulka's Poland, largely illegal? (The Soviet-imposed law about "illegal assemblies" was tailor-made for it.) I mentioned the connection with the pre-war scouting movement. Those who promoted the scouting movement recognized the beneficial results of getting groups of young people together not as mere recipients of some organized entertainment but as persons responsible for making the whole enterprise a success. Such camping trips involved more than resting and having good clean fun. They involved intellectual and moral training and, perhaps most importantly, they gave students an experience of true community, where all work for the common good. With the added dimension of common prayer, the Eucharist, the opportunity for conversation about one's faith, the camping trips became an important segment of pastoral ministry to students.

The party functionaries clearly understood this. They spared no effort to eliminate such camping trips, and punished those who were caught. There were penalties for priests for organizing "illegal public meetings," but these were of less concern. What we had to worry about was the consequences for students who participated. Hence the first commandment was not to get caught.

The scouting movement recognized the beneficial results of getting groups of young people together not as mere recipients of organized entertainment but as persons responsible for making the whole enterprise a success.

How to avoid getting caught? Be inconspicuous. Groups of young people guided by a few older persons were a fairly common sight in many regions of the country, because schools and colleges organized such summer or winter expeditions. One had to "fade" into them and become unrecognizable as a "priestly" group. The most important thing was to avoid any visible contact with the local churches and clergy. For this reason, Cardinal Wyszynski gave the generous (for that time) permission to celebrate masses anywhere and at any time during such trips. I remember one group that broke this rule. They were tempted by the convenience of participating in a mass said in a beautiful church and followed by a generous breakfast at the rectory. As they marched away they were met by the waiting milicja [Soviet-style police], and the usual dire results followed.

It also helped if the priest accompanying the group did not look too obviously priestly, if he was able to fade into general membership. In those days, I looked some ten years younger than I actually was. Once a village peasant told me: "Young man, aren't you people lucky to have a priest with you." I did not ask whom he suspected of being the priest in the group. We had to keep moving, never staying in one place for more than a day in order not to give the local authorities an opportunity to wonder who "those people" might be. For the same reason, we could not use public facilities such as hostels, camping grounds or tourist restaurants. So if we camped, we did so somewhere in the wilderness, or else we slept in barns. In this last case, the priest would make himself known to the farmer to gain his trust. These conditions brought to mind the ways in which the first Christians tried to escape the authorities by celebrating the Eucharist in the catacombs.

But security and secrecy were obviously a means and not a goal. Christians should be willing to witness to their faith, even when it means risking their own safety. The very existence of groups of young Christians was a sign of hope in a country subjected to programmatic atheization. It was important therefore to make ourselves visible from time to time.

Let me finish by telling you of one such occasion. We were a large group, about forty men and women, all students, led by an experienced priest (he is now bishop of a large diocese in Poland) whose assistant I was. That summer, we hiked in the Carpathians for almost two weeks, from Wislicz to Nowy Sacz to Rabka. On our last evening together we had a particularly elaborate "campfire session." We had earlier arranged our sleeping quarters in a village in the hills, away from the main road. After supper, we returned to the river bank which also happened to be within a hiking distance from a resort filled with tourists. As it grew dark, many of them were drawn toward us by the light of the fire and by our singing. One could sense a certain curiosity among them about these young people having clean old-fashioned fun, with no alcohol and no off-color jokes. They liked us. Hours went by, evening changed slowly into night. It was time to leave. We began to sing a traditional patriotic song. At a sign from Father M. one of the students filled a bucket with water from the river. When the song was over, we all stood up. Father M. then turned to the people surrounding our group. "We are a group of Catholics," he said, "would you join us in prayer?" And he intoned a popular Marian hymn, Serdeczna Matko. A moment of stunned silence, and they joined us in singing. As the song ended, someone poured water on the fire and we slowly drifted away into darkness.

Janusz A. Ihnatowicz is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston. He is the author of several volumes of poetry in English and Polish.

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