Angels in Poland

It hadn’t been part of my Life Plan to visit Poland, but an invitation was not to be turned down. So I found myself at the end of June (2003) flying to Warsaw over the vast northern European plains, a great sea of agricultural strips with large islands of forest, all soaked by centuries of bloody war. I was to spend a fortnight in the Polish mountains, teaching English to a small summer school of students aged 13-17. This had been organised by Mrs Maria Szymanska, a teacher whom I had met in Aberystwyth when in 2000 and again in 2002 she brought a coachload of young people to Wales. On both occasions I had taken them for a day in St Davids, visiting other churches en route.

Those visits to Wales had already borne in on me how deeply religious most Polish people are. It is true that Maria’s school is Catholic, with a priest as headteacher and other priests on the staff, whereas the state also runs schools with a less overt agenda. Maria herself is a devout Christian, who finds it as difficult to pass a church as I do a bookshop; her home, like the other Polish homes I visited, has devotional pictures in almost every room, and John Paul II is always referred to simply as ‘our Pope’.

Maria’s small apartment in Legionowo, near Warsaw, was full of her two boys, her husband Darius and herself, so I spent the night with a friendly couple of confectioners, who had not a word of English between them, nor I of Polish. Next morning I went out with the husband, whose name I forget, to buy bread. It dawned on me that were he to have a heart attack, I would be utterly lost! I didn’t know their family surname, nor the address. But he obligingly remained in good health.

A small and rather battered coach took us – Maria, myself and fourteen young people, southwards from Warsaw along the rugged Polish roads. I was to spend some minutes every day wrestling with Polish placenames (cz = ch as in ‘church’; sz = sh; c usually equals ‘ts’, while w = v and the letter ‘l’ with a small bar on it = ‘w’; that’s for starters). After many hours we reached Czestokowa, the spiritual capital of Polish Catholicism. Built on a small hill famous in Polish history for having resisted a wave of Swedish invaders in the 17th century, the complex of religious buildings was full of visitors and activity despite the day having no especial significance. As a centre for pilgrims, Czestokowa is on a level with Lourdes and Fatima, especially because of the presence of a famous icon of unknown origin, the Black Virgin, exposed to pilgrims only during Mass. Huge car and coach-parks cater for the crowds who come on Sunday and holy days, while thousands come on foot; young people especially walk the two-hundred miles from Warsaw.

South of Czestokowa the land becomes more hilly, and south of Krakow the mountains begin to appear in the distance. We were to spend our time among the foothills in a guest house in the hamlet of Koninki; each day would begin and end with a meeting for prayers and each meal with grace, the students knowing far more prayers and hymns by heart than would virtually any Welsh youngsters, the teenage boys as ready as anyone to cross themselves, bow their heads and pray. Even though I’m not a Roman Catholic, Maria was willing to trust me with leading the daily meetings so that the students should hear the Bible in English and learn Our Father and the Ave Maria in English; they also learnt a number of simple Christian songs.

Life was by no means all prayers and lessons; we were very well fed, and went for a number of excursions short and long. Our visit to Krakow was the highlight of these trips; Krakow ranks with Prague and Venice for the quality of its ancient city. However, Maria insisted that we went first to the Sanctuarium, a huge church built in 2001 for the Pope to canonise a local nun, Faustina. Intended to look like a great ship, the church is more like an airport terminal – a fine one, admittedly, but with a truly dreadful acoustic in which music is impossible and the priest’s voice, despite his best efforts, became a monotonous boom, like that in the Malabar caves. I was secretly pleased to discover that the students disliked the place as much as I did, preferring more traditional buildings.

The Old City, on the other hand, exceeded even my expectations; here is the history of Poland. Massive fortifications protect a cathedral in whose labyrinthine crypts lie the great kings, queens and national heroes of Poland. One of our students, Tomek, acted as my guide; I fear that none of the thousands of Welsh children I have taught would have known as much about Welsh history as Tomek does about Poland. Then it was drinks in the sunshine in the fine Wawel enclosure and a visit to the huge main city square, whose size and magnificence enable it to rise above the thousands of tourists who throng it daily.

Our last trip before returning was to the small town of Rabko. It was Sunday, and our intended visit to Mass at the stork-crowned church at Koninki had been frustrated by a cloudburst. Eventually the sun emerged, we bounced and swayed to the town, and after a walk Maria found a church about to begin its fourth Mass of the day. It was a large church packed with people, at least half of them children and young people, and with a crowd outside the door. I was shoe-horned into a good seat, and sat there for the hour amazed at the attention and good behaviour of the young congregation. There were no concessions; both music and sermon (twenty minutes) were serious, and I was impressed by the obviously high calibre of the preacher, as I was by the other priests I met or saw in action.

The highest points of my time in Poland were not however in Krakow or Zakopane or our rainsoaked climb of the 4,000ft Torbacz mountain. Polish hospitality saw me enjoying meals not only in Maria’s apartment, but in the immaculate home of Maria’s friends who had given me accommodation that first night; down south in the lovely old house of a Polish National Park ranger and his wife, and in the home of one of our students whose mother wanted to thank me personally for my small efforts to help her daughter Martyna. She gave me a very special prayer blessing when I left. The quality of their welcome lay above all in their open Christian kindness and warmth. Many of us may have entertained angels unawares – I was entertained by angels.

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