In the movie, Karol, a man who became pope, we see a young woman who is a member of the then Father Wojtyla’s circle of young student friends. She is distraught because she and her husband are about to flee Poland because of the harassment of the communist authorities. Fr. Wojtyla consoles her. Whenever you are, he assures her, you will still be Polish.
Today, in this basilica, the oldest Polish American parish in New England, we celebrate 150 years of the first permanent settlement of Polish immigrants in this country with the arrival of poor immigrants from Silesia to Panna Maria, Texas. The prehistory of American Polonia can even be traced to the first settlement of Jamestown – and in every case whether it was that of those Polish artisans that organized the first strike on American soil, whether it was that of the valiant heroes of the American Revolution, Generals Pulaski and Kosciusko, whether it was Father Moczygemba’s brave band of settlers, or the former peasants that stream into America during the Great Wave of Immigration that began in the 1880’s, or of the post World War II D.P.’s resettle in America, or the most recent migration from Poland that began in the 1980’s: in every case, Poles may have been obligated to flee their native land because of hunger or oppression – but in so fleeing, they never fled from their “Polishness”. As Karol Wojtyla told his young friend, wherever you are, you will still be Polish.
Like the great oak tree of Panna Maria in whose shade Father Moczygemba first celebrated Mass for his people on Texas soil, Polish roots run deep. These roots of faith and culture anchored them and their families to a fierce pride in their “Polishness”. It is a holy pride that the angry winds of poverty and prejudice could not conquer.
To protect those roots of Polishness, Poles in America built new institutions: fraternal societies, newspapers, insurance cooperatives, schools, seminaries – and our own national parishes. These institutions were not designed to isolate us Poles from the new society in which we found ourselves. On the contrary, in the face of hostile forces that would marginalize us unless we would deny our Slavic identity and our Roman Catholic religion, these institutions were designed to give us the position of strength that would allow us not to assimilate but to integrate. If we had to leave behind Poland, we would not leave behind our Polishness. Whenever we are, whether we are the descendents of Polish mill workers in New England, or the grandsons of Polish deportees in Siberia, there is Polonia! Again the words of Karol Wojtyla remind us: wherever you are, you will still be Polish.
When Karol Wojtyla became the great John Paul II, he spoke often of the relation between faith and culture. Just as the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and became truly man, faith must also become part of the culture of any people in which the gospel is planted – otherwise, it risks remaining just a veneer, a foreign presence. Enculturation – the process in which faith becomes a culture – a way of life, a way of understanding one’s existence, one’s identity, and a way one makes sense of the world around him – is the way that the mystery of the Incarnation continues in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. Early in his pontificate, Pope John Paul II made Sts. Cyril and Methodius, co-patrons of Europe in order to highlight the great sensitivity they showed to the culture and language of the Slavs they evangelized.
Unfortunately, in the history of the Church, the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodius was not always well followed. Too often, the mistake of the first Hebrew Christians has been repeated. You will remember that in the Acts of the Apostles, there was a party of Judaizers – who insisted that Gentile converts had to follow Jewish law. St. Paul insisted that Jewish law does not save us – Christ does. To be a good Christian, to be a good Catholic, Jesus does not ask us to change our culture, our language, or our customs. He only asks us to change our hearts. As I said too often, mistakes were made when culture was ignored or disparaged. Because of these mistakes, deep hurts occurred and those hurts led to schism for a not insignificant number of Polish Americans whose frustrations with bishops and priests who did not understand either the Polish language or the Polish people led them to form the Polish National Catholic Church, a schism that still continues today.
I mention this not to fan into flame embers of old resentments – for Jesus tells us in the gospel to forgive, to forgive seventy times seven times. I mention this because we celebrate a significant Jubilee in the life of Polish pastoral ministry in the United States: 150 years. As Pope John Paul II taught us by his example during the great jubilee of the Year 2000, jubilees are not only times of celebration but also times of healing, times to seek and to give forgiveness. And within our own Church – in our dioceses and in our parishes – there are resentments for real and for perceived slights. Demographic shifts of population have cause closings of many beloved parishes – such closings are never easy but often have been made so much more difficult by ineptness or intransigency on one side or another. This 150 year jubilee certainly can be a time of grace – and a time for healing where healing is needed. For the gospel calls us to be a reconciled – and a reconciling Church. And to reconcile and to be reconciled doesn’t require us to change our culture. No, to seek and to give forgiveness, we don’t have to change our Polishness – only our hearts.
Our identity as Poles and as Catholics was forged in Poland’s baptism in 966. Thanks to our 1,000 year history, the Catholic faith has become “enfleshed” in Poland’s identity as a nation and as a people. Even third or fourth generations of Polish Americans have preserved a way of living out their Catholic faith in distinctively Polish ways. Deep faith in the Blessed Sacrament, frequent recourse to the sacrament of Penance, devotion to the Blessed Mother and faithfulness to the Holy Father continue to be well known characteristics of the way Polish Catholics live out their faith. Practices of popular piety with Polish flourishes also help Polish Americans and their children to continue to grow in their Catholic faith and still be Polish even when, like myself, we don’t speak the Polish language that well.
I would ask you to remember the moving homily Pope John Paul II preached on the eve of Pentecost Sunday on June 2, 1979 in Warsaw’s Victory Square. There he spoke of the theme of his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, but with a particular Polish application. In Redemptor Hominis, the Pope reminds us that Jesus as true God and true Man, reveals to us not only who God is but who we are. Because of this, he said in Warsaw, we cannot understand who man is without Christ, and we cannot understand what Poland is and why it survive so much over the centuries, without Christ. And in the same way we cannot understand the history of Polonia – the struggles of Moczygemba, the sacrifices of those poor immigrants who built soaring basilicas, cannot be understood without Christ. Without Christ, it doesn’t make sense.
Could Poland have survived the years of Partition with its Catholic faith? Without faith in Christ, could Poland have survived the years of communist tyranny? Only Christ can explain our attachment to our “Polishness”. If Poles preserved the faith, the faith also preserved us as Poles, the faith has kept alive our dignity and our identity as Poles. Is precisely because of our faith, that no matter wherever we are, we can still be Polish.
In Warsaw, on that Pentecost vigil, the Holy Father called down the Holy Spirit to renew the land, that Polish land. That prayer did not go unanswered. Today, as we reflect on 150 years of Polish pastoral ministry in the United States, may that same Holy Spirit renew the hearts and minds of all Polish Americans so that our Polishness will continue to be an effective expression of our Catholic faith and a source of renewal not only in our Polish parishes but in the entire American Church.
Homily given by Bishop Thomas Wenski
At 150 th Anniversary Celebration of Polish Pastoral Ministry in US
At St. Joseph’s Basilica
September 11, 2005