ON THIS CHRISTMAS TREE THERE WAS WHOLE POLAND
Adam Łazar talks with archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki, the metropolitan of Lvov, the former secretary of the Holy Father John Paul II about Christmas
ADAM ŁAZAR: – Christmas is preceded by Advent. How did the Holy Father John Paul II use this time of awaiting the arrival of Jesus?
ARCHBISHOP MIECZYSŁAW MOKRZYCKI: – During Advent the Holy Father John Paul II was eating more than usually. During breakfast he avoided meat. ‘Faith without deeds is dead – he used to say. This Lent was one of such deeds. In the library where he had private audiences, there was an Advent wreath: a few twigs, fir, ribbons, small baubles and four candles, each of them for one Sunday of Advent. Besides these outer signs there were retreats and meditations. The Holy Father highly appreciated the retreats preached by a preacher Fr. Ranier Cantalamassa, a charismatic Capuchin Father. Reflections and meditations were every Friday of Advent. John Paul II had a lot of duties, he never missed any retreats. Listening to them, he was making notes like a student during lectures. This form of getting prepared for Christmas was very important to him. After each retreats there was a general audience during which the Holy Father thanked for the preached God’s Word. The Holy Mass every Saturday was an early Holy Mass celebrated in Advent. At the altar there was a candle with a white ribbon which symbolized Our Lady. The Holy Father and Mary had their secrets. It was Her who was his guide in awaiting Christmas. She was a mother for him whom he had lost earlier, she was his affectionate, demanding and ideal Mother. He reminded that without ‘yes’ said by Mary, there would not be Christmas. In the afternoon on 8 December the Holy Father was going to the Spanish square in Rome, in order to lay flowers at the monument with the figure of the Immaculate, and entrust her problems of the world and the Church. He asked Her to be the support of courage and faithfulness. He reminded that in Advent ‘ we all are invited to a deep conscience examination’ and that we should ‘make our paths leading straight to Lord’. In order to meet the newly-born, we must repent.
– Before Christmas we are visited by Santa Claus. Did he also visit pope John Paul II and what did he bring him?
– Santa Claus was a surprise in the papal apartments. Rather after supper nobody visited us. And, suddenly, on 6 December in a refectory a doorbell rang and Santa Claus entered with angels. Certainly, with a bag of presents. Before he gave them to us, he said something to everybody, asking who had been good and who hadn’t. The funny and humorous talk was the one of the Holy Father with Santa Claus. Each of us – that is, pope John Paul II, we, his secretaries, nuns – received presents. These were practical odds and ends: a scarf, gloves, a T-shirt, a sweater, socks, fruits, sweets which the Holy Father liked. This tradition of Santa Claus was maintained ever year and brought joy to the Holy Father. It was a memory from childhood. There were not presents under the Christmas tree.
– At Christmas we send cards with wishes. And what was it like in Vatican?
– Pope got an idea that Vatican can print a Christmas picture every year. On each of them there were words written by the Holy Father. On the first of one there were words of the carol: ‘Raise your hand, God’s Baby, to bless your beloved Homeland’. This picture shows how much John Paul II missed Poland, how he remembered Poland and Poles. Sometimes he wrote: ‘A word became a body’, ‘Let’s hurry to Bethlehem full of joy, to greet little Jesus’. On the last one -‘Adoro Te devote’, a quotation of a hymn sung during Eucharistic adorations. He used to send these pictures to the heads of countries, to friends and acquaintances. He remembered about everyone. Besides the pictures he personally attached a short letter and a Christmas wafer. He was together with people whom he knew, liked, loved spiritually. The pope sent not only the cards, but he also got them from believers all over the world. The nicest ones were from children with drawings. Everyone who sent wishes to the Pope, received a reply with the Vatican stamp ‘Seen by the Pope’ so that the sender would know that the Holy Father had seen the wishes.
– The Polish Pope introduced the custom of putting up the Christmas tree on the square of St. Peter…
– He had done it for the first time in the 4th year of his pontificate. In Rome it was a complete novelty. There had not been any Christmas trees either at homes or on the square of St. Peter. The Pope from Poland placed the Christmas tree and - it got popular in the pace of an avalanche. This custom was loved by the Italians. They place Christmas trees not only at homes, but also in the streets, and on squares. In every room of the papal apartment there were also Christmas trees: in the library, bedroom, refectory….Pope loved the smell of spruce. During his meeting with the young in Rome he used to say: ‘I must tell you that despite my old age, I, personally, look forward to Christmas and having a Christmas tree in my apartment. There is a deep meaning in it, which unites us regardless of our age, both an elderly man and a child react similarly here, although on different levels of awareness’. Christmas trees were brought to Pope by highlanders from Zakopane. Later they were brought from other countries. Sometimes a week before Christmas, and even earlier. A dozen Christmas trees were transported with the big Christmas tree, some of them to papal rooms, the others to cardinals living in Vatican. They were kept till 2 February. The Christmas tree for Pope was decorated by nuns with: baubles, gingerbreads, fruits, lights, folk elements on which Polish monuments from Cracow, the monastery of Jasna Góra and other churches were painted. The Holy Father was admiring his beautiful Christmas tree, and ‘whole Poland’ hung on it. The light on the Christmas tree on the Square of St. Peter was lit either by him or one of cardinals. ‘And brightness appeared’ – said the Holy Father. One of the Christmas trees after Christmas was planted and got adopted in the Vatican Gardens.
– The nativity scene is inseparably related to the Christmas tree…
– Beside the Christmas tree, on the square of St. Peter, a nativity scene was placed, with sculptured figures of natural height. It got grown into the landscape of Rome. Whenever the Holy Father was passing by it, he stopped to pray at the nativity scene. And at his older age he went up to the window a few times a day and looked through it at the nativity scene. She was something more than a memory from childhood. It was a deeper examination of the secret of Christmas. It brought atmosphere and conditions in which our Redeemer was born. During the Midnight Mass the Baby was lying in a crib in the central place of Basilica of St. Peter, and above it there was the Book of Gospels. After the Midnight Mass John Paul II used to bring the figure of Jesus to the crib in a stable on the square. He used to fumigate the crib and then he got engrossed in a prayer. Children love this nativity scene. Pilgrims also come to pray there. Beside the central nativity scene there was also a nativity scene in papal apartments in a corridor. Every year it was different. It was prepared by workers of Vatican. These nativity scenes were rather simple because Pope did not want a form but the message of Bethlehem. John Paul II got a lot of nativity scenes from various countries. When we were entering a hospital, a parish, and there was a nativity scene there, Pope stopped at it to pray. The nativity scene was the centre of Christmas for Pope. He appealed to everyone not to lose the One who is lying in it - Jesus, when looking at the nativity scene.
– Now, let’s talk about what the Christmas eve supper is like. Who participated in it? what meals were served?
– Lent was obliging from the morning till the supper. When it was nearer, the Holy Father used to go to the chapel to entrust God all the poor, homeless, who could not enjoy hearth and home that evening. The Christmas eve supper was like in Poland. A white table cloth, hay under it, a simple wreath in its middle. The table was normally set in and was set out at the Christmas eve supper, so that all guests could sit at it. When there were not enough chairs, we used to get stools from the kitchen. There was an empty seat prepared for an unknown guest, who might knock on the door during the supper. However, I do not remember such a situation. Sisters Germana and Fernanda, working in the kitchen, had more work than usually. They had to prepare meals for about 20 people or more. It is difficult to mention everybody who had participate in those suppers for 9 years during my pastoral ministry. I will mention only some of them: our five sisters of Sacred Heart, we both secretaries – Fr. Stanisław Dziwisz and me, cardinal Andrzej Deskur, Fr. Prof. Tadeusz Styczeń, sometimes cardinal Stanisław Ryłko and bishop Józef Kowalczyk, the papal butler, prelate priest Paweł Ptasznik who wrote papal documents, two invited families from the so-called Cracovian environment.
As for pastries, on the Christmas eve table there were a cake, mostly the peanut one, crunchy gingerbreads in the shape of stars, a poppy cake and a cheesecake. There were also fried donuts. There were not twelve dishes. First there were starters – a fish in jelly and vegetable salad. Then a beetroot soup with tortellini, a fried carp with a cabbage salad, there were also stuffed cabbage with grits and mushroom sauce, dumplings with poppy and a compote of dried pears. Some delicacies were brought from Poland, like wrapped poppy cakes, a nut cake, and even fruit tea of forest fruits – raspberries, wild rose. Christmas eve supper began at 5 p.m. sometimes a bit later but before 6 p. m. In the beginning there was a prayer and reading fragments of the Holy Scripture. Later the Holy Father told us wishes and we shared the Christmas wafer with one another. I remember that the Holy Father once told me: ‘Miechu, I wish you strength to put up with me’. I wished him health and also strength to put up with us. During the Christmas eve supper I felt the Holy Father’s more joy than usually. At 6 p.m. he lit a candle in the window of the library. He had done it for the first time in 1981 when the martial law had begun in Poland. It was to be a sign of solidarity with Poles. The martial law ended, communism collapsed, and the custom remained. Because the Holy Father was thinking about Poles in a friendly way at this Christmas evening. After the supper carols were sung. It was the moment awaited by the Holy Father the most. He loved Polish carols! He sang loudly and joyfully. From memory. He began with ‘In the night’s silence’, later there were others, with his favourite one ‘God is being born’, and finished with a pastoral song ‘Oh, my little baby’. To joy of everybody, he added new verses on the spot made up by himself. About friends, about those who were sitting at the table. We cared about not making the Holy Father tired with singing carols at the Christmas evening, as he was to participate in the Midnight Holy Mass and a hardworking day of Christmas. However, the Christmas eve supper was the beginning of the great carols singing in Vatican and in Castel Gandolfo. The Holy Father had had a songbook of carols since his times in Cracow, consisting of 520 pages, with a strongly faded cover. It was the biggest and the most complete collection of carols with musical notes. At my times he did not need this carols book any longer, because he knew carols by heart. He recommended it to those who did not know all verses of carols. And we usually sang from the Christmas eve to Epiphany every day. The Holy Father invited priests being in Rome to sing carols with him. Carols were sung at private audiences, during Christmas meetings.
Pope John Paul II awaited highlanders from Poland, who brought to Vatican not only firs and sausage made by them or hay onto the Christmas table. They also brought ‘something’ which John Paul II missed a lot – the smell of Polish home, his beloved Tatra mountains, highlanders’ carols. They could not bring him snow from Podhale…I remember every Christmas eve with St. John Paul II in Vatican.