Are the Polish immigrants the hope of the British Church?

Dorota Bawolek

Before Christmas the Catholic Church in Great Britain buzzed when Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor encouraged Poles to a bigger co-operation with the British Church, which provoked sharp controversy. Several weeks after Christmas both Polish and English clergymen in Great Britain are not quite sure what the conflict was about and what the British cardinal meant saying that the Polish believers threatened the coherence of the Catholic Church in Britain.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor appealed to the Polish community, ‘Polish people should faithfully get involved in the life of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.’ According to him the present situation in which the Polish immigrants got involved mainly in Polish parishes could lead to some division and divide the Catholic Church on the basis of national, ethnic and language lines. It is hard to imagine how that could happen since all statistics and observation show a very positive development of the spiritual lives of the Polish immigrants in Great Britain, which both the Polish and English priests welcome with joy. 30 churches, 12 chapels and 55 parish centres belong to the Polish Catholic Mission in England and Wales. In total, 99 priests work in 204 Polish centres in England and Wales. The workers of the Polish Catholic Mission were astonished with the cardinal’s words and although all things were cleared and Cardinal O’Connor apologized to the Rector of the Mission Rev. Msgr Tadeusz Kukla for his inopportune remark certain nasty aftertaste was left.
Responding to the words of Cardinal O’Connor Grazyna Sikorska from the Polish Catholic Mission said, ‘The Cardinal cannot expect us, Poles, to stop praying in Polish, after all this is not a sin.’ And in an interview for the Catholic Information Agency the Rector of the Polish Catholic Mission said that the Church was a very important indicator of the Polish national identity, ‘If Poles lose their national identity they will lose everything.’

Evangelising the British

The Polish clergymen working in Great Britain seem to have different opinions concerning that confusion, which was created to a great extent by the media. Fr Andrzej Forys from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Harlow near London thinks that Cardinal O’Connor did not mean any smear campaign against Polish Catholics; on the contrary he saw their potential and expressed his hope that they would help him to revive the English Church.
– You should not be afraid of losing the Polish roots but you must consider how to combine these two issues: Polish identity and the mission to evangelise the British. If we are shut in our own circle we will never succeed to evangelise others.
Fr Forys celebrates Mass in Polish in Harlow only twice a month and he celebrates all other services in English. ‘I always encourage the Poles I know to come to English Mass, and I can see how the English faithful rejoice to see them’, Fr Forys says, ‘Cardinal O’Connor is right and he did not mean that the Polish believers should forget their national identity or language but he wanted them to help him evangelise the English. However, when asked, ‘what about if saying Our Father in English is too difficult a challenge for the Polish people Fr Forys answers, ‘We should not forget that not long ago the services were celebrated in Latin and that did not disturb anyone to pray. You can always say Our Father in Polish, even during an English Mass. In fact, belonging to the Catholic community is not only prayer but also social involvement. In my diocese in Brentwood I met numerous Catholic people and associations that offered their help to Poles who, in spite of their sincere will, are passive since Poles do not want to volunteer. Well, why do we have all these misunderstandings and gaps in communication?’
– Many myths have been created as far as the relationships between the Polish people and the English are concerned, which make our collaboration difficult. Fortunately, it seems to me that the myths gradually disappear and we become more and more open to one another. A year and a half ago one of the parish priests I know strongly opposed to introduce any Mass in Polish in his parish since, as he claimed, that would lead to divisions. But I have spoken to him recently and he has changed his mind. He says that many Polish people come and ask him to hear their confessions or ask about other pastoral services. He seems to be in favour of that and it is very likely that he will give his permission to open a Polish pastoral ministry in his parish.

No problem

The Blessed Virgin Mary Parish Church in Ealing is one of the biggest centres of Polish Catholics in Britain. According to Fr Krzysztof Wojcieszak about 4,500 Poles attend Mass every Sunday. Considering the geographical division some part of the Polish people should attend Masses in other churches, which are located closer to their houses. However, the majority choose the Polish parish. Fr Brook from St Joseph’s Church, which is in the neighbourhood in Ealing, says that he is not worried about the fact that most Polish people living in his parish go to the Polish church. ‘Some Poles come to us, too. They say that want to attend English services to improve their English. What counts is the participation in Mass and it does not matter whether it is in English or Polish. I am convinced that the Catholic Church in Britain rejoices about the presence of Polish believers and a closer collaboration will begin soon’, says Fr Brook. ‘I have a Polish parishioner who is 94 years old. When she arrived in Britain for the first time she attended Polish Masses and now she has been a member of our congregation for a long time. The new comers from Poland will surely get integrated with the English ecclesiastical institutions with time.’

We need time

The British clergymen use other solutions as well. In the Church of St Michael in Birmingham the 9 o’clock Mass is attended by people who prefer to pray in English but at 11, 12 and 3 p.m. the church is filled with Polish songs and prayers. The parish priest Fr Gerry O’Brian says that he is used to the domination of foreign parishioners. ‘Earlier the church was packed with the Irish, then the Catholics from India used to come here and now the Polish group is domineering’, he says. Three Polish priests celebrate the services and according to Fr O’Brian the Polish faithful give a wonderful testimony to the English Catholics. ‘People are still astonished to see Polish people kneeling in the street when there is no room inside the church. I understand that Poles want to pray in their own language and celebrate the rites the way they got used to. We have not as many traditions in the English Catholic Church as you have, for example Christmas wafers or blessed chalk on the Feast of Epiphany. Thanks to the Polish people we have returned to the service of altar boys since Polish boys demanded to serve during Masses’, Fr Gerry says. ‘Once I talked to a Polish couple. They said that they had gone to an English Mass. They made that attempt but they did not understand anything. Integration is a difficult task. The Irish immigrants who arrived in Great Britain in the 1960s could not get used to the English way of celebrating the liturgy although there was no language barrier. For Poles a participation in Mass celebrated in English is a challenge because of slight differences in the way of its celebration and because of the language barrier. Certainly, with time the Polish Catholics will get integrated with the British faithful but one should not force that. You should wait patiently’, Fr O’Brian says. ‘The children of the Polish immigrants attend English schools and when they grow up they will not feel any language barrier and they will not mind the language they worship Lord God.’

The author is a BBC journalist.

"Niedziela" 7/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: