50 years of priestly ‘Westerplatte’
Fr Ireneusz Skubis
Together with 20 priests from our former Diocese of Czestochowa I am experiencing the 50th anniversary of priesthood, thanking God for the gift of living faith and his abundant graces and asking for his blessing for our future lives and service.
When we look at our fairly long lives, realising about this span of time; when we see that there are more friends on the other side than on earth, we fear whether we have fulfilled all things well as they should be done and as we would have wanted. Our reflections may differ from those of laymen who evaluate their lives through certain facts and speak about the important stages of their lives. Looking at priests is more philosophical as it is a look at life through the priestly vocation, which has been connected with social and community life and also with political life to some extent because within these 50 years huge changes have occurred in Poland.
Difficult years of communism
In 1961, when we were ordained priests, we did not realise in what reality we lived. There was the socialist system and we knew that there were very important people called the party secretaries, that all people were very much afraid of the party committees, that many people joined the communist party to live better affluent lives, etc. But we did not know many details and did not realise that there were the secret police, the so-called security services, and that there were other secret collaborators who listened carefully, analysed and watched the clergy, that our social life was immersed in the powerful system of enslavement and our names and works were written and preserved in the secret archives. We began getting to know this reality more and more, year after year when we became involved in various pastoral activities, when we had to take various decisions and faced the hardships. Our eyes were opened slowly and we could see what was happening around us and were aware of the power of that system and its threats to freedom and normal development of people.
It was very important that we were close to our bishops, that we were constantly in contact with them and the bishops were really fathers whom we could tell everything and who always helped us with their councils. Of course, during these 50 years the Church was the most important thing to us. Our priesthood was fulfilled in the Church and we worked with joy for her. And our ministry was ordinary since we were ordinary priests, fulfilling our priestly functions but we wanted to work and rejoice at everything we managed to do, i.e., the First Communion of children, catechetical halls full with talkative pupils, parents-teachers meetings, people listening to our sermons, people asking for advice when they faced some threats, those occupying high posts asking for discreet service since they could not ask officially being afraid of losing their jobs.
In this world with many bans priests were harbours of freedom. People’s hearts opened before them and people spoke about matters that newspapers did not mention. We all knew that we had to be discreet and that walls had ears and enemies were watchful. It was the time of subtle discreetness of hearts: on the one hand – priests’ hearts and on the other hand – people’s hearts as they came to priests, opened their hearts, asked for prayers and blessings.
Time went by. We learned how to live better in this hard reality, overwhelmed ruthlessly by the system, perfectly organised and strongly sealed as well as acting precisely. The communist tentacles reached even the Vatican and what can be said about the Polish priests harmed by the Security Services or about the wounds of the Polish Church. Sometimes we bear grudges about the work of the Institute of National Remembrance that it reveals some facts not at the right time but one should know that the services did their best to paralyse the work of the Church. Numerous people collaborated with the police and used all possible methods to destroy clergy and undermine the significance of religion in Poles’ lives. Therefore, when we speak today that ca. 10% of priests agreed to work for the SB it is a small percentage considering the activities the SB had undertaken against them.
Role of the Primate of the Millennium
I cannot omit the great figure, so important in these 50 years of our priesthood, of the Primate of the Millennium Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. The Primate focused on Marian ministry with its important motif of the Jasna Gora Vows. Written in the specific circumstances (like the letters of St Paul from prison), in the prison in Komancza, during one night, contained well-thought pastoral materials and a pastoral programme for the Church in Poland. Cardinal Wyszynski knew what troubles the nation had been experiencing and he knew our national vices. He knew that the family had to be protected. He was a great shepherd but also a good social activist and expert in the Catholic social teaching. He dedicated our nation and himself to the Mother of God as he said it clearly towards the end of his life, ‘I staked everything on Mary’ and it was a secure, precious and well-chosen way.
We should also mention the idea of the peregrination of the Miraculous Picture of Our Lady all over Poland, initiated by Primate Wyszynski. The theological foundation of the project was formulated by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became John Paul II. Their wonderful collaboration in the pastoral field turned out to be a blessing and we, priests, enjoyed their great support and awareness that the pastoral plans of the Bishops’ Conference were formulated and prepared thoroughly. I want to mention the Commission for the General Pastoral Work presided over by Bishop Wladyslaw Miziolek of Warsaw, an eminent theologian and shepherd. The Commission prepared an excellent basis for our work for the Church in Poland, based on the Marian ministry according to the words of the dying Bishop Stefan Barela of Czestochowa. The guidelines of the Polish Bishops’ Conference were formulated in special communiqués to be read in parishes. Then they were neglected and all communiqués were sent to the Catholic Information Agency. Thus the direct relationships between bishops and believers were narrowed.
Miracles of John Paul II
We began our work in the weekly ‘Niedziela,’ reactivated in 1981, feeling the watchful ‘paws’ of the SB and the pervasive power of censorship. It was forgotten that man was a free being and that it was hard for him when his freedom was limited very much.
After the free elections in 1989 new times came although not quite new. Since the talks of ‘the round table’ contained elements that prolonged what had been before. The communists did not withdraw themselves from the social life and they still marked their presence in the country in different ways. That’s why those 20 years after our country had regained freedom were still characterised by the actions of many forces that did not let our full creative potential be realised. However, we felt that we were free and as free people we had possibilities to use our freedom.
It was very good that John Paul II was a successor of St Peter. He showed Poland proper ways of freedom. And we cannot recollect the 50 years of our priesthood without that great pontificate that contributed to the collapse of communism and slavery. We witnessed a miracle: the Soviet Union fell, which no one in the world had expected. But then we did not have people prepared to run the country in the new conditions. Many people were corrupted, stuck in the hoop of the former services. There were many lacks and neglect and the effects were not satisfying. John Paul II, as a Polish bishop who knew the reality, gave us suggestions and showed what to do. He was our driving force and support.
We, priests, active in the life of the Church of Czestochowa and Sosnowiec, knew that the Polish pastoral work was connected with the patriotic trend. John Paul II gave us a wonderful example. Although he was a universal shepherd he did not hide his love of his homeland and the Polish nation. During his pilgrimages to Poland he stressed that he had the right to teach us since this land was his homeland. ‘You are mine!’ were his words. Therefore, the person of John Paul II was extremely important to the Polish priests and we can recognise that as a blessed time for us. The situation lasted throughout his 27-year pontificate, especially during the great days when the Pope was passing away to the Father’s house. It was a great testimony of faith and Christian life.
The time of the beatification
And finally, the last days – the beatification of the Polish Pope. And this pride that we are the sons of the nation that gave such a Man, that we are with him in the same priesthood. And now, through our jubilees, we feel immersed in the life and death of Blessed John Paul II whom we loved, who knew our names and who believed in us. His last words, ‘I was looking for you and now you have come to me’ can be referred to us by paraphrasing, ‘He looked for us, priests, and we have come and been with him.’
In Rome Cardinal Jozef Glemp called this beatification of John Paul II ‘Polish Westerplatte.’ This is a precious comparison, meaning something very important, struggling for the most essential things, for which it is worth giving up one’s life.
For us, priests, experiencing the 50th anniversary of our priesthood, this ‘Westerplatte’ has always been the defence of everything what Poland is. We have defended the Polish soul and the historical awareness. We can bear certain grudge towards the historians that they have not completed their work on the last decades and that many issues have been neglected and they should be written in golden letters in the latest history of our nation. As experienced priests we are witnesses of that very important history of the Church in Poland and of the Polish nation. It seems that our testimonies should be taken into account. Since they are not tiny historical periods but as if our last wills: 50 years of conscious work on the soul of the Polish society, 50 years of efforts to preserve it for God.
So we have many days of very interesting and huge work behind us and we have great offers that we are giving to the future generations of priests so that they preserve all of them and care for all that Poland is.
On my picture for the first Mass I celebrated I put the words, ‘I have accepted the loss of everything… if only I can have Christ’ (Philippians 3:8). To sum up, I would like to wish that to all priests.
"Niedziela Częstochowska" 26/2011