Polish piety

In the chapel of the oldest continuously operating Jesuit novitiate in the world, in a sleepy village in southern Poland, the likenesses of great Jesuits of the past gaze from the walls above, their faces turned attentively toward the altar—with one exception.  Francis Xavier is looking out the window.

It’s not irreverence, of course, that has the saint turned the other way.  Xavier, who agreed to leave Europe for the Orient on a day’s notice, was, in addition to being the greatest missionary since Paul, one of history’s great travelers, a man whose desire to plant the seeds of the Gospel where they had never been sown before was extinguished only by death.

There’s something essentially Jesuit in that desire, and hopefully at least a spark of it burns in each one of us.  Our formation, you may recall, aims to prepare us to go anywhere in the world, though usually we’re given a bit more notice than Francis Xavier.  For me, this summer was no exception and saw me spending July in Krakow teaching English to Jesuit scholastics from Poland, Croatia, and Russia.

It was heartening to meet and live with such good brothers, and equally heartening to be immersed in Polish culture.  The Poles are a wonderful people—noble, warm, and very, very Catholic.  I realize that this is a bit of a generalization and that one should be careful conflating religious and ethnic identity.  (And in fact, at an academic conference I attended earlier in the summer I met a number of young and quite impressive Catholic scholars from such bastions of secularism as Belgium and France.)  What makes Poland special, however, is the degree to which Catholicism has penetrated the culture, the ways in which the faith is palpable in all aspects of Polish life.  The Poles are unabashedly pious.

Here in the States, especially in more sophisticated circles (or circles that think themselves sophisticated), piety often gets a bad rap.  The Protestant impulse to strip the altars and whitewash the icons has influenced the way American Catholics think and act.  This instinct is not entirely without basis in the Gospel, since our Lord is quite clear in repudiating shows of false piety.

But, of course, what makes false piety so dangerous is how closely it resembles the real thing; the devil who talks like an angel is more dangerous than the devil who smells of sulfur.  False piety turns the expression of love for God into a means of personal gain, and that’s perverse.  But just because something good can be misused doesn’t mean it stops being good.

Piety is good and necessary because ours is an incarnational faith.  Our religion is not a set of abstract principles about God to which we’re required to assent, nor an ethical guidebook; it’s a relationship with God, who has become man to live among us.

And this relationship is not meant to be a sort of cordial business transaction; it’s meant to be a love affair.  Not, of course, a tawdry Danielle Steel love affair, but nonetheless a relationship that engulfs us—all of us—from the tips of our fingers to the depths of our soul.  No aspect of our humanity can be left out of our relationship with God.

Any deeply loving relationship requires an underlying core of commitment and conviction, but relationships are also made up of a host of little details, of shared moments—inside jokes, vacations spent together, even mishaps endured together.  No relationship can last long without a real affection for all the tiny particulars about the other person that might seem peripheral individually but taken together add up.  I once spent a summer as the teaching assistant to a kind old professor who had been married for over forty years.  Due to their conflicting professional responsibilities he and his wife had to spend about a month apart.  About midway through the month he turned to me after dinner and sighed, “I miss the way she smells.”  Then he grinned impishly and added, “She smells like an old person.”

It was one of the most genuinely romantic statements I’ve ever heard, and it seems to me that any successful marriage must embrace numberless such sentiments.  The romance in our religion, in our relationship with God, takes the form of piety:  of candles lit, of places of pilgrimage returned to, of gestures, of holy cards in wallets, favorite images, favorite songs, devotions, phrases that stick with us.  Are any of these particulars the core of the faith?  Not at all.  But without them, the faith begins to feel rather arid.

The wonderful thing about a Catholic culture such as Poland’s is that the faith has become incarnate there in the myriad details of the people’s piety.  It’s incarnate in a genuflection before communion, in shrines like Czestochowa, in parish traditions.  I was privileged to be present at a priest’s first Mass, an event rich in traditions that involve not just the priest, but his entire parish.  Everyone, it seemed, had some unique and special role.  It’s a particular feature of genuinely Catholic piety that it is rarely ever entirely personal but usually draws us into a deeper relationship with that great cosmic circle of God’s friends we call the Church.

In thinking about the “romance” of popular piety, I was reminded of the famous words about falling in love with God from Pedro Arrupe, former superior general of the Jesuits, a quotation which I think hints at the profound practicality of all that Polish piety:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.  It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.



10 Responses to Polish piety

  1. willbearak says:

    Great article, If You read about St Pauls Jouneys, and then Francis Xaviers, One on one Xavier way out did his friend and inspiration St. Paul. After wandering thru Africa, Cairo to Cape town, thru Uganda and almost all of Arab countries from Jedda, Rihad, Baghdad, St Caterines, and on to Afganistan and Pakistan, one begins to appreciate the long hard walked and boated journeys of St. Paul and St. Xavier. If you enjoy jouneys of faith and brotherhood with these powerful apostolic folks, Just head out across Alaska or Souther Russia, or even a folksy journey down from Mexico to Chile (on foot) you will begin to encounter the Jesus guy who wanderd the Arab Persian lands back in year 0000′

  2. An aspect of Polish piety is devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1765 the Polish Bishops and Nation were the first to receive permission to celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Others followed until, in 1856, Pope Pius IX placed the Feast in the liturgical calendar for the entire Church. True devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not sentimental, a false piety. It’s deep, life-changing, and culture-changing. I’m glad you had such a grace-filled summer, Anthony, and I’m grateful for your sharing some of those graces with us.

  3. Tom Piatak says:

    Thanks for this lovely reflection. Another great aspect of popular piety in that part of the world: all the village and roadside shrines, invariably displaying a fresh display of flowers.

  4. Fr. Raymond Gawronski, SJ says:

    Thank you! I”m reading this at midnight at Klosterneuburg, outside Vienna, where our Polish tour bus has just brought 31 young Americans from Denver, mostly seminarians, and me, after beginning our pilgrimage to Madrid – in Krakow. Poland continues to have a living faith rarely encountered elsewhere – and it does translate in important ways, not least in piety, but also warmth and courtesy. Thank you for this good appreciation, and encouragement to us Americans to bring our faith with us when we leave the sanctuary – Bog zaplac! RG SJ

  5. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve Anton, I’m assuming you are back from your travels, given the “spare” time to write such a wonderful post. I think Poland is indeed an example of how closely (for good or for bad) ethnic Catholicism and piety are coupled. I think it’s not such a bad thing when piety is reinforced (note: not forced) by society. I just came back from Mexico a couple days ago and have long taken for granted the churches with wide open doors and full of people entering and exiting at all hours of the day, and the rest crossing themselves as they quickly pass by on the sidewalk.Or the countless statues, monuments and portraits of the sacred on public streets and corners. When one returns to the US (and yes, I am back too : ) these things are very conspicuously absent…in and out of church.

    I am firmly convinced that there is direct correlation between the Cranmerization of Catholicism in the US post-1970 and the absence of piety. I have been to several churches here that were huge cement-bloc monstrosities with bare walls (save a few burlap banners with crude abstract felt imagery) and NOTHING on the altar…least of all the tabarnacle. Does it surprise me that the throngs of congregants saunter up in shorts and tank-tops while chewing gum and chatting before they receive the sacred body of Our Lord from a eucharistic minister in a pant-suit? Hardly.

    The outward expressions and manifestations of “ethnic Catholicism” such as you describe in Poland are like the stop-signs at an intersection; you know you should stop anyway, but it is always good to be reminded visually, with the added subconscious understanding of the penalty if you do not. I strongly believe that anything and everything we can do to visually reinforce our Catholic identitiy publically can only bring good in the long-run. While some will of course argue it is merely the imposition of Papal power on a helpless society who just all want to “get along”, it is in reality a call to prayer, piety and hopefully evangelization of the type St Paul and St Francis Xavier embodied.

    Great post as always. And welcome home?

  6. This was a beautiful reflection, thank you! I’m very proud of my Polish heritage and to know more about the people of Poland today makes me doubly proud.

  7. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Archbishop Dolan raises some of the same issues in his column this week:


    He mentions the English bishops’ decision to restore meatless Fridays, which I mentioned in a post a few months back:


  8. Qualis Rex says:

    Thanks, Anthony. I just read it and commented. I’m glad the Archbishop is asking such questions. As I don’t live in his archdiocese, I’d be interested in how often and how widely the Tridentine liturgy is offered, how closely his parishes adhere to the norms of the GIRM (i.e. communion in the mouth), how often priests in his diocese are seen in public with Roman collars etc.

    Qualis Rex, Talis Grex.

  9. […] formation, as I wrote in my last post, aims to prepare us to go anywhere, and this August marks a major step forward in that formation […]

  10. Joseph Fromm says:

    Dear Anthony,

    Being a Polish-Catholic and now a fourth generation American. I concur and admire your thoughts on Polish Catholicism. Having visited Poland myself, I found a difference in the Jesuits of Poland compared to the Jesuits in the United States that mirrors your observation on Polish Catholic culture in general. It was my personal observation that the Jesuits were more pastoral, more Marian and more Sacramental in Poland. In the way that Fr. Kubicki, S.J. and Fr. Gawronski,S.J. have previously commented here has noted, a profound and uplifting experience in their Catholic-Polish experience. This spiritual enrichment that I received during my Pilgrimage to Poland is what I personally try to emulate in America, That is to be warm, hospitable, generous in my personal relationships, to include Our Lady in my prayer life and participate in my personal Sacraments more fully.


    Joseph Fromm

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