I’m in Krakow, Poland at Mass in 1988. Poles pack the church to overflowing. This is not the Easter Vigil; it’s merely one Sunday Mass at one Catholic church in a city with over 100 churches and Mass schedules that read like an auctioneer’s call: 6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30…
All the Masses I attend in Krakow are packed; people line the walls and fill the vestibule and even stand outside.
In Poland in 1988, the Communists are in charge, and life is hard. When I walk the streets, no one smiles. Everyone is dressed in ratty, worn clothes. People keep their gaze focused on the ground. Their shoes are cheap, the atmosphere glum.
In the shops, there’s not much stuff. When a shipment of bread or chocolate arrives, long lines form. Goods are protected behind counters, out of reach, so I need to say, “Please may I see that?” or “I’d like one of those, please!” to the shop girl.
There is no perusing, no sifting through, no touching.
My Polish friends try to imagine K-Mart as I explain the stores in America where everything is on display, and we are free to handle items.
Imagine, stores filled with anything you may ever want, and all of it accessible…
“You have it good,” I’m told, “it’s not fair how we have to live.”
When I meet with Poles my age, they want to argue politics.
I yawn and wonder when we are going to the clubs.
When I’m asked whom I will vote for in the upcoming election, I tell them I haven’t decided. (They know more about the candidates than I do…)
I meet a young man who has been jailed for spreading anti-Communist propaganda. Now, he’s been released from prison, but he’s banned from travel outside of Poland. Two passports exist for Poles: one is for travel within Communist-bloc countries (not too difficult to obtain). The other is for travel to the West (nearly impossible to get). This guy lost the “privilege” to travel to other Communist countries; he’s still a prisoner.
“Where are your papers?” my Polish friends ask.
“What do you mean, ‘papers’?”
“Identification documents” they say.
I explain that in America, I just walk out of my house with nothing in my pockets. No one bothers me; I don’t carry “documents”.
Their eyes widen incredulously. Can you believe such freedom? To come and go as you please…and no one will bother you?
That night, we can’t see into the future. Poland appears trapped forever in the clutch of Communism, and their desire for freedom seems hopeless. I begin to understand the depression, but instead of growing an empathetic heart, I just want to go home.
One boy is especially frustrated. He wants to travel to America, but is unable. In order to go anywhere or do anything, connections in the Communist party are necessary.
“And then, what does it say when I go to apply to visit America? ‘Members of the Communist Party need not apply’!”
Without connections, and with no money, he’s stuck.
All of them appear stuck.
All of them, it seems, go to Mass.
On this Sunday afternoon in 1988, I arrive late to Mass in a packed church. My only recourse is to stand in the vestibule with the others, so I stand.
My Polish language skills and my knowledge of the Mass are both weak. Since I don’t know the language well, I can’t figure out where we are. The Mass seems interminable. I wait for the bells, knowing they mean we’re getting closer to the consecration. They finally come, and everyone kneels.
I hesitate. “But guys,” I want to say, “there aren’t kneelers here! Don’t you see? And that floor – it’s marble!” But in my weeks of living in Krakow, I’ve learned that if I don’t kneel on the marble floor, I’ll be met with corrective glares.
Our Lord is being made present, are you a Catholic or a heathen?
So, I kneel.
My American knees complain. I glance around and see all the Poles, kneeling straight and tall. No one is hunching over. There are no one-knee bends or penitents resting their posterior region on the backs of their calves. Everyone is reverent.
I try my best to be devout as well, but my thighs burn and my abdomen aches. I realize, after a few moments of pain, that everyone’s attention is on the altar. No one will see me; no one will be scandalized if I just lean back and rest my rear end on my calves…
I do it, and you know, it’s better for a while.
The priest continues on in Polish. I can’t tell where words begin or end. I just know it’s taking forever, and the added pressure on my shin bones is making this kneeling position annoying. I look to my right and left. The Poles are still focusing on the consecration.
I’m tempted to shift my weight to the left and sit on the marble floor with my legs curled around me. If I just move the slightest bit, I could relieve this pressure on my legs, and I’d be sitting, and that would be so much easier.
The priest is still talking Polish. I can see no relief from this pain other than to shift to a sitting position. I decide that yes, this can be done, no one will see me and – –
Even though I am in the hind-most section of the vestibule, I suddenly think that there might be someone behind me. Perhaps someone is standing on the steps, so I decide to see if there’ll be any witnesses.
I turn my head to glance behind me in the most disinterested way.
And there she is.
Kneeling, ramrod straight, staring intently at the Eucharist she cannot see, an older woman is kneeling on the concrete sidewalk.
I turn away and try to see that Eucharist she’s staring at. I take a breath and pull my sorry body into a proper kneeling position, but only for a moment. We need to stand and pray the Our Father. So, I stand and with the others, I begin to pray, “Ojcze nasz…”