Image

A Conversion in the Camps

The following is a first-person account of a man who lived through communist imprisonment, the Polish version of the 1960s, and emerged as a believer in and fighter for liberty. Adam Szostkiewics is editor of the leading religious periodical in Poland, Tycodnik Powszechny.

The altar was decorated with a Polish white and red flag, and surrounded by a few dozen bearded men; some very young, some older, the majority in their early thirties. We were a community of faith, but also of a common cause. We were proud to be there, proud and happy with the happiness of someone who has rediscovered his long-searched-for roots. The roots were an identity. We were Poles, Catholics, anti-communists.

The scene was one of many internment camps, a regular prison in the wild and beautiful Bieszczady mountains where General Jaruzelski’s junta put some 300 Solidarity activists after martial law was imposed on the 13th of December, 1981, banning the Solidarity movement for national reconstruction as well as all other forms of a civil society that had begun to emerge after the sweeping wave of civil disobedience in August, 1980.

The communists took their revenge on that cold December night. And yet, somehow, we knew that they were bound to lose power and influence sooner or later. It took eight years for the dream to materialize.

It is often said that the amazing year of 1989 could not have happened without the word, thought, and prayer of John Paul II. The moral and civil courage of the pope preaching to the millions–that it was not possible to grasp the history and identity of the Polish people without Jesus Christ–was a challenge to the atheist rulers, rendering them helpless in spite of the force and violence they used to try to prevent the good news of hope from spreading.

I was not a regular church-goer at the time of the first papal visit to Poland, in 1979. Born into a typical Polish family, I was raised in the Catholic faith without asking too many questions. I left the church after a quarrel with a priest who tried to make me go to confession against my will. Then I developed a strong interest in the philosophies and religions of the Far East. The sources of information were difficult to obtain in the provincial city of Silesia, a densely populated, heavily industrialized and polluted region in the south of Poland where I attended school. I managed to find some books, however, and by the age of 18 became a practising Zen Buddhist without any religious community whatsoever. (Years later I learned of a group of young artists and poets who had established an oriental brotherhood only 30 kilometers away from where I had travelled my spiritual journey in complete solitude at the same time.)

Having moved to the big city of Krakow, the former capital of Polish Kings who for eight hundred years pledged their loyalty to the Bishop of Rome, I joined both the Jagiellonian University Faculty of Polish Literature and the Polish version of the counter-culture movement. The movement in Poland was mainly an act of rebellion against the gray and dull reality of the all-pervading communist lie and the uniformity of the system. It was a rejection of the official values being imposed by the heavily censored media as well as the totally state-controlled system of education, which allowed only a dozen Catholic schools and one university in a nation of 35 million.

As a student I continued to read the holy books of the great religions of the East. I was lucky enough to find some friends belonging to the same generation, equally dissatisfied with the dry drill of official Catholic religious instruction. The homes and parishes of our childhood failed–for many complicated reasons–to preserve in us a sense of belonging to a larger and vivid tradition of the church. But we were young and could not ignore the deeply ingrained longing for things holy and pure. We hungered for a source of divine inspiration.

One day, we left Krakow for the little town of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Thousands of pilgrims come every year to the old chain of Kalwaria’s shrines to relive the passion of Christ. I watched the people crawling on their knees. There were beggars, cripples, and madmen bringing their pain of social rejection to God. There were simple Polish Catholics, country men, women, and children, unrefined but pious and yearning for a higher meaning to their lives. The essence of their religious experience was that they did preserve the sense of the sin as well as the belief and confidence in Christ’s redeeming power.

It took me years to come to grasp the meaning of what we had seen at Kalwaria. Poland never ceased to belong to the European Christian heritage. It was the Polish Catholic Church that served, for almost half a century, as a bulwark defending the soul of the nation against the Sovietization. The church did not fail in its crucial task of preserving the national identity . When Solidarity emerged to replace the church in this fundamental role, my generation entered the trade union movement where we rediscovered our long-forgotten roots and responsibilities. We revisited our common past, only to find that new perspectives opened up for the oppressed under Communist rule. We left the flower power movement to join the struggle for democracy, freedom, and national independence under the aegis of Solidarity. We realized that in a totalitarian regime a strong commitment to the common struggle of workers, intellectuals, students, and peasants was needed if things were to change for the better. We also understood that the church was not to be excluded from the community of freedom-fighters who were bound to lose without the moral and spiritual assistance of the church, as well as without her political experience and support. In a country with ninety percent of the people declaring themselves Catholic, it would be an act of foolish pride to maintain that one could bring down the organized evil of the communist state without cooperation with the only independent institution of great social prestige and influence. The time of reconciliation had come. It came from understanding that man is a social being who needs a community of living faith and tradition to fully develop his inner human potential out of which he can reflect and act freely. There is no freedom without a genuine community supporting the individual in his or her search for a personal encounter with God as the source of meaning in our individual lives; no freedom without solidarity with human suffering, yearning, joy, and passion.

During the holy Mass in the internment camp I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, there was a moment when we started reciting lines by the great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz: “It is under the Sign of the Cross only that Poland is Poland while the Polish are Polish.” An uneasy thought came to my mind. Are we going to deny the Polishness of all those who chose not to be Catholic or believers? What are we in our journey to the community of free nations? How ready are we to accept the universal message of Christianity which is the good news of salvation for each individual person and each nation on the Earth? Are we ready to acknowledge the ecumenical dimension of our Catholic faith? These questions remain to be answered now that we have regained the freedom to shape our future.