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Faith of our forefathers

30 November, 1999

Polish immigration to Ireland has created a communion between Polish and Irish Catholics. How different is the history of their faith, the culture and practise of their faith, and what can they learn from each other? asks Jacek Poznanski SJ.

It is widely believed that the Poles and the Irish should be very close to one another. They were strongholds of Catholicism in Europe, shaped by the same Christian values and their Catholic faith helped them to survive difficult situations.

After the accession of Poland to the EU, some sociologists predicted that Ireland would become the main destination for Polish immigrants, precisely because of their Catholic traditions. In fact, there was no such factor in Polish emigration.

In this short article I can only touch on some of the major factors. It is very difficult to give a definitive account, as both societies and Churches are still in transition, and the process is by no means complete. To understand what has happened, it is important to remember the socio-economical context. Ireland has been exposed to modern trends and ideas for much longer than Poland.

The recent economic boom in Ireland has convinced many people that Ireland took the right direction. In Poland, on the other hand, twenty years after shaking off Communist rule, we are still far from achieving the economic advantages of modernisation. The search for a better life abroad has led about two million Poles to emigrate. A good portion of them chose to come to Ireland. Against this background, the spiritual needs of the respective peoples appear different, begging the questions: how easy would it be for Polish Christians to identify with the Irish Christians they meet in Ireland?

To begin with, Irish Christianity is much older than its Polish counterpart. The structure of the early Church in Ireland was based on the monastic movement and was fuelled by a contemplative, ascetic and missionary spirituality. Irish Catholicism lay outside the influence of the Western, Latin culture for many centuries. The English Reformation attempted to crush Irish Catholicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cutting the Irish off from their roots.

Conversely, Poland became Christian only towards the end of 10th century, and as the Church extended from Germany, it was modelled on Roman structures, centred on great episcopal sees. This structure has survived the whole millennium.

The modern history of the Catholic Church in both countries may appear similar. Both Irish and Polish Catholics had to sustain their existence under pressure from external powers: English, Protestant rule until 1922 in Ireland, and in Poland, the division between Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1772 to 1918, and later, the Communist regime from 1945 until 1989. The Irish suffered a much longer oppression than the Poles, but they have been living in a free state since 1922, whereas Poles got their freedom just twenty years ago.

The experiences of oppression imbued both Irish and Polish Catholicism with a sense of national identity. A specific culture, history and strong sense of national identity mark the face of the Christian faith in each country in a way that is distinctive, and which can make deeper communication difficult.

Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, Poland had a great tradition of immigrants from different cultural and religious backgrounds, but was cut off from those traditions by long periods of oppression. Moreover, the post-Second World War treaties and border adjustments made the country almost exclusively Polish and Catholic.

Neither the Polish nor Irish Church had much experience of multiculturalism in post-war times. Ireland, however, has recently experienced an influx of immigrants from different cultural and religious backgrounds, something Poland has not witnessed yet.

The Irish Church has a great missionary tradition, which may be an important resource for building a multicultural Church. Even now, as the crisis of vocations becomes more acute, people still go abroad. The Polish Church has not such a strong tradition.

The Polish Church differs also in regard to its social and educational experience. Under Communism, it was deprived of any engagement in these sectors. In Ireland, for a long time, the Church has carried the social structures, especially in education, and in hospitals and nursing homes.

In Poland children and young Catholics are familiar with small faith groups and a great variety of Christian movements. There is a stunning creative imagination in this area of pastoral work. In Ireland, children and youth groups are rare, and are built on an experimental basis. They appear limited in both numbers and accessibility.

The Mass for the Irish still looks like a devotional exercise for the individual – although many parishes do make an effort with the liturgy and sacraments. Masses are short, are far from being a celebration, there is no congregational singing and the sense of the parish community is weak.

Both nations have their favourite devotions. In Poland these are centred in the first place on the rosary – over a million Poles belong to different rosary groups – the Stations of the Cross, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and pilgrimages to holy shrines. For many people in Ireland too, devotion to the rosary and to the Sacred Heart has nourished their faith.

To sum up, Catholicism in Ireland and Poland will remain two distinct sisters. For them to meet fruitfully, both need to become more multicultural – more ‘Catholic’ in the original sense of the word -and to learn from other Churches.

They should also explore their roots and their rich early traditions, which were so pluralist in character. Both also have to open themselves to the spirit of Vatican II, especially in regard to liturgy and engagement with the laity.

The Catholic cultures of Poland and Ireland can learn much from each other.

Finally, my gut feeling is that Polish immigrants won’t have much influence on such an exchange. Projects need to be devised which link Church institutions, communities and groups based in Poland and in Ireland.

The immigrants are here for quite different purposes.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.