Monday, October 30, 2006

Gawronski on Polish and Polish-American Catholicism

Last Thursday Rev. Raymond Gawronski, S.J., wrapped up the excellent Church, Politics, and Society lecture series at St. Elizabeth of Hungary. He spoke on Polish Catholicism in both the Old Country and America. His points in brief:

-Polish spirituality is Franciscan, not Benedictine. The Benedictines were associated with the Germans and aristocracy, whereas the Franciscans were more popular in the sense of being of the people.

-Poland's cultural touchstone was neither Gothic nor Modern, but Renaissance, which era coincided with Poland's peak as a world power.

-John Paul II's apparent failures as an administrator might derive in part from habitual Polish antipathy towards Prussian and Russian authoritarian bureaucracies. The locals' reaction instilled a careless near-anarchism, an almost quietist devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and a cult of suffering.

Certain parts of Father Gawronski's reflections on the Polish experience in America were especially noteworthy, and I reproduce parts below:
From the very start, Poles were excluded from church governance... the Polish traditions of devotion and family religious practice did not find a place in the emerging American Catholic Church. Though there were ethnic monsignors, auxillary bishops in cities with a large Polish population, it would be possible to say that the rich Polish liturgical, theological, and intellectual tradition has had any real impact on the wider American Church. New York has St. Patrick's Cathedral, I don't think any city has St. Stanislaus' Cathedral.

Beginning in the early sixties, the Poles in America were the object of a strong campaign of vilification. Identified as a Catholic working people, the Poles became symbols of that which had to be destroyed to make way for the new America.

As the dominant culture began to turn against both Catholicism and European culture, it displayed contempt for working class mores. Polish-American resistance to "ethnic cleansing" in urban neighborhoods met the combined, crushing force of state and church power and brute economic realities. Moreover Polish resistance to leftist agendas both in Europe and America made the Poles objects of derision, especially among elites in the academy and in the national media. I've long wondered if those attacks against the Polish community and the polack jokes in the American media were not the forerunners to the attacks on the Catholic Church she was experiencing, in Poland most strongly.


Ethnic groups in this country have tended to continue the trajectory of the Mother Country. Poland has not had a history of a Germany or modern Ireland, nor did Polish history share all significant Polish values with Polish Jews. Poland, a stateless nation, was formed in a crucible of powerlessness. Character and culture came to matter more than glory or power. Success in politics was often the way of collaborators. be a lawyer was seen to be a disgrace.

...the Slavic countries possessed a tendency unknown to most Western countries, wedded to a dignity and freedom based on the freedom of independent farmers. And that's the heart of this experience--everyone had his own piece of land. The poles as a group had a long-term experience in the USA that was different from some other groups who have enjoyed greater success while fostering a strong public image. For example, I would say that the Polish experience encourages the opposite of the Irish experience in America. Where persecution in America occurred in the context of possible access to power, a shared language and public culture allowed the Irish, in the end, to even dominate their Anglo-Saxon persecutors and tutors.

[I couldn't help but silently cheer here]

Speaking as a somewhat separated Polish-American, this success has come at a great price. The story of the Irish in America is in a large part the story of a transformation from a despised and landless minority to the highest seats of power in the state and the church. In the process, many lost their ancestral Catholic faith. You know, Eamon de Valera when he came to America described Catholics as Protestants who go to mass.

Something similar may well be happening in Ireland itself. So you see the current state of the Catholic Church in America is largely the state of the descendants of those once-oppressed immigrants who, as Don Corleone famously said, "found paradise in America." But the heavenly paradise seems to have dimmed in its appeal.

Coming in numbers three generations later, with a very different language, no cultural experience with Anglo-Saxons whatsoever, this has not helped--and could not have helped--the Polish experience.

Some people would say that Poland has returned to normalcy, that joining the EU will be joining normal states. Pardon my views, but nations that countenance abortion and seek to legitimize homosexual unions are not normal, in any possible religious imagination, not only Christian. Perhaps the Polish experience is the experience of anyone consecrated to God. And to the extend that they are consecrated to God, it is to be scarred, and wounded, the certain sufferings, and the glory of the Cross.

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