A Gift from Poland
By Marianna Bartholomew
A grueling ritual played out in the mountain town of Zokopane in southern Poland each September in the 1980s. Shivering villagers stood several days in an outdoor queue to secure their winter ration of coal to warm homes.
Thirty-year-old Andrzej Wyrostek recalls his parents joining this line as he tells of the stamina required for obtaining life’s staples under the old communist rule. “You had to forget about buying things in a store,” says the 5-foot-7-inch, 180-pound young man. Families received stamps to buy a pound of sugar and two pounds of meat each month. They raised sheep and other stock and worked the land to subsidize meager livelihoods dependent on tourists who came for summer trekking and winter skiing.
Despite this scrabbling for survival, people lived a rich Catholic life, says Wyrostek, who never dreamed his vocation would take him halfway around the hemisphere to Rapid City, S.D. Yet Wyrostek just was ordained a deacon, one of the final steps before his ordination to the priesthood in 2000 for this home mission diocese. He is serving Blessed Sacrament Parish in Rapid City this summer before returning to the beautiful 120-acre campus of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich., in the fall.
Call to America
The seminary just outside of Detroit was founded in 1885 to prepare candidates for serving Polish immigrants in America. About 3,000 priests have studied here and gone on to minister in parishes across the United States. Last year a total of 41 seminarians — all from Poland —attended classes, and four of them plan to serve home mission dioceses from Raleigh, N.C., to Great Falls-Billings, Mont.
The chance to serve where priests are urgently needed is what attracts Polish seminarians to America, says Monsignor Francis B. Koper, the rector of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Seminary. A seminary recruiter visits Poland each year and finds men who share an “inquisitiveness, an adventurous spirit, a willingness to risk and a desire to help,” he explains.
All these qualities can be found in Wyrostek. He was 9 on June 2, 1979, when Pope John Paul II stood in central Warsaw appealing for liberty in Poland and invoking the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth.” The Holy Spirit must have fallen upon Wyrostek. At the time, he was occupied by schoolwork and helping his carpenter father till the land and maintain pigs, chickens and two cows on their two-acre homestead. “We took good care of the fields and respected every animal — these were our sources of food,” the softspoken seminarian says.
Wyrostek heard about priests being arrested for giving homilies that spoke about freedom. The police also paid visits to seminarians just to make them “a little nuts,” he believes.
Police knocked Wyrostek’s door twice, though not for religious reasons. One visit occurred after his father failed to return on schedule from a visit to Germany. Another time, a communist neighbor reported the Wyrosteks to police for a building project in their yard for which they had not received permission.
Gaining permits for construction was difficult, says Wyrostek. Many people joined the Communist Party in order to build a home or avoid heavy taxation, yet they still maintained their Catholic Faith. They would drive 20 to 30 miles to attend distant parishes for Mass.
“If their supervisors in the party saw them in church, they would end up jailed,” says Wyrostek.
But the Church was “too strong to be locked up.” Despite the harassment, the Church was never forced entirely underground as it was in Czechoslovakia or Russia, where Catholics comprise a much smaller part of the population. If the 30-plus million Catholics in Poland were denied their Faith, “it would have become a country of martyrs,” says Monsignor Koper. More than 95 percent of the nation is Catholic, and “people were willing to sacrifice their lives for their Faith.”
Peaceful resistance to the atheistic regime took form in public worship such as Corpus Christi processions in the streets, May devotions and pilgrimages to shrines like that of the Black Madonna, “Jasna Gora,” in Czestochowa, says Monsignor Koper. “People would be told, ‘You can’t build a church,’ so they’d build a barn and meet there for Mass at night,” he says. “You tell a Pole he can’t do something, and he’ll say, ‘I bet I can.”‘
Solidarity banners flew during papal visits to Poland in the 1980s as Pope John Paul II helped give momentum to the resistance movement. Even former communist President Aleksander Kwasniewski recognized the Pope’s role in the collapse of authoritarian rule there.
Winds of change
When the winds of democracy blew across Poland in 1989, Wyrostek was discerning his call to the priesthood. “It was exciting to live through the changes when the government switched,” he recalls. “You could freely go outside the country. You didn’t have to be scared that the police would visit your home.”
Even the way people expressed their faith shifted. Under communism, “many people went to church as a sign of freedom and independence from the government,” explains Wyrostek. “If it wasn’t ‘legal’ what priests were preaching, people liked it because it gave them hope.”
After communism fell, people had to reexamine their motives for attending Mass, he says. “People went to Church as more of a sign of faith.”
In his second year of high school Wyrostek attended the ordination of a cousin who “threw me the idea that I should enter the seminary.” Although he laughed at the notion, Wyrostek later talked to his pastor and attended vocation camps held by religious orders. “I started to like it,” he says about the seed of an idea that bloomed into a heartfelt call to the priesthood. “It felt
At 21, good.” He entered the seminary in Krakow where Pope John Paul II studied and completed his philosophy studies and one year of theology. When a seminarian friend left to study in the U.S., Wyrostek felt intrigued.
“I thought about how many guys are entering the seminary in Poland and how few enter in the U.S.,” he says. “I thought, ‘In America, I can really do something to make a difference.”‘
Priestly vocations in Poland outpace the local dioceses’ needs. In one diocese alone, as many as 50 to 60 men enter the seminary each year. Contrast this with the Diocese of Rapid City, which has a total of 68 priests serving a 43,000-square-mile area, and 14 students in the seminary.
Missionaries like Wyrostek are a “wonderful gift” to America, says Father Arnold Kari, the Rapid City Diocese’s vocations director. Irish missionaries first settled in this vast, rural diocese. Now men from Poland are digging in. For example, recently ordained Father Janusz Korban came here because he wanted to work among Native Americans. After completing his first assignment at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral in Rapid City, he will move on to serve the Lakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Not all Polish seminarians find the transition smooth. With one year to go, one of Wyrostek’s classmates, who also would have served the Rapid City Diocese, chose to return to his homeland. However, the ones who stay adjust remarkably well to the culture and climate, says Father Kari, who marvels at their dedication and faith. “When I ask them, ‘Why have you come?’ they simply say, ‘The Lord called me.”‘
It has a lot to do with prayer, asserts Wyrostek. During his first summer in America, he saw many parishes pray for vocations before each Mass. “Maybe some people do not realize how powerful this prayer is,” he wrote to Catholic Extension. “This prayer reaches all over the world, and it reached even me in Poland.”
A new life in America
In the summer of 1994, Wyrostek stepped off a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It was a bit scary at first, admits the young man, who found language to be the biggest barrier. His first taste of English came when he arrived in the United States, so he did what other seminarians do at Ss. Cyril and Methodius. He put theology studies on hold for two years while he studied English. He has since completed two years of theology and has one more year to go.
The summers have led Wyrostek across the Rapid City Diocese. His first assignment was at St. John the Baptist Church in Custer, working amidst ranchers and factory workers in the Black Hills. He spent the following year at St. Bernard Parish on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and its four scattered missions in Bullhead, Wakpala, Kenel and McIntosh. He attended native powwows and naming ceremonies and was given a prized star quilt as a farewell gift.
Wyrostek discovered striking similarities between the Lakota and Polish peoples. He sees a tendency among many Americans to “categorize their lives, put everything in order, have a schedule. Then when things don’t work out, people get upset.” In contrast, Native Americans and Poles tend to “take life as it comes. We make schedules and plans, but if something doesn’t work out, no big deal.”
Like Native Americans, Poles who work the land also are attuned to nature. “It’s that sense that God created everything for us and we can use it but not destroy it,” explains Wyrostek.
The seminarian has led Communion services, visited shut-ins, helped at vacation Bible schools and entered into every aspect of parish life. As a deacon, he now preaches homilies several times weekly and celebrated his first baptism this summer.
Wyrostek has found great differences in how faith is expressed in America and Poland. “Some people in Poland think the U.S. is not a faithful country,” says Wyrostek. Compared to the ornate Old World churches, contemporary American churches seemed sterile. “They are only walls and concrete,” says Wyrostek. “Between the church and parking lot, there is not much difference.”
He also misses seeing religious images in homes. “In Poland, there has to be a crucifix over the door when you enter the house as a part of your faith,” he says. Images also abound of the Blessed Mother, the “Queen of Poland,” as well as pictures of saints.
While Americans are more reserved about displaying religious images, Wyrostek finds a deep yearning for God and an openness in expressing their faith in the people he’s met. “Here, people are searching. They turn to the Bible, whereas in Poland many people don’t give as much attention to it. In America, I’ve seen people not afraid to pray before their meal in a restaurant.” That wouldn’t happen in Poland, says Wyrostek, who seldom saw Poles talk publicly about their faith.
People in the Old World also tend to leave more to their priests, says Wyrostek. Parishes have lay people in music ministry and religious education, but that is about all. In the United States, Wyrostek sees parishioners much more involved as Eucharistic ministers, lectors, parish council members and in other miniseries.
The differences are very evident at holiday times, too, Wyrostek discovered during his first year in the United States when Christmas decorations went up in scores the day after Halloween. In Poland, Advent is lived as a time of purification and spiritual preparation. Homes aren’t decorated until Christmas Eve.
A family meal is served on this night that Wyrostek compares to America’s Thanksgiving dinner. The meal celebrates family unity, symbolized by everyone partaking in a wafer called Oplacek (pronounced “op-wa-tek’). Then Christmas carols are sung until the family heads off to church for midnight Mass.
On Christmas Day, families again attend Mass and enjoy gifts and feasting. December 26th brings another special Mass and day of celebration. A musician, two altar boys and the pastor visit homes bearing a figure of the new born Christ. After prayers and song, the priest blesses each home.
Christmas celebrations continue in Poland through the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6. In America, however, Wyrostek was shocked to see Christmas trees in the trash on the 26th.
While such cultural differences can be jarring, Wyrostek doesn’t regret his coming to America. “Every day my faith and desire to be a priest get much stronger,” says this young man, who adds that if we will only “look for the will of God, everything else will follow.”
This trust proved true for Wyrostek in meeting his seminary expenses. One year’s tuition at Ss. Cyril and Methodius equals the life savings of the average Pole. Wyrostek’s brother, for example, has taken over the family farm and brings in about $120 per month to support his family.
Wyrostek and many others couldn’t afford the seminary without the help of Catholic Extension donors. After Wyrostek’s story ran in an appeal and in EXTENSION Magazine last year, people nationwide sent letters of support. One woman in Iowa volunteered to cover the seminarian’s entire cost of studies last year and again this year.
Wyrostek says he cannot repay such generosity but, he offers, “what I have is my life.” Thinking of all the people praying for him makes him stronger in his vocation. “Even though I don’t know them, they’re willing to open their hearts to me.” This helps keep him on the road to the priesthood, especially when he feels homesick or struggles with studies in his newly adopted language.
Vision of priesthood
Wyrostek also draws inspiration from Pope John Paul II. “Of course, he’s Polish!” he says with a hearty laugh. “But then there’s also his openness to the people. He knows people cannot come to him, so he goes to them.”
Wyrostek says his motto as a priest will be “From People and For People,” a phrase from the Pope’s encyclical “Pastores Dabo Vobus” (“I will give you Shepherds”). He wants to break through any “walls” separating him from those he serves. “The priest is put aside to serve people and lead them,” he says, “but at the same time the priest is one of the people.”
Upon ordination, Wyrostek will serve where he is needed in the Diocese of Rapid City. His “walls” will include any strangeness people experience in having a foreignborn priest.
However, with his English language skills in working order and a deepening understanding of American culture, Wyrostek remains undaunted. He is eager to become a “part of people’s lives” as a missionary in America.
Reprinted with permission from Extension Magazine, August 1999