Fellow, Center for Liturgy
Recently, during the University of Notre Dame’s fall break, I traveled to Poland with 14 fellow undergraduates, Theology professor David Fagerberg, and his wife Elizabeth. This trip was made possible largely by the support of the Nanovic Institute. Over the course of a trip to the Holy Land my sophomore year, study abroad in Chile junior year, and this trip to Poland during my senior year, I have learned that when you find an excuse to both travel and learn at the same time, the University of Notre Dame tends to be pretty supportive! And oftentimes, as happened in our case, the Nanovic Institute either helps with the funding or even totally covers a variety of learning-traveling experiences. So thanks to the generosity of Nanovic and the ingenuity of the Open University through the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, we participated in a one-credit course entitled, “The Church in Poland, Iconography, and Pope John Paul II on the Human Person.”
As many of our writers have said before myself, one of the foci of the Center for Liturgy is to help us realize that the liturgy isn’t just some rubric-filled routine for 52 minutes of our Sunday mornings. Liturgy isn’t simply a box to check off on our weekends; rather, ideally, the liturgy and the way that God calls to us through liturgy ought to feed us. When we learned to, ‘live liturgically,’ learning from the liturgy and being shaped and changed by it, as Fr. Aidan Kavanagh said, we would “do the world the way it was meant to be done.” This would mean a continual growth in our lives of faith, a further orientation toward the God who made us in love and calls us to love. I would stipulate that our trip to Poland definitely helped us to see ways in which we could integrate our lives of faith with our day-to-day lives. During the week, we saw ways in which an entire nation—in the midst of and through struggle after struggle and occupation after occupation—managed to hold its identity, particularly through a love of Mary and in constant attempts to help their fellow brothers and sisters, be they Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, or various other faiths.
So, with that liturgical definition of life and history in mind, I would like to share some reflections from my fellow students (now friends) from our fall break in Poland. It was a jam-packed week, filled with learning, traveling, wonderful food, bus rides, standing wide-eyed and staring at the beauty of old churches, walking through medieval cities, and immersing ourselves in realities which are and were sometimes different from our own. But I’ll let my fellow students tell you more about that.
Hopefully, reflecting over the course of this week will serve as a small sample of our experience, and of our gratitude for this opportunity. We hope, too, that the good of that week won’t remain in the past, just in our stories and photos. We hope that the memories and lessons will continue to bear fruit throughout our time at Notre Dame and far beyond last week.
(For more photos and information, you can visit our class’ snazzy blog over at http://polandkul.blogspot.com/. You can see a day-by-day account of our week and view some pictures, too)
Question: We saw and spent time in a LOT of churches this week. Did anything strike you about the churches in general? What’s one particular memory from a specific church that will stick with you?
A Marvel and a Simple Joy—Holy Architecture in Poland
By: Annemarie Coman
In general, churches in Poland are awe-inspiringly gorgeous. There is so much history filling each one to the brim! From ancient artworks to relics of the saints, each holy place held its own treasures. Altars dedicated to polish saints and the Blessed Mother topped with black and gold intricately carved decoration flanked the sides of many churches. In America we are used to just one main altar; in Poland, they do not limit themselves to one, or even to five! The incredible artistic detail and impressive scale certainly drew me into these churches, and all the decorative elements served a greater purpose to pull one’s eyes heavenward. The most elaborate intricacies and extravagance was always reserved for the tabernacle area, often including legions of adoring angels. What a beautiful way to draw our hearts to Christ!
That being said, occasionally the decorative elements of the churches served as a sort of distraction to me in prayer, and instead of bringing my mind heavenward, led me to simply marvel at the works of man. For this reason, sometimes I found myself praying more easily in some of the simpler chapels. Probably the most modest church we visited, and also my personal favorite, was the Chapel of the Sisters of Our Lady of Divine Mercy. This convent holds a special place in my heart because it was the home of St. Faustina Kowalska, probably my favorite saint because of her great humility and trust in Jesus as each day she strived to love Him more. Her diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul, is my current favorite book (although I have yet to finish it!), and each time I pour over its pages, I find new insights that Jesus through Faustina always teaches me. What a gift to be there in this place where St. Faustina prayed! Where her body is now laid to rest! To me this was an unforgettable and precious moment to be so close to one I hold so dear.
Question: In this course (both through the pre-departure classes and in Poland itself) we talked a good bit about icons and what icons are supposed to reflect about people and about God. What is something that you think everyone should know about icons?
Response by: José Martinez
While taking a tour of the oldest Eastern Orthodoxy Church in Lublin, the local priest stopped mid-sentence to mark an aside. “Icons aren’t drawn,” he said, “they are written.” Although I didn’t think about it much then, it hit me as soon as I sat down in my hotel room.
To me, along with most of the West, icons really are a strange part of the Church. Not having studied or seen many, I only ever thought of them as a part of Church history. “Oh yeah, some emperors had campaigns to destroy them” was the extent of my knowledge and appreciation for them. Never once did I stop to look at one and wonder what made them so important; what made them so prominent for so many in East. Until that priest took us on that tour, that is.
Icons aren’t simply drawings meant to fill a church up. They aren’t there so we have something to stare at during a bland homily. They are written; a part of the liturgy themselves. By kneeling down and venerating these images we do not worship a painting (as many outsiders would think). We honor not the painting itself but the people depicted, and through their rich symbolism we are reminded of what made these saints, angels and even Jesus Christ so great. Through their symbolism, we can clearly see exactly how Jesus’ life saved mankind.
After finally seeing them through that lens it became easy to see why icons filled all of Poland. They weren’t just physical paintings but a way for us, made both spiritual and physical, to appreciate and remember so many of the important things about our Church. As John of Damascus said, “the Creator of matter… became matter [and] worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!”
Question: Since we visited some of the most important places from Pope St. John Paul II’s life, do you have any reflections about him or about what we learned about him that you would like to share?
Response by: Bridgid Smith
As I sat in Room 208 of the Catholic University of Lublin I tried rather unsuccessfully to grasp the fact that I was sitting in the very classroom in which Karol Wojtyla (later beloved Pope John Paul II) taught ethics. I glanced at his pictures hanging on the wall and the desk he used in the front of the room, and almost could not contain my joy at receiving such an opportunity. Being in the very room he taught, the towns he lived, the country he called homeland, and meeting people whom he called friends, filled me with an overwhelming desire not only to study his teachings in depth, but also to follow his example of faith in my own life, courageously responding to his words, “Do not be afraid; open wide the doors to Christ!”
One specific aspect of John Paul II’s life that particularly inspired me was his ability to see the face of God in every person he met. We met with a priest who was a student of John Paul II. He told us a story of a man who introduced himself to John Paul II once during a papal visit, and then again introduced himself a few years later during a different visit. The third time he had the opportunity to meet with the Holy Father he began introducing himself again but John Paul II interrupted him and said, “You are introducing yourself for the third time!” The man introducing himself, to say the least, could not believe it. Because of his deliberate attention to the individual, I think that John Paul II clearly saw the face of the God he loved in each and every person. After just a few brief moments of meeting someone, John Paul II remembered them, loved them, and did not forget them. He was fully present to whomever was directly in front of him. This example of complete attention to the individual amazed me. How often in my own life do I fail to accomplish this simple task? How often do I forget or neglect the people right in front of my eyes?
Question: In order to make sense of the parts of the trip that focused on our official course themes (the Church in Poland, iconography, and Pope John Paul II) we were lucky enough to receive a crash course in Polish history during our first three days at the Catholic University in Lublin. What is something that you learned about Polish history that you think is important to know? What did this teach you about the Church in Poland, or the Polish people as a whole?
Response: Overcoming Communism Through Faith
By: Jack Shea
After a week in Poland, I have gained an incredible appreciation for the history and faith of the Polish people. The Catholic Church has played an enormous role in forging the current Polish state. It has been an inspiration and guide to the Polish people for centuries. The Polish people reflect their gratitude to the Church in their tremendous piety. It is clear that Poland’s national identity is directly tied to the spirit of Catholicism that permeates the country.
One particular aspect of this history that I find very important involves the role of the Church in overcoming communism in Poland. After the Allied forces achieved victory in Europe in the Second World War, Poland fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union turned Poland into one of its “satellite states” and controlled the government and economy of Poland. The doctrine of communism promoted by the Soviets is antithetical to Church teaching. It fails to understand the proper role of mankind in the world. The Soviets worked to suppress the Catholic Church in Poland because they saw the Church as a threat to their power. When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland was elected Pope John Paul II, their task became more difficult. Pope John Paul II worked hard to defeat communism. His passion and love galvanized the Polish people to overcome the communist state. John Paul II was likely the most influential person in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
This lesson taught me that Catholicism is deeply tied to the national history of Poland. The people have endured incredibly difficult times and have often relied on God and His Church to see them through. In the United States, we often fail to see the role God has played in shaping our history. We are tempted to put our faith into a box and cut it off from the rest of our lives. In Poland, faith is linked to not only family and community, but also the government, economy, and history. It is a fundamental characteristic of Polish life and is valued throughout Polish society. Catholicism is not something to be practiced for an hour each Sunday morning. Rather, it should be lived out and celebrated in our studies, work, and relationships.