Reading University Catholic Chaplaincy pilgrimage to Poland
24th September 2019
From 9th-14th September a group us from Reading University went on a pilgrimage to Poland, the home country of our chaplain Fr Stanisław Gibziński. We were based at a retreat house in a suburban parish in the Archdiocese of Warsaw, where we were hosted by the parish priest Fr Grzegorz Jankowski, a great friend of Fr Stan who assisted and accompanied our trip as much as he could. The theme of the pilgrimage was Mater Ecclesiae – Mother of the Church. We unite ourselves to Mary’s Immaculate Heart in this moment of sorrow for the Church when there is much ongoing confusion, and ask her to keep us safe from false teachings as we sang in our theme song: Mater Ecclesiae, Regina mundi, da nobis pacem.
The liturgy of the Church forms the three central pillars every day: Lauds, Mass and Vespers. We quickly learned how to pray the Breviary and to sing a range of chants, including the Missa de Angelis, Pater noster and Salve Regina. Being aware what once Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen beautifully said that if we don’t behave as we believe we will end by believing as we behave, we put an absolute priority on the Divine Revelation about the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Hence we did everything to prepare our Holy Masses in the best way, some of which were in Latin. Many of us were impressed by the beauty of the liturgy, as one noted: ‘It was a time where I was able to find the beautiful rhythm of prayer and time with God which has been so often than not missing in my daily routine.’ We also spent separate time each day adoring and making a spiritual communion with our Lord exposed in the Blessed Sacrament, even for just a few minutes in churches we visited on our way. Aside, we often prayed the Angelus and the Rosary, learnt some non-liturgical prayers for the morning and evening, and examined our conscience.
There was a day when we went to the Divine Mercy Shrine, Kraków Old Town, Auschwitz and Częstochowa, somewhat in a rush. It was a long and tiring day, and we had been warned that everyone would have to make a little sacrifice, for example, by accepting that some of us would have a bad temper after being sleep-deprived. The Sacrifice Prayer of Fátima allowed us to detach ourselves from our ego and expectations, but to allow God be the centre of our emotions and experiences. Sacrifice has its fruits: thanks to Divine Providence, we were allowed to stand at the front of the sardine-packed Black Madonna Chapel in Częstochowa for a short prayer at 9pm. It was a time when everyone was exhausted from the day of travels, but was also the time when immense joy flowed from the deepest of our hearts, as the singing of famous Polish Marian hymns powerfully echoed the whole chapel. As another student noted: ‘Hearing the whole country praying proved that having the power of prayer and unity can make a country great again after a time of struggle’, in reference to persecution by the Communists a few decades ago.
In face of persecution, priest-martyr Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, whose story we learned about in his church and museum on another day, showed a great example of overcoming evil with good (cf. Romans 12:21). He organised monthly Masses for the Polish nation in the midst of persecution, and didn’t make any compromises to the point of abduction and murder. His great motto of ‘overcoming evil with good’ is for us an excellent reminder to go against our tendencies of revenge in adverse situations and respond with faith, hope and charity.
We also learnt the life of another holy man, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, from two perspectives. Needless to say is his famous heroic act of virtue in Auschwitz by offering his life for the life of a man with a family and praying with his inmates in his death cell. Yet we also spent some time in Niepokalanów Shrine where he lived a life of great simplicity, and from where he set off for a fruitful missionary journey to Japan of 6 years. We venerated his relics – his hair retained by his barber from his early years – after a Holy Mass celebrated in the Shrine Chapel.
We were also blessed to visit a centre for the blind, run by a community of Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross, in Laski near where we were staying. Established by Venerable Mother Róża Czacka, the community takes care of not only the physically blind but also those who are spiritually blind. Mother Czacka was eventually blind herself, and she valued the necessity of a Christian accepting the heavy Cross of blindness and offering it to God in the spirit of sacrifice for others. That’s why the community use a special form of greeting in place of ‘hello’: one person is first to say ‘through the Cross’, then the other to respond with ‘to Heaven’. It’s such a wonderful way to instil that our own Crosses, be they blindness or other infirmity and however we struggle with them, are truly spiritual gifts leading us to heaven through the struggles themselves. Throughout the tour of the large and serene centre, we met some children who greeted us in the same way. Some of the children were to stay there for their entire childhood and learn the life skills from the Sisters in the blind way, which we tasted a bit through a fun immersive experience. At the end of the tour, a Holy Mass was offered in the simplistic yet beautiful wooden chapel.
It is inspiring to see how holy people are interconnected in this nation with strong Catholic roots. On one occasion we visited the office of a long-time confessor of Pope Saint John Paul II. On another occasion we met by chance a long-time priest-friend of Blessed Popiełuszko whose faith is equally firm. All these tell us that sainthood isn’t as distant as thought; in fact, they are present and alive through witnesses around us.
Apart from spirituality, there was also a cultural aspect to our trip. We learned about the Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin at his home village in Żelazowa Wola, where we heard a short recital of his music given by an exceptionally young but talented pianist who had already won prizes in multiple prestigious Chopin piano competitions at the national level. Some of us also had a great time seeing Warsaw by Night. On top of all these, we went for a relaxing afternoon walk in the Kampinos Forest, and had a superb time celebrating our friendship by a bonfire with the parish local clergy and others.