It’s May! And parishes around the world are a flurry of sacraments. First Holy Communions and Confirmations testify to God’s continuing presence among us and leave us filled with that lasting Easter joy and bursting hearts. It’s that time of the liturgical year when God dishes out graces and gifts with generous hands and more places are set at the banquet table. Our own son Daniel received his first Holy Communion and the sacrament of Confirmation this spring, and although this was our fourth child to be so blessed, I still felt awed at witnessing the young life that’s been entrusted to us be saturated with and transformed by God’s own life.
Before the mass began that evening, as my husband snapped photos of Daniel and his friends leaving flowers at the foot of Our Lady’s statue, I looked around at the young girls, little “brides”, bustling and beaming in their veils and white dresses. And I was reminded of a story my friend Kasia told me about her First Holy Communion in Poland, back in 1970.
In Poland, she said, the children received their First Communion at a special mass on Sunday, and then all that week, they would come to the evening mass at their parish and wear their white dresses and special clothes to make the whole week a celebration of that union with Christ. (What a beautiful practice, I thought, for in the ancient Jewish tradition a marriage was celebrated for a week – at the house of the bridegroom!)
Kasia smiled as she remembered rushing home after school, changing into her white dress, shaking the braids out of her hair, and donning her crown of flowers. Her friend Ania lived in the same communist-built apartment building, and together the two eight-year-olds would race down the streets of their town of Wloclawek to the Cathedral, over a mile away. Every day they arrived breathlessly at the five o’clock mass, excited but disheveled, their hair wind-blown and floral crowns slightly askew.
Many children, she remembered – including herself – had to go to these weeknight masses alone, for their parents were still at work. Both fathers and mothers worked long hours in communist Poland to scratch out a meager living for their families. I had learned in George Weigel’s Witness to Hope that it was an underhanded tactic of the communist government: keep parents laboring to weaken the bonds of families to each other and to the Church. Which made me wonder. It didn’t seem to fit, this picture I had in my head, of these girls flying down the streets to mass, all in white – in a country governed by the grey clenched fist of communism. That was allowed? I asked, puzzled. They didn’t stop you?
Oh no, she said. The Catholic faith and its traditions were so ingrained in the culture “they” didn’t dare openly stop it, she said. As she remembered, even the communists in her town were Catholic. And then I recalled reading, again in Witness of Hope, that when he was the archbishop of Krakow, Saint John Paul II would continue the annual Corpus Christ procession each spring, carrying the Eucharist through the city and preaching to tens of thousands of people in the streets. It wasn’t until the strikes began decades later, when, emboldened by their new Polish pope and then encouraged by many priests, the people began to be filled with optimism and hope. The government realized its efforts to make Catholicism nothing more that a sentimental fable had failed, and leaders began to fear the influence of the Church. In fact, Kasia recalled, eventually Wloclawek would have it’s own martyr: Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko. Fr. Popieluszko was a young priest, only 37 years old, when he was beaten to death by three Security Police officers after his anti-communist sermons, broadcast throughout Poland, became too much of a threat to the regime. His body was then thrown into the river near Wloclawek. Over 250,000 people boldly attended his funeral. (A miracle attributed to his intercession was confirmed in France in 2013 and it is expected that he will be canonized soon, as a martyr.)
But here’s why I love Kasia’s story. Here’s where it takes on meaning for us, as I see it. In the middle of communist madness, in the center of a broken country, stood the solid beauty of the Church, and in the heart of the Church, a small white host. Holding everything within it. Holding Love and Hope and Joy and He who is all of those things. Veiled in white Himself, you could say. And those little girls, breathless white blurs, running to Him with abandon. To the one who anchored their country to Himself through a century of chaos. Hearing in their eager hearts that constant call to come, come quickly, to the center of their faith – and yes, their culture, too – even as it threatened to collapse.
We too in the Church now, must dress ourselves in the whiteness of the confessional (for we know the result of coming to the bridal banquet improperly attired – see Matthew 22!) and run, run to Christ, without looking left or right. As the culture throws itself into flames, and freedoms begin to falter, and the things we love turn to dust and so many others are turning to pillars of salt, we have to fix our eyes on the one sure thing, the center of our existence and race to Him. And then, we hope, we’ll make it someday to the wedding banquet, a bit tousled and winded, perhaps, but in the end – arriving absolutely awestruck and among the saints….several of my favorite being, in fact – Polish.
Only children, and those like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet. ~St. Therese of Lisieux