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Popular Piety, Polish


Polish-style Catholicism is an intimate network of popular religious practices, closely bonding home, church, and community. Since the Baptism of Prince Mieszko I in 966, the Gospel has rooted itself and gradually Christianized seasonal, life cycle, and national events, through blessings, family religious ritual, devotional prayer, and pilgrimages.

Blessings and devotional prayer celebrate the liturgical calendar as well as the religious nature of the seasons. This is particularly true of the Lent/Easter cycle. The "Bitter" Lamentations or Gorzkie Żale are congregationally sung reflections on the personal and cosmic dimensions of Jesus's passion. Their melodies, along with other Lenten hymns, inspire an intensely personal, yet communal, meditation on the Lord's suffering. This reflection culminates in the Holy Saturday prayer vigil at the Lord's Sepulchre. On this day, faithful pray at a Garden Tomb constructed in a special side chapel. This devotional dimension of the Paschal Triduum arose out of tenth-century reflection on the psalms and antiphons of the Liturgy of the Hours commemorating Christ's burial and repose.

The entire cycle reaches full completion in the early morning "Sunrise" procession on Easter Sunday: the glorious antithesis of Lenten lament. Parishioners gather at the now empty Garden Tomb to chant morning prayer and celebrate Christ's Resurrection in a jubilant outdoor eucharistic procession, ending with a solemn celebration of the Mass of Easter. Eucharistic devotion, stands at the heart of Polish piety, especially evident during city-wide processions on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, parish feast days, and monthly Sacred Heart Devotions. This originally baroque response to the Protestant Reformation solidified Catholicism among the general populous, during an era when official government policies promoted a national climate of religious pluralism.

Lenten and Easter practices give evidence to a mutually enriching relationship between the parish and home life. Children ask their parents for forgiveness in preparation for celebration of the sacrament of penance, as adults seek sacramental reconciliation during parish Lenten retreats. Throughout these 40 days, individuals fast and abstain from rich foods ascetically identifying with Christ's temptation in the desert. The fast is broken at the Eucharist of Easter morn. The celebration at the Lord's Table extends into the home through a domestic liturgy beginning with the characteristic egg-sharing ritual. The Holy Saturday rite of priestly blessing, with eighth-century Western Catholic roots, reveals the Resurrection symbolism of the holy day meal: round cross-breads and winethe Eucharist, the "butter" lamb and smoked meatsthe victorious Lamb of God; horseradishthe bitterness of crucifixion; pussy-willow branches and greensthe new life of Easter. Exquisite batik-style, dyed Easter eggs radiate with floral patterns dating to the tenth century. The colorful shells of the eggs suggest Jesus's miraculous tomb, while their yolks represent the Easter sunrise. Parishes, also, share blessed foods with the poor and the homeless.

On Christmas Eve families celebrate the holiest night of the year with a Vigil Supper, called Wigilia. This domestic liturgy begins only after the youngest child sights the first star of Christmas Eve, recalling the Wise Men in the Gospel. The head of the household initiates a bread-breaking ritual around a festive table set with a thin layer of pure hay and a white tableclothreminiscent of Bethlehem's manger. The leader extends wishes while the gathered share a fine, wheaten wafer or oplatek. This holy day exchange of wishes and bread breaking expresses the intimacy of familial love and reconciliation, as all present "forgive and forget" all wrongdoing. A meatless meal follows, gathering together the bounty of the entire year. The festival continues with an exchange of gifts and the singing of carols, the latter of which finds full expression at the parish Midnight/Shepherd's Mass.

Other domestic liturgies include the Epiphany house blessing and the lighting of the "thunder" candle, blessed on February 2, as a prayer during storms or times of family crises. The liturgical feasts of the spring and summer months are occasions to bless palm bouquets, wreaths, wildflowers, herbs, seeds, and grainsymbols of the Pole's mystical solidarity with creation, a profound reverence for the environment, and divine solicitude. Senior tradition bearers lead family ritual with simple elements, blessed by the parish priest, expressive of the close relationship between the family and the parish, a hallmark of Polish popular piety.

Participation in parish and domestic celebrations forms an individual's faith, as well as community identity. Prior to beginning formal religious education, the mother teaches her children the content and value of personal prayer. This attitude matured in the nineteenth century when Poland ceased to exist as a political entity. During this time a "domestic stronghold" outlook developed where prayer, religious ritual, and the passing on of community values centered in the family home. Early immigrants to the United States were "home-schooled" in this very manner, and many of these attitudes remain operative to this very day. Family tradition bearers continue to creatively adapt agrarian customs to the more urban environment of the United States.

Milestones along the various phases of the human birth-life-death cycle emphasize annual name days (the feast of one's patron saint) over birthdays, patronal feastdays, anniversaries and commemorations of the deceased. National resistance to two centuries of totalitarianism and the tragedy of two World Wars demonstrate that suffering has been a part of recent Polish history. all souls' day, therefore, is a national holiday of homecoming. People return to the resting places of deceased family members to pray, light vigil candles, arrange flowers, and celebrate Mass. During the evenings prior to All Souls, cemeteries across the country blaze with thousands of candles. In the United States, similar practices emerge during Memorial Day celebrations.

Pilgrimages to religious shrines frequently celebrate national festivals, as the Polish word święto denotes both the holy day and holiday. Among these are famous, week-long, on-foot pilgrimages to Marian shrines, above all, to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. Pope John Paul II best expressed the mysticism of this national "Upper Room" or spiritual capital in stating that Poles are accustomed to come here "to listen to the nation's heart beat in the heart of its Mother." Similar pilgrimages are held each August to the Salvatorian Fathers' Shrine southeast of Chicago and to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Midland, Ontario, Canada.

Bibliography: j. kloczowski, ed., Uniwersalizm i swoistość kultury polskiej, v. 12 (Lublin 1990). c. m. krysa, A Polish Christmas Eve: Traditions and Recipes, Decorations and Song (Lewiston, New York 2000); Domesticae Ecclesiae Liturgia. The Easter Meal in Polish Tradition: A Cultural, Textual, and Pastoral Analysis (Rome 2001). j. j. parot, Polish Catholics in Chicago 18501920: A Religious History (De Kalb 1981).

[c. m. krysa]

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