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A FEELING FOR SNOW: Memories of Warsaw 1997

Flying To Warsaw - January 25, 1997 

I’m on my way to a meeting of Pallottine Directors of Formation. Dreading it! Taking my window seat in row 14, I wait to see who my flying companions will be. It’s a nice morning but I’m tired, apprehensive and lonely. Loneliness always accompanies me on a trip like this - when I’m going alone to a strange place. Loneliness is for God. 

A tall woman with short blond hair takes the seat beside me and simply asks, “How are you?” Her tone is really sincere and it makes me realize that it would be all right talking to her all the way to Amsterdam. As it turned out very little was spoken between us after the initial few words. Her little son sits next to her, while her husband and daughter are across the aisle. There is something of Australia in the woman’s voice and at some stage before take-off she cries quietly with her head turned away from me. The priest in me wants to help but it strikes me that she has the right to privacy in this moment, so I keep my mouth shut. 

The novel “Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow” mentions solitude. Today I’ll have solitude - 7 hours of it - in Amsterdam airport. But solitude is not welcome now. I’d simply rather not. It used to come so easily but I’ve been avoiding it for a long time, holding it at bay. But it will not be put off. It’s a pain that rises in me now, a forty-year-old pain, coming up like a serpent from the deep. Stay calm! Let it enfold me. 

The sky is beautiful, with the sun burning hot on my shoulder. It’s only when we descend into the mist over Amsterdam that I admit to the loveliness of the cool clouds. The sun can be a tyrant at times and maybe this is also true of the searing heat of God’s fire. 

It is then, in the mist, that the woman speaks again. They too will be waiting seven hours in Amsterdam - maybe solitude won’t be necessary after all! They’re returning to Australia where she’s lived for 18 years but they hope to come back to Ireland later in the year. I’m glad for her. 

We separate on leaving the plane and that is that. For an hour I stroll around the shops, an exercise which does what it always does - sends me into a daze, like some altered state of consciousness. 

I find my way to the international place of worship. It’s 3.00 p.m., the hour of Mercy. A tranquil young woman is the sole worshipper, sitting ahead of me. She’s so still. I’m so restless. This is a barren place. There’s no Blessed Sacrament and it’s difficult to focus on Jesus either within or around me. 

A Moslem man comes to pray on the mat in the corner behind me, with his shoes off, adding to the distraction by bowing up and down and praying out loud -”Allah”.  I pray for protection for me, for her and for him, wishing he could know Jesus, but I admire his commitment. 

After another stroll, a coffee and a cigarette, time is beginning to fly. Perched on an armchair in the glass-viewing lounge, I take to gazing on planes. It’s already 5.00 p.m. and I’m actually enjoying this. 

So I sit and gaze and pray and ponder. The sky is a still purple pink and blue. Clarity comes to me and a peace beyond expectation. God is here, the serpent is here and a distance between us all - each of them trying to lay claim to me, to my soul. I expect it is God who will win me in the end. I hope. And a voice within seems to say I am not responsible for all the chaos that is within me. I am not guilty of it all. 

Plenty of Jumbo’s to satisfy and a beautiful fleet of Royal Jordanian DC 10’s - black, with gold crest and lettering. Everyone in the lounge is watching one of them pull away from the gate. Everyone is standing in admiration as it taxis out of sight, reappearing a while later roaring down the runway, roaring away from us, lifting off and up, curving and soaring. Magnificent. 

I take off for the second place of worship. No Blessed Sacrament either, but more prayerful than the first. On the table/altar there’s a book in which people write all sorts of prayers and thoughts. Some are fluffy while others defiantly declare their particular religion to be the true one. But there’s one prayer, raw and honest, that hits home. It is an ardent desire to worship God in faith and purity and somewhere in the middle it says all I want is that you make me your slave. That’s all I wanted to say myself. Looking at the signature I smile at the Moslem name of the author. 

At 7.00 p.m. it’s time to look for the departure gate. Arriving at this particular area I instinctively know that this is gate D12 because the people gathered there look Polish. They appear unsophisticated in a good way - there’s a wild earthy quality to them and most of them are smoking. God is good! 

In no time we’re coming down over Warsaw and I’m suddenly very tired - the flu is still at full force. Of course I’m nervous as usual going through passport control. It’s the guilt thing that makes me feel that I should be arrested for something and I whisper to heaven. It’s not bad. 

Arriving in the dark of Warsaw I am surprised and very relieved to see the familiar face of Fr. Josef who had spent some time in Ireland learning English. Two English-speaking students who are to be my companions for the few days accompany Josef. They are Yanuz and Jazek. Confident and very friendly. 

It’s almost midnight when they show me to my room in the large seminary at Otajav and after they’ve gone I survey my surroundings. I’m very tired. 

In the bedroom there’s no bed and I take it that the settee will fold out as one. Where are the bedclothes? Not in the wardrobe anyway. While pulling at the settee, I find the beloved duvet underneath, with pillow and sheet. The settee proves to be a problem in that it won’t flatten out, choosing instead to remain v-shaped. I restore it to its couch position and settle for that. A couch has often served me well as a bed so why not now. 

The pictures on the wall are of Jesus in prayer, the Madonna of Czestochowa and the Pope. There’s a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. All of these reassure me as I settle down to sleep. 

January 26, 1997: Sunday 

At 6.45 a.m. Jacek comes to collect me. It’s freezing out and the dawn sky glows red. The chapel in the main seminary building is three-quarters full with 136 Pallottine seminarians dressed in habit. An impressive sight and one I’ve never seen before and probably will not see again for a long time. The closest I’ve ever come to this was in the early years in St. Patrick’s in Thurles when there were up to 90 students. There are priests hearing confessions at the back. 

Morning prayer is sung and lasts thirty minutes. It’s beautifully paced and gently sung. Fr. Marian, the Rector, leads me to the sacristy to prepare for Mass. He speaks no English and I speak no Polish so we smile and nod and smile again almost too eagerly. The large sacristy is full of priests getting ready to concelebrate and each one is assigned a student.  Everything about the Liturgy is very ordered. 

Breakfast is at 8.30 and needless to say, the refectory is huge. Priests and Brothers sit at one long table at the top. Here I meet three of the Germans and two Italians. It’s all a bit awkward as English is very thin on the ground. 

The guests are brought to the Rector’s office for coffee at 9.00. His place consists of a reception room, a kitchenette and the office proper. Much more plush than mine and a whole lot tidier. There’s a nice icon of St. Vincent Pallotti on the wall. It’s a useful focus for us in our awkwardness and someone comments that at least he looks human in it. We all knew what he meant and I thought it was only the Irish who found it difficult to reach our Founder. But he is human, of course, and so is each one of us. We’re a motley looking crew. A fly on the wall might say odd, even. Definitely odd - all of us - and trying our best. I feel weak and frail and want to hide. 

At 10.30, we’re taken by minibus to the neighbouring Pallottine parish. The church is massive - a circular building with two tiers of galleries. On good days, it holds 5,000 people. We’re taken to the dizzy heights of the top gallery and it makes me queasy. Each end of the church boasts double-sided stained glass windows, which reach from the floor to the roof. It’s dedicated to the Divine Mercy and has been designated by the Cardinal as the shrine of Divine Mercy for the Archdiocese of Warsaw. As expected Divine Mercy is popular here and the most common statue of Our Lady is the one of Fatima. 

There’s no midday prayer on Sundays. Lunch consists of noodle soup, some kind of meat, mash, vegetables and tea. The food is nice and simple and there’s not too much of it. 

I’d absolutely LOVE a siesta. It even seems that the duvet is begging for my company but it’s not to be. European Pallottines must work hard and not be idle. So, we’re off to a church where St. Maximilian Kolbe lived for three years. There’s a museum recording his life and I find it very touching. Being fond of the Little flower, I’m comforted to see her picture.

Everywhere it’s piercing cold and I’m glad of Steve Buckley’s woolly hat. Norbert Possman from Germany who has just come off a twenty-hour train journey has joined us. He’s gentle and very sincere. Like the other German’s he’s got some English but is afraid to use it, as I am with Italian. The Italians so far are making no attempt at anything! 

January 27, 1997: Johnny Sweeney’s Birthday 

The hot water’s back so I have a shower before prayer, which starts at 7.00. The temperature outside is -8c! 

The meeting begins at 9.00 and I’m the last to arrive. The back wall of the room is lined with translation booths one of which is occupied by Pallottine Sister Margaret who is there solely for my benefit. The tables are arranged in u-shape two sides of which are occupied by 18 Poles, all but three of them in habit. The rest of us sit on the other side - 4 Germans and 2 Italians and me - none of us in habit, though two of us wear the collar. The whole scene is quite a statement. We represent the state of male Pallottinity in Europe. The Poles are the in the ascendant but they don’t make a meal of it and they really are not as stern as the wall of black habits might suggest. 

I’m very ill at ease here but a voice within suggests that my home, my place and my ground is God himself so that I can arrive at ease in any place. All right. 

This is going to more of a seminar than a discussion of Formation. There are experts coming in to us each day. This morning it’s the turn of a Pallottine sociologist who talks about the decline in religious practice among young Poles and he suggests what might be done. It’s what we were talking about in Ireland ten years ago and none of the answers seem to have worked except among small remnants (that might be ok). 

During coffee break, Brother Adam comes in search of me in order to speak his praise of Steve Buckley who is praised by a number of people here. Adam is a revelation. He speaks only Polish but has the very odd word of German and Italian. We manage, through each of our odd words of the various languages and through gestures, to communicate. One of the others looks amazed at our conversation, asking how we manage to communicate. Adam replies (in which language I can’t say) “Through the Holy Spirit.” And laughs with delight.

Mass is at 12.15 in Latin. Yanuz is Master of Ceremonies and is very keen that I be one of the main concelebrants, fully dressed in chasuble and all. Like a prince! I’m positioned in the sanctuary beside a huge, fat, black-bearded Pole who is much younger than I. At the sign of peace, I turn instinctively to him, only to be met by a stern shake of his head and an index finger, which indicates in silence that the peace must come down the line from the main celebrant. I know that of course and feel like a fool as I turn back to wait. And when, at last, it is proper for us to exchange the peace he smiles wickedly and gives me one of those non-committal liturgical hugs. 

The meeting resumes at 3.00 p.m. for reports from each of the Directors of Formation and we’re warned to speak for no more than ten minutes. The Germans take up the whole of the first hour, the Italians 30 minutes, the Poles later take an hour and I take the 10 minutes seriously but by comparison my report appears fluffy, lacking brains. They seem to know what they’re at, at least it sounds impressive. Yet, I think in Dundrum we’ve got what they’re talking about only I don’t have the language for it. I’m also too new in the job to be able to say much about it and I will never know. There was no discussion. The reports were simply left there. 

Recreation is at 8.00 in the community room. Things are thawing now and the affair stretches to 9.30. In all fairness, I wasn’t the last to leave. My room has become my home and I’m eager to get there. Anyway, I need a smoke! 

January 28, 1997 

It’s my birthday, a fact that I keep to God and myself. I’m 42. The first time in my life when there will be no one to say “happy birthday” or anything. It has an aspect of “aloneness” which I find interesting. It can be said of this that it belongs absolutely to God and I’m glad there is something in my life that is absolutely His. 

Outside it’s -5c with a brownish mist over everything. Apart from the people, the sky has been the most beautiful thing about Poland but today it’s hidden, adding to the awful bareness of this flat land in winter. There are many bare trees and they say it’s beautiful in the summer. The garden is full of gorgeous little fat sparrows. You’d wonder how they could be so fat. 

We’ve no meeting this morning but instead are off to Warsaw to see the Royal Palace, which was destroyed by the war and rebuilt in the 1970’s. The wind is skinning and the mist becomes a fine white powder. The old Italian thinks I look hilarious with my cap pulled down leaving only my bushy beard to be seen. 

The city of Warsaw is what you’d expect the communists to build. Utterly drab and without soul but old Warsaw is another story - utterly beautiful. And even though I’ve no interest in palaces, I have to admit that it too is beautiful. 

Today being the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas there is a feast back at the seminary for Fr. Tomas who is presented with flowers by the students. It’s lovely and I’m a bit envious! There was another celebration for him in the evening. 

January 29, 1997 

I’m sitting at my place in the conference room waiting for the meeting to begin. We’re having a talk on charisms. The Provincial strides into the room calling out my name and waving a sheet of paper in his hand. I wonder what trouble there is at home. 

As he places the sheet in front of me, he starts singing “happy birthday”. It takes some seconds for the others to connect but they join in and I feel mortified and very pleased when I look at what’s on the desk before me. It says more than any report. A fax from the students in Dundrum, designed by Brendan Walsh and signed “From your Forever Friends”, a play on my liking for the song by Charlie Lansborough.


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