I recently had a very disconcerting encounter on a trip to Poland. I have several Polish friends who were raised Catholic but left the Church. They often comment to me about Catholics in Poland. A friend of mine from New Zealand who converted to Catholicism here in Poland had the same experience. We often find that odd. Being from English-speaking countries, people automatically assume that we are not as “Catholic” as the Catholics here in Poland. I often hear comments like “well, you might not believe it, but the Church in Poland believes it”. As there are different doctrines and dogmas in Catholicism. In the beginning, I tried to engage with this and make it clear that the Church itself (meaning the Magisterium) does not espouse such things. Or I would suggest that looking into the Catechism is the best way to understand what we believe. Then I realized that these people had already made up their minds and so my best course of action was to just say, “Oh my god, well, we don’t really believe that.” And then drop it.
A very close friend of mine is an example. She believes (because others have repeatedly told her) that the Church teaches that her daughter is not really an able-bodied person because she was conceived through in vitro fertilization. At first I tried to explain that this is not what the Church believes. However, now I don’t argue with her. I just let him know quietly that these are not beliefs held by the Church, and then tried to be a loving, kind friend and a good example of what Catholicism really is.
I thought my friend’s experiences were remote and unusual because I have lived in Poland for over a decade and have never come across such extreme views. Of course, we all know self-righteous Pharisees among us who know the “law” and constantly beat their neighbor with it, while ignoring their own lack of charity. I’ve always chalked it up to the very human fear of not feeling enough and as a result of that feeling they point out other people’s flaws in an attempt to make themselves feel better. The old “well I know I’m bad, but at least I’m not as bad as him!” But I have never met a group of people who not only held such attitudes, but who proudly voiced their opinions from the top of an incredibly high moral hill.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of traveling to a small town in Poland to speak at a spiritual workshop. I speak very often during these workshops about my spiritual journey of overcoming personal difficulties through simple trust in God through prayer, self-examination and helping others. Polish is not my first language, I actually only learned to speak Polish about ten years ago, so speaking at these workshops for long periods of time is exhausting. I started my day early and spoke Polish from around 8:00. By the time we arrived at the restaurant for dinner after the all-day event, it was around 9:00 p.m.
In these contexts, I don’t usually talk in detail about my spiritual practices, especially the fact that I’m a Catholic, or in detail about my prayer life. I use broad terms and open language so that anyone of any religion (or non-religion) at any stage of the journey can feel comfortable seeking God. I try to use Saint Charles de Foucauld as a guide. However, at dinner the subject shifted to the Church and I quickly realized that I was part of a group of practicing Catholics. I was asked a few specific questions which I answered honestly. I had no idea what I was saying was in any way controversial.
I revealed that I was completing a doctorate at the Pontifical University in Krakow. They expressed interest in it and were eager to talk more about it. I innocently and unassumingly believed we were Catholic and when they said they had questions for me, I thought it would be for clarification or a discussion about God. However, that was not the case. I had fallen into a spiritual ambush. “Welcome to my living room says the spider to the fly.”
The conversation turned to Saint Thomas Aquinas. I openly admitted that I found Aquinas difficult to read and was told I must be a modernist because if I wasn’t I would surely understand Aquinas and rejoice in his argument . I am often grateful that my Polish is not good enough to explain everything and I simply said that reading Thomas Aquinas in Latin is very confusing, which the men I spoke to recognized and I understood from their reactions that they do not read Thomas Aquinas in Latin. However, on this point, I must say that I do not connect with all saints, nor am I touched by all spiritualities.
The conversation continued to decline. They asked me if I was a traditional Catholic, which I thought I was, but whenever I thought I had found safe ground or an uncontroversial topic, their answers made me feel like I was less Catholic or not at all. Mindful of neutrality, I said that one of my favorite theologians is Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). I was honestly surprised and left a little speechless when one of the gentlemen told me that I was a modernist, just like Pope Benedict XVI. Then he started explaining that modernists believe that all religions are the same and I started to understand that these people really didn’t know what modernism is and obviously had never read any of the cardinal’s theological works Joseph Ratzinger.
Again my Polish failed me as I sat staring blankly at these people saying only that maybe we had a different understanding of modernism. To which they explained that anything written by a theologian who lived in the 20th century or later or anything said or believed in the aftermath of Vatican II was suspect. I tried to defend the Magisterium but I was tired and found I was a little irritated too, to which the man sitting across from me commented that surely I have to admit my mistake because I am upset. And if I’m upset, I’m wrong. At least I think that’s what he said.
I don’t know how I managed to get out of it, but exhausted, I returned to my hotel for my evening prayer and my examination of conscience. I tried to sort this out, although I had been accused of being a heretic like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had been, but I must say that the feeling that was most evident to me was that of a great and deep sadness.
I realize that I have opened a topic that may seem controversial to some. What came out of the conversation I had that evening is that these people believe that only the Latin Mass is valid and that the bishop under whom I operate as well as the pope and the magisterium are all suspicious and not really faithful to Catholicism. I was frustrated and saddened and as soon as I got back to Krakow I contacted my spiritual director.
Several weeks have passed since this incident and by chance I came across the article 10 PROBLEMS IN THE TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC MOVEMENT by Fr. Chad Ripperger. After reading it, I understand better what I encountered. Let me say up front that I love the Traditional Latin Mass and the problems it points to are not limited to this particular group of people. But I must also specify that I have never experienced anything like this in 53 years of Catholicism. As a result of this encounter, I felt strongly that I not only wanted to avoid interacting with such people, but also to stop telling anyone about my personal background and my belief in God.
Prof. Ripperger raised several points, but I can only speak to a few of them. The problem of Gnosticism or elitism was clear. They had an isolationist attitude that stemmed from their elitism and, quite frankly, their open disregard for authority and the Magisterium was shocking. Their cowardly and reckless argumentation was difficult to address because the men with whom I spoke clearly had been misinformed as to the heresies they were discussing. And yes, I felt harassed. In the end, Fr. Ripperger’s last point said that this attitude was the one that made me feel like I wanted nothing to do with this group. I was grateful to have caught an early train as I couldn’t join them for mass the next day. And when I returned to Krakow, I was delighted to attend Sunday afternoon mass with my daughter at the Dominican Basilica.
I am incredibly sad to say that I was completely unaware of these kinds of problems in the Church. The Catholic Church, like all other groups of people, has problems. Many real and serious problems. So what is the solution?
I have to admit that I didn’t handle the situation as well as I would have liked. To begin with, I should have followed the advice I give my daughter. Don’t dance with the devil. Not to say that these people are the devil but simply not to enter into an argument with someone who is more interested in being right than trying to understand. After prayerful reflection, soul-searching and a conversation with my spiritual director, I have come to the conclusion that continuing to seek unity is about the only thing one can do. Pride, fear, self-centeredness and lack of trust in God are all part of the human condition.
I can’t do anything about the individuals I met in this small Polish town. If I meet them again, I can be kind and loving and try to find common ground. I can examine myself to make sure that I am not showing the same lack of charity and that I am doing my best to always listen with an open mind and heart. May I contribute and bring harmony rather than discontent and confusion. So that I can truly embrace the Church and obey the Magisterium. Saint Catherine of Siena is a prime example of this, as are many other saints who lived through times of division and disunity.
Above all, I will continue the prayer given to us by Saint Francis.
Lord, make me a channel of your peace;
that where there is hatred, I can bring love;
where there is harm, I can bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I can bring harmony;
that where there is error, I can bring the truth;
that where there is doubt, I can bring faith;
that where there is despair, I can bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I can bring light;
that where there is sadness, I can bring joy.
Lord, make me seek to comfort rather than be consoled;
to understand, to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
Because it is by forgetting oneself that one finds.
It is by forgiving that we are forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.