June 24, 2004

A Promise Kept

On May 5, 1791, the Polish nation issued a document entitled "A Declaration of the Assembly of Estates." It gave Poland its first Constitution and was received throughout the land with genuine joy. In one paragraph of the Declaration we read: "So that generations yet to come might more strongly feel that a work so desirable (the Constitution) was, despite difficulties and obstacles, brought to a successful conclusion with the help of the Most High God, and so that we might never lose the gift of our strength and safety as a nation, we declare that in remembrance of this event, an ‘ex-voto’ church (a church based upon a promise or vow) is to be erected and consecrated to Divine Providence with all classes and estates participating."

Thus, a promise was made, architects were engaged, a fitting location for the church was identified, and gifts were received to fund the venture. Unfortunately, however, all of this came to a halt in less than a year after the issuing of the Declaration. For in 1792 the government of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last of the Polish kings, and the government of Catherine the Great, the Czarina of Russia, became entangled in disputes. The result was a series of bloody conflicts and finally the partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Accordingly, the nation known as Poland was removed from the map of Europe from 1795 to 1918, when it gained a measure of independence for a brief period of 20 years.

On March 17, 1921, the Independent Republic of Poland renewed the nation’s commitment to build a church dedicated to Divine Providence. Once again, architects were engaged, and a fitting location was identified. In 1939 Hitler’s armies moved in; and when they left, Stalin’s took their place. Hence, the building of the church was again deferred. Indeed, most were convinced that it was an altogether dead letter.

Jozef Cardinal Glemp, the Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland, was of a different mind. Accordingly, six years ago he began the construction of the church in a neighborhood of Warsaw which the Communists had years earlier cleared with a view to creating an elegant community for their top leaders. The basement of the edifice is complete. It is massive and will serve as the foundation for the church, which will accomodate 7,000 worshipers and be ready for services, it is expected, within three years.

Last year Cardinal Glemp was in New York for a meeting with Polish-American Catholics. As a courtesy he came to see me in my office on First Avenue. In the course of our conversation, he asked if I would consider traveling to Poland to inaugurate the Church of Divine Providence inasmuch as the foundation was in place and work was soon to begin on the main body of it. He asked as well if I would be willing to address a plenary session of the Conference of Polish Catholic Bishops on the day before the inauguration. Each year I accept one such invitation outside of the United States. I was delighted and honored to accept this one.

As often happens with such visits, a number of other events were added to the program with the passing of time. Thus, some weeks after my conversation with Cardinal Glemp, I was invited to address a convocation at the University of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski and to receive an honorary doctorate of Law. This event was set for a few hours after my priest-secretary and I arrived in Warsaw. In addition, shortly before our departure from New York, I was asked to travel to the City of Czestochowa during our visit in order to celebrate Mass at the altar of the so-called "Black Madonna" in the monastery of Jasna Gora. Similarly, when this became known, I was urged to tour an exposition concerning the history of the Jewish community in Czestochowa after the Mass in the monastery. (See my article in Catholic New York for March 2004 entitled "A Bond of Trust, Compassion and Faith.") And all of this along with the inauguration of the church and the address to the Conference of Bishops was somehow to be fit into three and one-half days.

About each of these events I could write at length. The Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski University is a marvel. Six years ago it was an academy of the Archdiocese of Warsaw for religious studies. Today it boasts over 10,000 students and a splendid campus of impressive modern buildings. The meeting with the Conference of Bishops was an eye-opener. In addition to learning of the works and initiatives of the Church in Poland, I was present to hear reports regarding their local churches by the presidents of the Conferences of Bishops of the nine nations that were to enter into the European Union along with Poland on the night before the inauguration of the Church of Divine Providence. What they had to say moved me deeply, especially their accounts of the trials and indignities their people had suffered under the yoke of the Soviet Union. The Mass at the Monastery of Jasna Gora was a prayer that I shall never forget. The throng in attendance exhibited a measure and quality of devotion unparalleled in my experience. Finally, the visit to the Jewish historical exposition was an extraordinarily moving experience. An American Jew from New York, Mr. Sigmund A. Rolat, was our guide. As he pointed to photographs of relatives of his who had lived in Czestochowa and were killed by the Nazis, one could not but profoundly feel – and share – his hurt.

It was the inauguration of the Church of Divine Providence, however, that captivated me utterly. Over what will one day be the front of the church there had been constructed a wooden wall painted blue and about three stories high. The altar for the Mass was erected under a canopy about 50 feet in front of the wall, and the wall itself was graced with a large reproduction of the "Black Madonna" and a ledge on which were to be placed 16 relics of traditional Polish saints and – interestingly – St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Bridget of Sweden, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta as well.

As we stood quietly in our places, a procession wound its way slowly through the crowd up past the altar and toward the wall. Its participants carried with them the aforementioned relics in beautiful reliquaries which vested deacons carefully set into their places on the ledge. All the while, a choir with orchestra led the thousands in the meadow surrounding the church foundation as they sang hymn after hymn.

I celebrated the Mass in Latin. The President of the Conference of Polish Catholic Bishops, The Most Reverend Jozef Michalik, delivered the homily. The President of the Polish Republic spoke before the Mass; and at noon, also before the Mass, the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, appeared on mammoth movie screens that could be seen by all in attendance. He was praying the "Angelus" with the pilgrims in the Piazza San Pietro in Rome, as he does every Sunday. At the conclusion of the prayer he addressed the crowd assembled around the future Church of Divine Providence and ended by thanking the Archbishop of New York for journeying to Poland for the celebration. As one can well imagine, I was deeply honored.

As a high school student more than 50 years ago, I had occasion to learn a few words and expressions in Polish from my classmates and friends. Whatever of this, the homily of Archbishop Michalik and the address of the Polish President were well beyond my capacity to comprehend. Thus, I had plenty of time during the ceremony of inauguration to mull over what was happening and to appreciate the significance of it.

We were gathered to fulfill a commitment made 213 years ago. I had never heard of such a thing and could not help but greatly admire my hosts. Their nation had made a vow, and they had stood by it through thick and thin. Indeed, "thick and thin" is a monumental understatement. They had stood by it in the face of all manner of injustice, mistreatment and oppression; and they had wavered not at all. They were grateful for the gifts the Lord had given them over the centuries, and they were expressing their gratitude on the occasion of their entering into the European Union, full of hopes for a bright, new day economically and in every other way as well.

As I said goodbye to Cardinal Glemp at the Warsaw airport, I thanked him profusely for his hospitality and especially for his having given me the grace of witnessing a holy and noble promise being kept by a holy and noble people.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York