Saturday, September 10, 2016

Polish Liturgies

We were privileged to have Holy Mass almost every day during our pilgrimage, and several of these were in English, or partially so, or with translation. And when it was none of the above, I usually had my Word Among Us along so that I could follow the readings in English. Sometimes I followed the Mass parts, too, to help me focus.

So many interesting observations here.

First of all, I loved that when our Polish friends spoke English, they almost always used the term "Holy Mass," not just "Mass" as most English speakers I know are accustomed to say. It simply strikes me as a term of endearment, an expression of love. I wonder, though, too, why I don't use it, and it also strikes me that for me, being so language oriented, it could easily become a matter of scrupulosity or pedantry -- and God help us free from that with everything connected with liturgy! Amen!

Many of our Masses were not typical parish Masses, either because of World Youth Day or the Days in the Dioceses events, or because of the Hallelujah community or specially organized liturgies, or because we were at shrines and holy places, or simply because of all of the lingering-about pilgrims. And when they were typical parish Masses, they were of course entirely in Polish, so I can hardly report on the feel of them from any sense that involves understanding language.

One detail that threw me a bit at first is that the congregation kneels for a shorter time than in the US. I wondered about this, but then during the Mass at Czestochowa, when we knelt in a squashing crowd in dripping heat on a marble floor... I thought just maybe scenes like this have influenced the Bishops of Poland to decree kneeling only in the heart of the consecration prayer. I don't know.

And speaking of squashing crowds, this happened more than once. Those churches with Gothic style floor plans (one narrow seating area down the middle) are wonderful for having multiple Masses happening at once when they are huge, but they are not so great when they are mini-versions and you have hordes of people to pack in. But then again, no one seemed to find it odd to pack into every available space, sitting around side altars, standing in the aisles, the doorways, even outside in the yards when no one could enter the building. No one was having a conniption fit about fire regulations. That was refreshing.

Our last Sunday Mass (a parish Mass) was a strange hybrid of a homily-less Mass with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction at the end, still clocking in at about an hour. I was there early to hear the devotional prayers being sung before Mass. Obviously everyone knew everything because this had happened for always. It was the only time I saw (not necessarily the only time it happened) a church filled with elderly-ish women each dressed in their pretty, colorful scarves. I guess they all come early, maybe not only to pray, but to make sure they have a seat.

I'm remembering now my non-Catholic friend who visited a Mass in Poland last year asking me if it was a common thing for people to basically ignore you at the sign of peace. And I'm chuckling to myself. It really is a strange feeling, and I suppose an even stranger feeling for a non-Catholic, to offer a hearty American handshake and greeting at the sign of peace and be turned down. I probably scared a few babushkas. The other day I was at our local Greek church to buy food and saw how the priest greeted all his parishoners with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. I'll have to brace myself on the other end of the spectrum if I ever want to visit Greece, I guess.

One valuable exercise throughout the whole pilgrimage was the intensity of concentration I found myself giving to what was actually happening in the Mass. Even when the Masses were in English, they were almost never in American English, so there was always an effort required to understand what was being said. I found myself squeezing the words I did understand, sucking them dry, and fixing my mind on what I read when something else was being spoken around me. Occasionally I knew that the reading I had in my book was not what was being read from the ambo (because of a special feast day or votive Mass or whatnot), and then, like straining to see in a dark room I tried to make out a piece of the reading to give a clue as to its whole. Same with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I knew what was happening, but it is a different practice to unite yourself with the action by a means other than words, for me at least, because I am so verbally oriented. I worked my will very hard in those moments.

And you know what? It was freeing. I wasn't aware if the priest had a sing-songy voice or if the lector stumbled over words or mispronounced them, if the sermon was boring or missing the point. I was freed, in an uncomfortable yet real way, from needing language to pray. My prayer was a lot more basic and I missed 95% of the nuances I might normally find in Mass, but I sucked that 5% dry.

And when I came back home, I was relieved to not have to work so hard, and is much, much easier to get distracted and to nit-pick. There is less "thanksgiving" involved.

I served as impromptu cantor a few times, sometimes in English and sometimes in Latin. During one of those Masses during the Diocesan Days in Wroclaw, the music team didn't show and our Encounter group was called on six minutes before the beginning of Mass in a huge church, packed to the gills. My job was Mass parts. Fine. I was mentally prepared because of cantoring for eight years and doing all the music for Masses on Saturday mornings for three years. Everything... except that Gospel Acclamation (which the lector does at my parish on Saturdays). So that moment in the Mass came, and in a split second I realized I hadn't thought of anything. At that moment, I was grateful that my training kicked in my liturgical-auto pilot! I started singing "Alleluia," though it was only as I was singing that I was asking myself What melody is this coming out of my mouth, and how in the world does it end?! So glad for the choir training I carried inside me at that moment, though. The most important thing about leading is to look and sound confident, even when your brain is scrambling!

And though it wasn't a liturgy, the very last outing my daughter and I did the night before we left was to attend a prayer service at our host family's parish. The idea was to spiritually unite with pilgrims who were walking to Czestochowa. Arriving late, we entered one of the only modern parishes I saw there, aptly (for the pilgrimage) named Divine Mercy. A young priest was leading a small group of mostly older women in singing some peppy song that had hand motions. I'm not always that kind of person, but that night I just dove right in. I gather we were singing about walking and praising and praying, and stuff. There were a variety of prayers, I think a decade of the rosary, I think the Bogurodzica, an ancient hymn to the Mother of God. And then, suddenly we were gathering  in a circle and dancing the Hava Nagila. I mean, not all the old women were putting too much energy into it, but we were moving pretty well. I simply could not wipe the smile off my face. It felt so incredibly bizarre, and I kept saying to myself "I'm in Poland dancing with old ladies in a church." I think I probably made the whole room smile because it was like my whole body was laughing with the joy of Divine Mercy. Not to mention my flip-flop had come off so I was dancing with one shoe. It was a perfect way to leave the last Polish parish I entered.

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