Time for the cross

Agnieszka Dziarmaga

‘I was just about to finish the lesson of geography when my wife came to the school and said that something was going on, that people planned to strike in the vocational school’, Pawel Ameryk, the former mayor and retired teacher from the Grammar School in Wloszczowa, recollects the events that occurred 25 years ago. About 300 pupils at the Complex of Vocational Schools went on strike to protest against the removal of crucifixes from their classrooms. Their priests and almost 100 parents joined them.

Little politics, a lot of the cross

This year’s Advent retreats in Wloszczowa had this spiritual atmosphere. At the same time the retreats were forms of experiencing, praying and reflecting on the past defence of the crucifixes in the situation when crucifixes in Europe need to be defended again. The retreats in both parishes in Wloszczowa: the ’old’ one: the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the ‘young’ one: the Church of the Blessed Jozef Pawlowski, were conducted by the Pauline Fathers on 11-16 December 2009 and had the motto ‘The teaching of love is in the cross.’ The retreat meetings were to begin on 11 December at the Mass celebrated by Bishop Kazimierz Gurda in Complex of Secondary Schools No 3. The Eucharist was completed by a special ceremony of the cross and a conference on the events in Wloszczowa organised by the Institute of National Remembrance (Dr. Ryszard Smietanka-Kruszelnicki) and an exhibition commemorating those events. After the Mass there was a jubilee Way of the Cross along the streets, followed by the Jasna Gora Appeal. Like during the previous days the churches and streets of Wloszczowa became the site of special cross retreats. Every day was devoted to reflect of the different mystery of the cross: ‘I will not take off a crucifix from my wall’; ‘The cross as the source of marriage’; ‘The cross as the source of family love’; ‘The cross as the teacher of conscience’; ‘The cross of the priest’… The last day of the retreats, 16 December, was the anniversary of the end of the strike, which happened after the successful mediation of the late Bishop Mieczyslaw Jaworski. That day had the motto ‘I carry a little crucifix, it is with me like a friend.’ The children from the elementary school, the gymnasiums and the secondary schools came to church; they came as whole forms, carrying school crucifixes that would be blessed during the Mass and processionally carried back to the classrooms and again hang on the walls. At 5 p.m. at the Liberty Square whole families came with crucifixes, which would be blessed and hung in homes. On that day, commemorated as the anniversary of the strike, Bishop Kazimierz Ryczan had two meetings with the inhabitants. Time of recollections, time of reflections in the spirit of Advent preparing to Christmas, time to ask questions: would you and I be courageous enough to risk your future to defend the cross? Since the future of those young people, their final examinations, studies, jobs, their parents’ jobs and finally, the security of their catechists were uncertain. Many of them were expelled from school, many could not take their final exams, many experienced their ‘ways of the cross’ because of those events and could not make plans for their lives… Let us recall those events: on 3 December 1984 the pupils of the Complex of Vocational Schools in Wloszczowa began striking after they had learnt about the decision to remove crucifixes from their classrooms. Their strike lasted two weeks. Their parents and Bishop Mieczyslaw Jaworski supported them. Numerous citizens gathered to pray for the strikers. The strike ended on 16 December at the request of Bishop Jaworski. The priests who taught religious instruction Fr Andrzej Wilczynski and Fr Marek Labuda and who directed the strike were sentenced. The Supreme Court acquitted them in 1990. Some of the strikers were deprived of their school rights and were expelled from school.

Wloszczowa was ready

Rev. Msgr Edward Terlecki, the parish priest of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (he arrived at this parish two years after those events), thinks that there was a good atmosphere in the town and people were ready to stand by the cross. Without derogating the priests who were directly involved in the strike from their merits he stresses the firm patriotic attitude of the former parish priest late Rev. Msgr Kazimierz Biernacki, his relations with the underground movement, the defence of the crucifix in Olkusz (for which he went to prison), with one of the first monuments to General Grot-Rowecki and with the pastoral work, including the famous Masses at 1 pm, i.e. Masses in the intention of the Homeland, which have been celebrated since then. Bishop Jaworski himself, representing a clear stand of the Church and the Bishops’ Conference, celebrating Mass in Wloszczowa on every day of the strike, had a personal experience: being a pupil he was ordered to remove the crucifix in the classroom in Wloszczowa, his hometown, and when he refused to do that he was forced to leave his school and consequently, moved out. Therefore, in his sermons he criticised the principle of secularity of schools; he defended his priests and passed expressions of support from the Polish bishops and that’s why he strongly identified himself with the strike. Pawel Ameryk thinks that the inhabitants of ‘old’ Wloszczowa (there were many migrants in the town, including many apparatchiks; the strike could have been a kind of provocation, he says) supported the strike. Ameryk thinks that the patriotic attitude of the native people of Wloszczowa and the involvement of the priests that organised meetings in the spirit of renewal religious movements, pilgrimages to Jasna Gora and Masses at 1 pm every month, church music groups and activities for young people prepared a good background for the strike. The mood in Poland, which was martyred under the marshal law and the frustration after the death of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko filled people’s cup of bitterness to the brim and young people manifested their attitude towards the cross, which was an obvious sign of faith and a clear symbol of freedom. Fr Terlecki recollects some meaningful data: 250 out of 850 pupils were on their apprenticeships then; and out of the remaining 300 pupils got involved in the strike, supported by ca. 100 parents. The strikers were mostly in their final forms – first of all these were pupils of the boarding school and after the strike (and after their graduation) they returned to their hometowns. Just after the strike both young priests went to missions; Fr Wilczynski died in France in the year 2000 and Fr Labuda is in the Diocese of Kielce now, living in the Retired Priests’ House. The strikers went to various parts of the world. The commemorative tablet, the remembrance room with badges, banners, the original crucifixes, the photos, the annual celebrations on 16 December, the Masses at 1 p.m. Is that all from those years?

What has been left?

‘As Bishop Jaworski foretold: numerous priestly and religious vocations’, Pawel Ameryk thinks. ‘This protest, the pupils’ support of the crucifixes will bring the fruit of vocations’, Bishop Jaworski was supposed to say. And it came true. Wloszczowa and the decanate are leading in the Diocese of Kielce as far as vocations are concerned. Wloszczowa itself lost in the sense that the authorities blocked investments and the development of the town until the transformation of the system but Wloszczowa gained in the moral sense. It showed that the values expressed by the cross were most important. And although now, after 25 years, Wloszczowa is a different town, where almost ‘changed’ generation is living, the spiritual legacy of that protest has remained. The time during which the whole Poland spoke about Wloszczowa because of the crucifixes pays off more than anything else.

"Niedziela" 50/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl