Christ Fathers to Polish Migrants

Monsignor Ireneusz Skubis talks to Fr Zbigniew Rakiej, Vicar General of the Society of Christ Fathers to Polish Migrants

FR IRENEUSZ SKUBIS: - Father General, what are the roots of the Society of Christ Fathers to Polish Migrants?

FR ZBIGNIEW RAKIEJ, SChr: - Every congregation originates thanks to the fact that some concrete need to deal with some field of life arises in the Church. That was the case of our Congregation. In the inter-war years the Polish Bishops' Conference and Primate August Hlond received many letters from the Poles living in various parts of the world, with the request to have a Polish priest who could accompany them in exile. Cardinal Hlond tried to meet the need, e.g. sending one or two priests from every diocese but the system was not efficient. In the early 1930s Cardinal Hlond proposed to establish a special congregation, which was to serve Polish immigrants. And thus in 1932, with the consent of the Holy Father, the Society of Christ to Polish Migrants was established. The first thing that Cardinal Hlond was to do was to choose a suitable priest to organise that work. He chose Fr. Ignacy Posadzy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Gniezno-Poznan, and in the early 1930s he sent him to Brazil in order to discern the situation of the Polish people who asked for a priest. Fr Posadzy wrote a diary, which was published (including the diary 'Droga Pielgrzymstwa Polskiego' [The Way of Polish Pilgriming]) and sent reports to Cardinal Hlond. Hlond entrusted him with the responsibility to organise the new Order.
Some time earlier Cardinal Hlond received a small estate in Potulice near Bydgoszcz from Countess Polulicka and he handed it over to Fr Posadzy. This is the cradle of our Order. Just before the war we had about 100 candidates for priesthood and religious life. During World War II they were sent home because it was too dangerous. In 1945, it turned out that the Order had 42 priests who worked mostly in parishes in southern Poland or helped near their homes. Actually, the activities of the Order began after World War II.

- As a young seminarian I heard about your seminary. It had its own prestige. It was said that it was a foreign seminary. What are your recollections of your seminary formation?

- My years in the seminary fell on late 1970s. In 1976 I began my noviciate in Kietrz near Poznan. It was the period of the expansion of the Society in the world because after 1948 Poles could not leave Poland. Very few priests worked abroad, they had earlier worked abroad or finished seminaries abroad. Our first priests left the country in the years 1959-60. When I joined the Society its atmosphere was full of rapid expansion in the West. When I finished the seminary in 1983, out of the 15-17 ordained priests only two or three remained in Poland and the rest went abroad. We were extremely mobilised by the constant requests for priests to work abroad. We were eager to work, ready to go to various parts of the world, at that time not to the East, which was completely closed. One should say that in the 1970s a trip to Australia, Brazil or America was very attractive. Other priests treated us as people who had a special mission to perform. As seminarians we were proud that we are in the seminary, which was an institution so closely connected with international ministry.

- I had the chance to visit some parishes in the United States, Canada or Rome that were run by Christ Fathers. In how many countries and on which continents are your priests working now?

- Briefly speaking, I can say that we work in all the places where Poles are. There are over 230 priests. About 25 in Australia and New Zealand, about 40 in Brazil; we minister in many personal parishes. We have been constantly present in North America and Canada - ca. 55 priests. Of course, we also work in Europe. There are ca. 25 priests in France, 5 in Spain, 8 in Italy; over 40 in Germany, 4 priests work in Holland. The Polish pastoral ministry in German has been well developed. People come to Masses in great numbers like in Polish churches. In the early 1990s, when the possibility arose, we set out to the East. Currently, there are 4 priests in Kazakhstan, 6 in Byelorussia and 9 in Ukraine. We are working in the places which seemed to be Polish and where the Polish identity has been kept, for example in Ukraine and Byelorussia. I could not stop wondering that people in Kazakhstan so wonderfully preserved their faith and the Polish language without having seen a church or a priest or Poles for 60 years. I remember being moved when I saw how they prayed and how they sang Polish songs. It was something extraordinary.

- Nowadays many Poles are leaving to work, for example in England. How does your Order see your presence among this group of fellow citizens?

- The example of England is almost a model one but also a specific one. We speak about several thousand Poles working in Great Britain. The problem is that it is a totally new reality. For us the challenge is seemingly the same. We have been to England since the war, and especially since the 1960s. We have been working very actively in many centres there. The Polish migrants who came to England after the war settled and stabilised, knowing that they would stay there for good and could not come back. They also sought essential contacts with Polish parishes. Whereas Poles who arrive in England now go there to find some job but they do not image their future in this country. They treat their stay there as something temporary and short. They do not especially miss Polish priests, Polish church because in one or two months they will return home and go to their parishes, and they must survive somehow in England. Naturally, our priests working in England notice a bigger number of Poles but they say that these Poles do not come to the Polish parishes.

- However, it seems that these Poles need the presence of Polish priests very much, in particular Christ Fathers, although they do not fully realise this...

- Father Provincial in England always asks for new priests. Laymen also send their requests from Ireland that they need Polish priests there. But nowadays we have personal problems. In England and the United States there were many diocesan priests who arrived by chance there in the 1970s and the 1980s, and they have often stayed there. Today when they retire we lack priests in many places. Therefore, the parishioners write letters asking for priests. As Christ Fathers we have great possibilities and one can say we will not be unemployed.

- In the world you are the symbol of the Polish style of pastoral ministry. You come to Jasna Gora for days of prayer for the international Polish community. This relationship with the Homeland is expressed in your presence in Czestochowa - your formation house.

- Every Pole would have some problems with identity if he/she did not feel the relationship with Jasna Gora and with the Blessed Mother. The presence of our Lady of Czestochowa is something special in a migrant's life. Therefore, 20 years ago we decided to invite representatives of the Polish community for the Czestochowa vigil once a year. This year the vigil is held on the night of 18/19 November. The participants are Polish people from Byelorussia, Ukraine, Hungary, Germany or Italy and also many people from Poland who have relatives abroad. And as far as our formation house in Czestochowa is concerned, a few years ago we managed to open the Polonia Centre in a building in Radomska Street, house that was given to our Society. During the year the house serves as a formation house for us, Christ Fathers. Twice a year we organise our retreats there, and so it is also a centre of certain spirituality and formation of our pastoral leaders, especially the youngest ones.

- Thank you for the conversation.

"Niedziela" 47/2005

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