I’m in Krakow, Poland at Mass in 1988. Poles pack the church to overflowing. This is not the Easter Vigil; it’s merely one Sunday Mass at one Catholic church in a city with over 100 churches and Mass schedules that read like an auctioneer’s call: 6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30…
All the Masses I attend in Krakow are packed; people line the walls and fill the vestibule and even stand outside.
In Poland in 1988, the Communists are in charge, and life is hard. When I walk the streets, no one smiles. Everyone is dressed in ratty, worn clothes. People keep their gaze focused on the ground. Their shoes are cheap, the atmosphere glum.
In the shops, there’s not much stuff. When a shipment of bread or chocolate arrives, long lines form. Goods are protected behind counters, out of reach, so I need to say, “Please may I see that?” or “I’d like one of those, please!” to the shop girl.
There is no perusing, no sifting through, no touching.
My Polish friends try to imagine K-Mart as I explain the stores in America where everything is on display, and we are free to handle items.
Imagine, stores filled with anything you may ever want, and all of it accessible…
“You have it good,” I’m told, “it’s not fair how we have to live.”
When I meet with Poles my age, they want to argue politics.
I yawn and wonder when we are going to the clubs.
When I’m asked whom I will vote for in the upcoming election, I tell them I haven’t decided. (They know more about the candidates than I do…)
I meet a young man who has been jailed for spreading anti-Communist propaganda. Now, he’s been released from prison, but he’s banned from travel outside of Poland. Two passports exist for Poles: one is for travel within Communist-bloc countries (not too difficult to obtain). The other is for travel to the West (nearly impossible to get). This guy lost the “privilege” to travel to other Communist countries; he’s still a prisoner.
“Where are your papers?” my Polish friends ask.
“What do you mean, ‘papers’?”
“Identification documents” they say.
I explain that in America, I just walk out of my house with nothing in my pockets. No one bothers me; I don’t carry “documents”.
Their eyes widen incredulously. Can you believe such freedom? To come and go as you please…and no one will bother you?
That night, we can’t see into the future. Poland appears trapped forever in the clutch of Communism, and their desire for freedom seems hopeless. I begin to understand the depression, but instead of growing an empathetic heart, I just want to go home.
One boy is especially frustrated. He wants to travel to America, but is unable. In order to go anywhere or do anything, connections in the Communist party are necessary.
“And then, what does it say when I go to apply to visit America? ‘Members of the Communist Party need not apply’!”
Without connections, and with no money, he’s stuck.
All of them appear stuck.
All of them, it seems, go to Mass.