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UK: Are the Polish immigrants the hope of the British Church?


Before Christmas the Catholic Church in Great Britain buzzed when
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor encouraged Poles to a bigger co-
operation with the British Church, which provoked sharp controversy.
Several weeks after Christmas both Polish and English clergymen in
Great Britain are not quite sure what the conflict was about and what
the British cardinal meant saying that the Polish believers
threatened the coherence of the Catholic Church in Britain.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor appealed to the Polish
community, `Polish people should faithfully get involved in the life
of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.' According to him the
present situation in which the Polish immigrants got involved mainly
in Polish parishes could lead to some division and divide the
Catholic Church on the basis of national, ethnic and language lines.
It is hard to imagine how that could happen since all statistics and
observation show a very positive development of the spiritual lives
of the Polish immigrants in Great Britain, which both the Polish and
English priests welcome with joy. 30 churches, 12 chapels and 55
parish centres belong to the Polish Catholic Mission in England and
Wales. In total, 99 priests work in 204 Polish centres in England and
Wales. The workers of the Polish Catholic Mission were astonished
with the cardinal's words and although all things were cleared and
Cardinal O'Connor apologized to the Rector of the Mission Rev. Msgr
Tadeusz Kukla for his inopportune remark certain nasty aftertaste was
Responding to the words of Cardinal O'Connor Grazyna Sikorska from
the Polish Catholic Mission said, `The Cardinal cannot expect us,
Poles, to stop praying in Polish, after all this is not a sin.' And
in an interview for the Catholic Information Agency the Rector of the
Polish Catholic Mission said that the Church was a very important
indicator of the Polish national identity, `If Poles lose their
national identity they will lose everything.'

Evangelising the British

The Polish clergymen working in Great Britain seem to have different
opinions concerning that confusion, which was created to a great
extent by the media. Fr Andrzej Forys from Our Lady of Fatima Church
in Harlow near London thinks that Cardinal O'Connor did not mean any
smear campaign against Polish Catholics; on the contrary he saw their
potential and expressed his hope that they would help him to revive
the English Church.
– You should not be afraid of losing the Polish roots but you must
consider how to combine these two issues: Polish identity and the
mission to evangelise the British. If we are shut in our own circle
we will never succeed to evangelise others.
Fr Forys celebrates Mass in Polish in Harlow only twice a month and
he celebrates all other services in English. `I always encourage the
Poles I know to come to English Mass, and I can see how the English
faithful rejoice to see them', Fr Forys says, `Cardinal O'Connor is
right and he did not mean that the Polish believers should forget
their national identity or language but he wanted them to help him
evangelise the English. However, when asked, `what about if saying
Our Father in English is too difficult a challenge for the Polish
people Fr Forys answers, `We should not forget that not long ago the
services were celebrated in Latin and that did not disturb anyone to
pray. You can always say Our Father in Polish, even during an English
Mass. In fact, belonging to the Catholic community is not only prayer
but also social involvement. In my diocese in Brentwood I met
numerous Catholic people and associations that offered their help to
Poles who, in spite of their sincere will, are passive since Poles do
not want to volunteer. Well, why do we have all these
misunderstandings and gaps in communication?'
– Many myths have been created as far as the relationships between
the Polish people and the English are concerned, which make our
collaboration difficult. Fortunately, it seems to me that the myths
gradually disappear and we become more and more open to one another.
A year and a half ago one of the parish priests I know strongly
opposed to introduce any Mass in Polish in his parish since, as he
claimed, that would lead to divisions. But I have spoken to him
recently and he has changed his mind. He says that many Polish people
come and ask him to hear their confessions or ask about other
pastoral services. He seems to be in favour of that and it is very
likely that he will give his permission to open a Polish pastoral
ministry in his parish.

No problem

The Blessed Virgin Mary Parish Church in Ealing is one of the biggest
centres of Polish Catholics in Britain. According to Fr Krzysztof
Wojcieszak about 4,500 Poles attend Mass every Sunday. Considering
the geographical division some part of the Polish people should
attend Masses in other churches, which are located closer to their
houses. However, the majority choose the Polish parish. Fr Brook from
St Joseph's Church, which is in the neighbourhood in Ealing, says
that he is not worried about the fact that most Polish people living
in his parish go to the Polish church. `Some Poles come to us, too.
They say that want to attend English services to improve their
English. What counts is the participation in Mass and it does not
matter whether it is in English or Polish. I am convinced that the
Catholic Church in Britain rejoices about the presence of Polish
believers and a closer collaboration will begin soon', says Fr
Brook. `I have a Polish parishioner who is 94 years old. When she
arrived in Britain for the first time she attended Polish Masses and
now she has been a member of our congregation for a long time. The
new comers from Poland will surely get integrated with the English
ecclesiastical institutions with time.'

We need time

The British clergymen use other solutions as well. In the Church of
St Michael in Birmingham the 9 o'clock Mass is attended by people who
prefer to pray in English but at 11, 12 and 3 p.m. the church is
filled with Polish songs and prayers. The parish priest Fr Gerry
O'Brian says that he is used to the domination of foreign
parishioners. `Earlier the church was packed with the Irish, then the
Catholics from India used to come here and now the Polish group is
domineering', he says. Three Polish priests celebrate the services
and according to Fr O'Brian the Polish faithful give a wonderful
testimony to the English Catholics. `People are still astonished to
see Polish people kneeling in the street when there is no room inside
the church. I understand that Poles want to pray in their own
language and celebrate the rites the way they got used to. We have
not as many traditions in the English Catholic Church as you have,
for example Christmas wafers or blessed chalk on the Feast of
Epiphany. Thanks to the Polish people we have returned to the service
of altar boys since Polish boys demanded to serve during Masses', Fr
Gerry says. `Once I talked to a Polish couple. They said that they
had gone to an English Mass. They made that attempt but they did not
understand anything. Integration is a difficult task. The Irish
immigrants who arrived in Great Britain in the 1960s could not get
used to the English way of celebrating the liturgy although there was
no language barrier. For Poles a participation in Mass celebrated in
English is a challenge because of slight differences in the way of
its celebration and because of the language barrier. Certainly, with
time the Polish Catholics will get integrated with the British
faithful but one should not force that. You should wait patiently',
Fr O'Brian says. `The children of the Polish immigrants attend
English schools and when they grow up they will not feel any language
barrier and they will not mind the language they worship Lord God.'

The author is a BBC journalist.

Re: UK: Are the Polish immigrants the hope of the British Church?

I thought this was an interesting article.

There seems to be pressure on the Polish Catholic mission to integrate with the English Catholic church. This is purely because of the huge influx of Polish Catholics who go to mass on Sunday. Now the Polish Catholic mission has been active in the UK since after the war (very active since the 1950s). To start fiddling with it now is very annoying for people like me who were brought up going to Polish church which not only has masses in Polish but celebrates religious occasions with Polish customs (e.g. blessing food baskets on Easter Saturday, Having an "Oplatek" meal for the parish in January to celebrate Christmas, that sort of thing). Don't see why Poles should have to go a church with different customs just because they are in a different country. After all you have Greek orthodox Russian orthodox easter orthodox, welsh baptists etc. What's wrong with people going to a Polish mass if that's their first language? It's not like the Polish church turns non Poles away.

Very annoying that the influx is creating all these changes in what has been accepted for so many years. I suppose next they will try to merge the Polish scouts and guides with the English ones and then make them forsake the "zuch kocha Boga i Polske" bit as being politically incorrect.....

Re: UK: Are the Polish immigrants the hope of the British Church?

You can't honestly hope that an Irish clergyman could have any understanding about assimilation ...!! Many Irish in Britain actively encourage apartheid.

As regards myself, I must admit that even now I do struggle a little with mass in Polish - but my son's first communion book helps massively. When I remember it, there's no problem. As for the Lord's Prayer in Polish, well, that's one thing I have learnt off by heart.

A bigger problem with migrant Poles is that they jettison religion as soon as they are removed from their normal social constraints. I see it in my street (just outside Warsaw) - loads of newcomers and virtually no-one goes to church on a Sunday. But they will tell you off for gardening on the Sabbath. To confuse them, I tell them I'm not Jewish and anyway the Sabbath is on Saturday! Gets them every time