A Pilgrimage Through Eastern Europe

The following are excerpts from the editor’s journal, kept while on a January trip to Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

text and photographs by Michael J.L. La Civita

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We arrived in Warsaw late last night.

Early today we walked through Warsaw’s Old Town, which the Nazis completely leveled. The communists rebuilt the quarter – churches, palaces and homes.

St. Martin of Tours Church is startling in its simplicity. When the citizens of Warsaw rebelled in 1943, a group of armed boy scouts occupied the church. The Nazis annihilated the young patriots and destroyed the church. All that remains is half a corpus from the crucifix. Today it hangs as a memorial.

We then visited the site of the former Jewish ghetto. Today a large square with a bronze memorial stands where a once vibrant community lived. There are fewer than 5000 Jews left in Poland.

We left Warsaw for Czestochowa, to Jasna Gora Monastery, the shrine of the Black Madonna. The air was thick with pollution, the monastery buildings covered with soot. After a tour of the library, a special eucharist was celebrated at the altar of the Black Madonna. Worshippers were few but fervent. Some, while praying, walked on their knees around the altar. We reached Krakow by evening.

Today we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. An eerie silence oppressed my heart and tongue. A multitude of men, women and children were killed within these camps – mostly Jews – because of their race, religion, nationality or mental or physical condition.

Later we toured Krakow, a city crammed with splendid examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and neo-classical architecture. The Church of Our Lady, with its competing spires, is a veritable jewel.

Each hour, every day, a city fireman climbs to the top of the highest spire and plays a melody on a bugle. In the middle of a note he stops, in memory of his 15th century predecessor whose life ended as an arrow struck him while warning the city of the approaching Turkish invader.

This morning we drove through the Polish and Ukrainian countryside. Our destination was Lviv, Ukraine, the historical seat of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The major archbishop, Myroslav Cardinal Lubachivsky, returned to his See only a year ago.

Our hosts arranged a splendid meal for us with Ukrainian folk musicians, singers and dancers. The evening ended with a friendly contest of American and Ukrainian folk tunes, hymns and Christmas carols.

We took part in an early morning divine liturgy celebrated by Cardinal Lubachivsky. Afterwards we breakfasted with him in his residence.

We then toured this city of 800,000 people – a Hapsburg gem. Although surrounded by opulent 18th and 19th century structures, we were acutely aware of a poverty-stricken society. The shops were empty. Queues formed in the streets as citizens sold a boot, a shoe, a used stick of lipstick or fried dough.

In the afternoon we drove to the village of Hrushiv, the site of a purported Marian apparition. Despite the communists’ attempts to destroy these villages, little has changed since the 19th century.

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Tags: Ukraine Russia Pilgrimage/pilgrims Eastern Europe Poland