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Nobel Peace Prize winner predicts optimism for the future under "the banner of Our Lady"

by Carol Sowa
Today's Catholic

Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, addresses the citizens of Panna Maria outside Immaculate Conception Church.
Photo by Carol Sowa

    SAN ANTONIO • “In Poland, Panna Maria, Texas, is very famous,” proclaimed Amarillo Bishop John W. Yanta, in his homily at a special Mass that took place there on Oct. 24 at Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary church. In the pew before him sat a figure famous in Panna Maria, in Poland and worldwide — Lech Walesa, former president of Poland and founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled Communism in that country.
    The Nobel Peace Prize winner had insisted on visiting this oldest permanent Polish settlement in America and home to America’s first Polish Catholic church, while attending the Polish American Congress (PAC) in Houston. Three busloads of PAC attendees came with Walesa, filling the little church to overflowing and necessitating chairs and a speaker system set up outside to accommodate the overflow for the Sunday morning Mass. Community members on horseback directed traffic.

   In his homily, Bishop Yanta outlined the history of Panna Maria and its Polish immigrants who responded to the call of Father Leopold Moczygemba to leave their native land for Texas in 1854. After just five years in Panna Maria, Father Moczygemba went on to serve the church in 11 other states for 33 more years, founding a seminary in Detroit. In 1974, his remains came “home,” and he was re-buried near the spreading oak tree where he had celebrated the first Mass for the Polish settlers on Christmas Eve the year of their arrival.
    Following the Oct. 24 Mass, Walesa was guest of honor at a dinner in the community hall, where children from Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Houston, dressed in traditional costumes, entertained with Polish songs and dances. At one point, the Polish leader paused to sign copies of the famous Solidarity “High Noon” poster. The posters served as a rallying symbol in Poland for their first elections in 1989 and featured Gary Cooper as the lone sheriff fighting for justice in that classic American Western.

    Afternoon festivities took place outside the doors of the church (and near the historic oak tree), where a podium had been set up. Dr. Witold Lukaszewski, chairman of the coordinating committee for the joint Panna Maria/PAC event, introduced the distinguished dignitaries and guests.
    In addition to President Walesa, these included Ambassador of Poland to the United States Przemyslaw Grudzinski; Polish Consul General of Los Angeles, Krystyna Tokarska-Biernacik; and Polish Consul for Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles, Paulina Kapuscinska. Introduced as members of the coordinating committee were co-chair Loretta Niestroy, George and Betty Kowalik, Msgr. Franciszek Kurzaj; Virginia Hill; Dr. Marian Kruzel, president of the PAC Texas division; and Dr. Zbigniew Wojciechowski, Honorary Polish Consul in Houston.
    Speaking through an interpreter, Walesa compared the struggles of the early Polish settlers in Panna Maria to Poland’s struggle for freedom, noting that both were “under the banner of Our Lady” and urged a continuance of these close ties with the Blessed Virgin to secure the future. He noted that the original goals for freedom had been won, but added, “Today we must realize that technological advances and development have led us into a situation in which we can restructure the world differently, in which we can globalize the world. Very shortly we won’t be divided … we will all be just humankind.”
    Referring to the United States as now being the world’s only “super power,” he noted that, while there was no doubt of it’s military and economic leadership, its moral and political leadership was in doubt. “Europe has rejected God,” he said, “It’s based its constitution only on freedom.” He added this way of thinking relegates morality and religion to the private sphere.

    While this secular approach to government sounds good in theory, he foresees corrupt oligarchies emerging that democracy will have to deal with. “That’s why, from the very, very beginning,” he said, “I have been pleading to you, pleading to all the people who are people of faith – also you people representing the “super power” – to realize that new solutions need to be implemented in the world.” He urged these solutions be based on faith, values and the human conscience and stated that he and Poland would like to see the United States lead the world in that direction.
    “No other generation before has such a wonderful opportunity, that we are lucky enough to be witnessing,” he said. “We are the chosen people. We are living … on the threshold of a new millennium, of a new century, but also a new era.” Walesa sees the old era of blocs and borders slowly coming to an end. However, he also foresees new dangers lying ahead, one being complacency. Reminding those present of the importance of every vote in a free society, he noted that our children and grandchildren may come to reproach us some future day, if we do not attempt to “re-orientate” the world.
    “Therefore, in order to avoid this high price that we would pay in the future if we fail at things, let me plead with you to do the following,” he said. “Let us really make a decisive decision what we want to ground ourselves on.” He added that “in this effort of reforming the world, in this effort of struggling for values and for human conscience” we would always find him there.
    He then voiced a challenge. “If the ‘super power’ does not take over the moral leadership in the world, or if the ‘super power’ is not willing to take over this moral leadership … let them claim it openly and Poland can cope with such a challenge. It will become the leader.”

    Walesa next touched on the history of the Solidarity movement. “Can you remember how impressive and beautiful the struggle was?” he said. “We defeated evil with good and we defeated lack of democracy with democracy.” The next stage was implementing democracy in Poland and going from capitalism to Communism, which he likened to “heating up an aquarium with fish” to get fish soup. Reversing this was a little more challenging but, as he put it, “We can already see some little fish swimming in our aquarium.”
    Noting that Communism was imposed on Poland following World War II, he observed, “It was very inappropriate for the Poles because the Poles are great individualists.” He remarked that even Stalin himself would have to say that the Communist system “fits Poland like a horse saddle fits a pig.” In the ‘40s and ‘50s the Poles fought back with arms; in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with street riots and demonstrations. All these efforts ended in bloodshed. “Throughout the whole Communist bloc, people just felt helpless,” he said.
    Walesa could find only 20 people out of 40 million Poles willing to oppose Communism with him. This changed dramatically, however, with the election of Pope John Paul II, a Pole. The following year, when the pope visited his native land, millions flocked to see him. Walesa quipped that even the Communists went down on their knees before him – though they did not know how to pray. “Don’t be discouraged,” the pope told his countrymen. “Transform the face of the earth.” By the next year, Walesa’s 20 had multiplied into ten million.
    Walesa also credits, to a lesser extent, the “naïve” policies of then president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and actions by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin with helping bring down Communism, thus assisting the Poles in winning freedom.
    “As a man of faith, I know, however,” he said, “that all this occurred and happened as it did because the end of the second millennium was approaching, the second millennium of Christianity.” He attributes Poland’s final victory to “our faith and the faith of many other people.” He continued, “We have this new third millennium started with a clean page, and it is up to us now what we will write on this page.” He expressed optimism for the future, if we continue “under the banner of Our Lady,” declaring, “Let us all move ahead together and reform the world.”

    Randy Pawelek, on behalf of Panna Maria, Immaculate Conception church, and pastor Father Wojciech Reisch, then presented Walesa with a Texas flag from the capitol in Austin, and other gifts. As Pawelek commented on Walesa’s role in “the ending of Communism in Europe,” the church bell above the gathering rang out, as if on cue, creating a momentary hush. Pawelek invited the former president to return for Panna Maria’s 200th anniversary in 2054, which Walesa heartily accepted.
    Mementoes were also presented to him from Robert Thonoff, representing Karnes County, and a Texas senate proclamation was presented on behalf of Senator Judith Zafferini. In turn, congratulatory greetings were presented to the community from, Dr. Longin Pastusiak, marshal of the Polish senate, and from President Andrzej Stelmachowski of the Polish Commonwealth. As Walesa departed, Msgr. Kurzaj led the gathering in singing the traditional Polish song, “Sto Lat” – “May You Live A Hundred Years.”
    The Polish ambassador presented two special awards, one to Bishop John Yanta for his work in “the preservation and promotion of Polish heritage and tradition in America,” and to Loretta Niestroy for her “great achievement in the preservation of Polish culture in the United States.” The president of the Polish American Congress’s Texas Division presented their Heritage Award to the Panna Maria Historical Society, with current president, Elaine Moczygemba, accepting it. The three recipients presented brief speeches touching on their Polish heritage.
    A poster by prominent Polish-American artist, Rafal Olbinski was then displayed, commemorating Panna Maria’s Sesquicentennial and featuring their little church at the base of a fruitful tree. In closing, Dr. Kruzel invited all to Panna Maria’s final sesquicentennial celebration there on Dec. 11 “We are not ending the celebration. We’ve just started,” he said. “We want to celebrate in Polish style!”

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