Poland’s complex embrace of Ukrainian refugees
Hidden from most of the world, something extraordinary occurred in Poland six years ago, on the 19th of November 2016. Something which while perhaps a stretch, prophetically anticipated what we’re seeing lived out today, emulating – on a grand scale -Jesus’ response to the lawyer seeking to trap him by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
On that cool Saturday in Krakow, tens of thousands of Poles gathered in and around The Church and Shrine of Divine Mercy to solemnly declare, in one accord, the Act of Acceptance of Jesus Christ as King and Lord of Poland.
At Mass before the carved stone altar, principal celebrant Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, accompanied by other church and government leaders, including Polish President Andrzej Duda, declared for all to hear, “We would like to invite Him into our hearts and families, to our communities and environments. We want to invite him for all that Poland is. Do not be afraid of such an act. Jesus Christ takes nothing away from us and gives everything. His reign threatens no one because it is expressed through love, which was crucified.”
Rich symbolism surrounded this nationally broadcast Act of Acceptance invites our consideration: The unadorned flat-topped altar appears to be draped by a carved shroud that once wrapped Christ. The vacated slab draws one’s eye to look to the globe-shaped tabernacle beyond, the continents outlined in relief, representing all nations. The globe sits between leafless bushes blown by strong winds, representing the modern world, or man, swaying in confusing currents. However, hovering in a three-dimensional doorway frame is a painting of Christ by Jan Chrzᶏszcz, his calming and merciful right hand raised, with rays of colored light shining down as from his sacred heart. His welcoming presence through the door’s thresholds seems to part those tempestuous winds, inviting the nations to “come unto me and I will give you rest.”
“Jesus Christ takes nothing away from us and gives everything. His reign threatens no one because it is expressed through love, which was crucified.”
The homily at Mass, which Bishop Andrez Czaja gave, confirmed the symbolic imagery and offered a glimpse of what was to come. When interviewed afterward, he said,
“To accept Jesus as Lord and King,” you have to “open the doors of the heart, the doors of our homes, churches and workplaces, as well as live with him, give him space and let [him] reign in all spheres of life, including social, economic and political. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ! To His saving power, open the boundaries of states, economic systems, political systems and the directions of civilization. Do not be afraid!”²
On Nov. 19, 2016, when the nation’s leaders and the gathered crowds of Poles celebrated this Jubilee Act of Acceptance, their example became a testimony to the world to do the same. This is now being dramatically lived out as nearly four million Ukrainians, at one point, had been welcomed into Poland – far greater numbers than any other bordering country – since war broke out with Russia in late February. Sadly, as is typically the case, most of those fleeing are women and children with “home” stuffed in bags.
Such open-hearted generosity begins to outline an answer to a question we could draw from Jesus’ mandate to the disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 24:18)”:
How does one disciple a nation?
Perhaps Cardinal Dziwisz’s statement, “Jesus Christ takes nothing away from us and gives everything, …through love, which was crucified” is a good place to start and brings to mind an oft-referenced parable Jesus told.
A woman carries her child as she arrives at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from Ukraine, in Poland, on February 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
When asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ crucified love replied with the stunning story of the good Samaritan caring for a beaten man left for dead and asked his questioner, “Which of these three was neighbor to the wounded man?” The suddenly stymied legal expert now had to admit his testing scheme had backfired, acknowledging it was the socially shunned Samaritan, instead of the two more like himself.
Like the Samaritan, it would seem the Poles are acting on their public declaration in 2016 for all the world to see, emulating Jesus’ iconic parable.
It should be noted that not unlike a Samaritan in Jesus’ day, Poland has been looked down upon by many in the European Union. Yet, just like that once-upon-a-time caring neighbor who was elevated from half-breed to hero in the span of three verses, are not the Poles reaching down to lift people from the road of their present trials and suffering?
“Was it just another culturally acceptable religious happenstance, or did the spoken words fan embers of faith?”
There is a well-known Polish proverb, “Guest in the House, God in the House.” Using that proverb, Ukraine’s President Zelensky welcomed Poland’s President Duda to Kyiv on May 22, 2022, the first head of state to do so since the invasion by Russia. It would appear that this colloquialism further reflects Poland’s open-border support, which has included an 18-month visa to live, work, and even collect social security benefits. Putting this into further perspective, Krakow, the scene of that solemn assembly in 2016, is Poland’s second-largest city at 770,000 and has opened wide the door to more than 150,000 refugees. An increase of 20% straining available services and shelters.
What then shall we who are outside-looking-in say about Poland’s little-heralded declaration now made manifest? It was not a legally binding act. Some might speculate it is one step closer to establishing a Theocracy because of the country’s colorful history with the Papacy. Not likely.
I’d be curious, six years after that historic moment, how do the majority of Polish people see it now? Was it just another culturally acceptable religious happenstance, or did the spoken words fan embers of faith?
Prior to the conflict more than a million Ukrainians were living and working in Poland which the country welcomed because of the shortage of labor and consequent economic benefit. Perhaps then, from a more practical perspective, the openness and receptivity are less about a Christo- compassionate response. While many Ukrainians have and will return to their war-torn country, many will stay for reasons more pragmatic.
Even now, passionate Ukrainian believers are bringing a fresh-faced Gospel into the midst of the Polish people. What might God awaken as they work and worship together?
“Let God arise and his enemies be scattered” as we pray for our distant neighbors in need.