Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 92 (April 1999): 13-15.
If you looked closely during one of the full–to–bursting Sunday evening student Masses last summer at the Dominican church in Krakow, Poland, you would have seen four nicely dressed young men sitting together in one of the pews. When the Mass ended, they took out their copies of the Liturgy of the Hours and said Vespers together. They went out afterwards for their usual evening lager, cigarettes, and discussion, and, although they did not talk about God, one could be fairly certain that God was enjoying their conversation.
I met these young men first when I was in Poland for the annual American Enterprise Institute seminar on the social teachings of the Church, held at the Dominican priory in Krakow. They were always lurking around here and there, helping Father Maciej Zieba, the Provincial of the Polish Dominicans and an organizer of the seminar, with some research at the Tertio Millennio Institute across the street. They often ate in the refectory with us, and from the first it was clear that the bond between them was very strong. Soon I discovered that what united them was something much more than a research project. It was nothing less than the common pursuit of the life of faith.
For the moment, though, all I knew was that these guys seemed to be inseparable, did a lot of laughing, and had a habit of ducking into the priory’s chapter–room to pray at odd times of the day. Gradually I began to learn their whole story. (I should mention at the outset that it is somewhat unusual for a woman to have seen so much of this group, much less to be reporting on it. It is self–consciously an all–male organization, and although more women are slowly becoming involved at the fringes, most of its activities are for the guys only—a very good thing, in my opinion.)
There were about twenty of them in all; they were all from Poznan, in the west of Poland; some met in secondary school, others in their university’s law program. What brought them together in their present company, though, was that they all had Fr. Zieba as a confessor. He got to know them one–on–one in their confessions and outside discussions, and before long he realized that there were a number of very talented young men in his parish who did not know their own potential. He saw that they were more or less indifferent to the faith; they observed the rituals and received the sacraments, but had not yet found their way to a real love for the Christian life. He decided to bring them together.
There is a precedent for this sort of thing in modern Polish history. During World War II, in the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka, a priest named Father Jan Mazarski held weekly meetings for young people on Sunday evenings. The leader of these meetings, in which theological questions were argued with the famous Polish intensity, was a tailor named Jan Tyranowski, who was the leading layman in the parish and a person of great mystical gifts. In his book Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man who Became Pope John Paul II, Rocco Buttiglione notes that Tyranowski’s religious wisdom came from the fact that he saw the doctrinal truths of the Church as "the object of normal experience." To bring young people into this same faith, he led a "living rosary" in the parish, "groups of fifteen young men (the same number as the stations of the rosary) who committed themselves to a friendship directed toward Christian perfection." One of the participants in this "living rosary" was the young Karol Wojtyla, much later to become Pope John Paul II. Fr. Zieba’s circle—in form and substance—is a direct descendant of this group.
The best way to describe them is the way they describe themselves: as Fr. Zieba’s "rabbinic group." What distinguishes them from similar groups—lay institutes, third orders, and the like—is the nature of their community: it is a community of friendship, not of vows, and it is organized more organically than institutionally. Though they are not formally incorporated into it, they are closely associated with the Dominican Order and influenced by its charism. Their time together is preparing them not for the priesthood or religious life, but rather for a life of preaching the Word through their lives in the world. What will tie them together as they begin to pursue their various lay vocations, then, especially as some travel far from home to do so, is not their structural unity but their friendship. They intend to be a pattern and a rule for each other, whatever tasks they undertake.
In their effort to live the Dominican maxim, "to share with others the fruits of contemplation," their first training is naturally in the life of the mind. They meet every week in a formal setting to discuss a common text in political theory, theology, literature, or philosophy. Usually one of them prepares a short essay on the text to be discussed and presents it to the others, who respond almost in the manner of a scholastic disputation. Recent debates have covered such diverse topics as William Kilpatrick’s work in spirituality and psychology and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. Not surprisingly, they have spent many hours discussing the Pope’s writings; most of them became seriously attracted to Catholicism first by learning about the social teachings of the Church. They began, as one of them has described it, "as Centesimus Annus Catholics, and it took a long time before each of us and all of us discovered and experienced that at the very bottom of this there is the humble Redemptor Hominis ["Redeemer of Man"]. Thus in a sense, the proper order, as in the proceeding of John Paul’s encyclicals, has been restored in our individual lives."
Their involvement with each other, then, is clearly not just intellectual. As in Tyranowski’s "living rosary," the task of this circle is spiritual growth, achieved through friendship. With great intellectual gifts sometimes comes a tendency to be indifferent to others, even a willingness to be cruel in demonstrating one’s talents. This predilection or vice almost always stems from the illusion of one’s self–sufficiency, a denial of one’s need for others; it is ultimately the Pelagian temptation as well. Convinced that this most needs to be overcome, these young men make it a point to practice what is known as fraternal correction, gently and charitably pointing out to each other (in private!) the faults each has noticed in the other. They understand in very realistic, practical ways how important it is to be honest with themselves and each other about their failures. Their ways of "confessing" to one another follow strict procedures—it’s important to them not to let emotions dominate, but to seek out the truth with a sober mind, and with perfect trust.
Fr. Zieba calls this "acrimonious love." Love needs a special modus existendi in such a group if it is to avoid becoming just a place to hang out or, at the other extreme, a hotbed for male–male affections. A good example of the nature of their sort of love—sharp, tough, and candid as it is—is the award given each year to one young man from the rest of the group: the "Digger" award for "the most spectacular spiritual growth of the year." The prize, a statue of a man digging in the ground and finding gold, is doubly symbolic: it represents the hard work and success of the recipient, but also the prize that awaits us all, that treasure for which, if we fully understood its value, we would give everything. Growth in holiness is always rooted in the search for the Truth; for these young men, it is friendship that makes both movements possible.
But at the very heart of the life of faith, there is humility. Seeing oneself and the world clearly, with the Father’s eyes, is the first step to unity with Christ, a step that must be taken again and again. Fr. Zieba reminds the group at every turn, with a profound and refreshing realism, of the mysterious presence of both weakness and dignity in the human person; they are learning, day by day, to see both qualities in themselves. What they seek, in the end, is an integrated life—honestly evaluated, and healed by Christ. The Eucharist, confession, and prayer are their most important guides. "It puts things in the proper order," one of them once said to me; "for example: first the Vespers, then we can go out. We need to let God’s design arrange ours." The fruit of their service to God, naturally, is service to one another. It is striking to see these ordinary young men helping each other in their daily tasks, taking each other to dinner, giving up their time to talk or to pick someone up on the other side of town, sweeping the floors of their meeting–place.
In addition to their intellectual and spiritual training, they are putting what they learn from one another and from the Lord into practice in evangelization. They translate and write articles for publication, interview scholars and churchmen and politicians, and help with the growth and development of the Dominicans in Poland. Several of them assist with winter and summer schools for high school students, leading discussions and serving as mentors for other young men. Now and then a new member is added to the group; it is always an occasion for celebration, and with very good reason. He will be one more young man who will learn what it means to be a Christian. No surprise, then, that on the most recent of their annual trips to Rome, in a meeting arranged by Fr. Zieba, the Holy Father himself told them to stick together.
It is a remarkable thing for an American to see a group of young people come together to discuss the Christian reality so avidly and to work so hard in common to put it into practice. For young Catholic laypersons in America, opportunities to talk seriously about the faith with their peers—and not only to talk about it, but to join with them in learning to live it—sometimes seem few and far between. Parish youth groups and Newman Centers often emphasize "social justice" (or even just "socializing") so strongly that they spend only minimal time giving young people a chance to learn about the contemplative and sacramental riches of the Church, the interior life without which action is empty. There are many exceptions to this rule, of course; one thinks especially of all the renewal movements springing up in this country, movements whose members are extraordinary examples of enthusiasm and devotion, not to mention deep knowledge of the faith. In large part, though, youth organizations in America tend to present a vision of the Church as only a social institution, of Catholicism as more an extracurricular activity than an integrated way of life. The Church appears nonthreatening, useful, fun.
As a consequence, through no fault of their own, many young people do not understand the most fundamental truth of the Catholic life: that because of God’s presence in our midst, we are called to and enabled to achieve greater and greater holiness, and that such growth can really only take place in a community of faith, hope, and love, in which our lives are laid bare to one another and to God—a community that recognizes itself as part of the Body of Christ. More fundamentally, it seems many are afraid to acknowledge their need for God. What makes these young Poles such a good example is their growing understanding that there is no reason to be embarrassed by their neediness, their failures, their longing for fullness in God—as there is no reason to be afraid to use the gifts He has given. What they have learned, in fact, is that by sharing their very brokenness with each other, they are opening themselves to that fullness for which they long. In other words, they are becoming followers of Christ.
Another summer evening now. Fr. Zieba’s rabbinic group tumbles into a small chapel in a corner of the Dominican church in Poznan. The chapel is almost empty of decoration; there is only an altar, a crucifix, and an icon of the Virgin Mary on one white stone wall. The group knows what to do: they arrange chairs in front of the altar; one of them takes the lectionary, another the hymnbook; they sit in silence, listening for the Lord. Fr. Zieba enters, the Mass begins, and the Holy Spirit is powerfully present. At the elevation, the world inside that chapel is utterly still; at the kiss of peace, each person makes his way around the room until he has grasped the hand of everyone there. The peace of the Lord is with them.
Alicia Mosier is an Editorial Assistant at First Things.