Mark De Cristo
It was our last day teaching in Frankfurt. We had been there for two weeks, working the intensive English courses for newly hired German employees, eight teaching hours a day, five days a week. Too much, most teachers would say, and rightly so. But we needed the money, so we agreed, took the company car, and made the trek each morning from Berlin to the frontier with Poland, heading back again in the evening.
At around four, the traffic began to pile up. Trucks heading for the newly admitted EU states lined up for miles, the drivers smoking cigarettes out their open windows. Poland entered the common trade area a few years ago, but with some working visa restrictions for those immigrating to Western Europe. The trucks are allowed to pass through the borders, with all their commercial goods, and when we would get back into the company car to head home to Berlin, we felt like we were flying by a parking lot, and thought we should wave. The trucks had plates from Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and of course Poland and Germany. Our commute was around ninety minutes, shortened of course by the incredibly high speeds Germany still unwisely permitted on its autobahns. We were lucky to always be going in the clear direction of traffic.
Neither of us had ever been to Poland. Why not make the trip across the border one day? Anthony had a New Zealand passport, however, which he was afraid could cause problems not only getting across but also upon reentering Germany. He feared being rejected or being put into some kind of detention. I told him it would be okay, but then felt my conscience calling me out—are you saying this because you believe it, or do you really just want to go over to Poland so badly you’re willing to brush his complications aside?
My conscience. Such a delicate little whisper, coming from nowhere to criticize me over the most trivial of matters, such as eating meat on Fridays outside of Lent, illegally downloading an mp3, dreaming about my tasty pizza lunch all through the morning, feeling overly attracted (is that past the border with lust?) to the woman sharing the smoking break with me—and viewing all these things as slight. They are not slight.
As we headed out on the road to the border, Anthony’s excitement about seeing Poland grew bigger than his passport concerns. He had been teaching here for about six months, and showed me the ropes of Frankfurt. He had already received a tour of the town from another colleague, one who knew history quite well and took him to all the famous churches. He knew about the Russians stealing the stained glass, refusing to return it, and finally bringing it back as a token of “friendship.” Anthony also showed me the ropes of teaching out here deep in Brandenburg. The language school had already sent him twice to do these intensive courses at the company. It was an American firm, enticed by generous incentives from the local government to open a manufacturing plant, hoping put a small dent in the double-digit unemployment figures of the region. All new employees needed to learn English before being sent to headquarters in Ohio for training. This course was a special two-week “Brush-Up,” which threw me into the deep end of teaching. The work was long and hard?teaching seems to draw out all your energy and saw at your voice?and at the end of each day we were too tired to do any exploring of the area. As the end of the second week approached, I thought the last Friday could give us the chance.
So at the end of the last day, a cold, gray, and dark February day?cold, gray, and dark like only Eastern Europe can be?we headed for the border with Poland.
Frankfurt in this region does not mean Frankfurt am Main, the one most of us Americans know. There are no skyscrapers here, no international airports, central banks, or big financial firms. It rests on the river Oder, hence has the full name “Frankfurt an der Oder.” Today, in this part of east Germany, the Oder creates a natural frontier with Poland. Before the Second World War, the border was much further east. When the Russians came, they gave Poland what it wanted?a northern port and access to the river heading south. The town of Frankfurt on the Oder was split in two, like Berlin, and the eastern town was renamed Slubice and became part of Poland. The Germans were put on trains west, Poles put into the Germans’ houses, and a new city was born. Nothing really out of the ordinary, if one studies a bit more of the history of this region?neither nation really has any more claim on the land than the other, since it has switched hands so many times.
Now, the European Union brings them together. A modern bridge over the Oder unites Slubice and Frankfurt like in the olden days. The customs check occurs over the water on the bridge, so we headed in that direction. And sure enough, after they glanced at my papers and passed them back, Anthony’s New Zealand passport caught their eye. The officers retreated to the cabin in the middle of the bridge, disappearing for nearly ten minutes. Finally they came back out, and let us pass. My conscience then began to ease?it would be okay, he wouldn’t end up in a Polish jail because I dragged him across the river.
As we continued along the bridge, we saw the wide marshy expanse of the Oder. The dead winter gave it an almost pale, colorless look, and the water appeared cold and frightening. Whenever I pass over water during the winter, a slight pang of fear goes through my body at the thought of swimming through it. I am happy I’m safely above on a sturdy bridge.
Then, just like that, we passed from the Protestant heartland to the dedicated Catholic plain of Poland?and, true to character, from a rich and prosperous country to a poor and developing one. That the difference between two former Communist states could be so large caught me off guard. Perhaps the difference owed to East Germany’s integration with the West, innate German traits, or to the famed Protestant mentality that seems to create material wealth wherever it goes. There were signs for gas and tobacco everywhere. Apparently, the dirty petroleum byproduct was almost three times cheaper this side of the river, and the same for cigarettes, so Germans would increase their stocks every couple of weeks by heading over to Slubice. This border town then, like so many others, created a small economy out of nothing.
I took a right turn to go along the river and see a bit of countryside. Immediately on the left we came across a long, low, pink church. Pink? I knew I would want to stop in on the way back. A Polish church. Of course, I had to go into one. After all, John Paul was from here, the great John Paul, whom I had seen so many times in Rome and who had inspired me to believe that the great possibility of holiness was just around the corner.
Then we noticed the darker side of border life. Road signs announced brothels in every direction. Apparently, the Germans came for more than just cheap cigarettes. I wondered to myself, why is that? Why do we have a church here, and all this just down the road? It’s the world we live in, I thought. It reminded me of St. Paul writing in 1 Corinthians, “for then you would have to leave the world.” Things haven’t changed much in two thousand years.
With signs pointing to more bleakness down the road, we made a U-turn and headed back in the direction of the town. I knew I wanted to go in the church, but would Anthony? He said he was Catholic, but a few days before he hadn’t been sure, and actually asked his brother over the phone what religion they had been baptized into. He had even gone to a Catholic school, but told me he couldn’t tell the difference between the different sects of Christianity. That felt sort of refreshing?someone who did not know the difference and wasn’t critical of any either. I felt no hostility from him. That was a rare feeling when giving even the slightest hint my faith.
He agreed to stop at the church, and the idea of going to confession popped into my mind. Would they speak English? Maybe they knew German. We parked outside, and I was excited at my first entry into a Polish church. As we entered, I saw it looked the same as many modern American and German Catholic churches: a bulletin board on the wall with announcements, an interior a bit plain and gray, not as stunning as the Italian and Spanish churches. Perhaps this is because the church was here, in Slubice, a town that used to be in Germany. The church was not very old, like one deeper into Poland might be.
Then I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it, but I thought I heard quiet prayer, chanting, like a rosary. Soft, peaceful voices, together speaking a prayer I knew so well, but in a language I couldn’t understand. In front of us was a little chapel, and the sounds were emanating from there. I wanted to show Anthony, so I brought him over, and asked, “Do you hear that? They’re praying the rosary.” If they were, I wasn’t sure, because it was in Polish, but I felt it was. There is a rhythm to the rosary that goes beyond the words. He was very curious. Maybe this would be a moment of conversion for him? I didn’t have strong hopes of converting people?immediate rejection seems to be the first reaction of many when I share my faith with them.
We approached the chapel, and I lightly pushed open the small iron gate at the entrance to get a peak. All of a sudden, the prayer stopped, and through the crack emerged a short nun, looking at me indignantly and muttering something in Polish. My first instinct was to respond in German, thinking she would understand, but it proved fruitless. Then she led me out through the corridor and to the parish office, where a middle-aged secretary sat behind a desk. Anthony, frightened by the surprising encounter, said he would wait outside in the car. When I entered the room, I looked around. On the back wall hung a huge photo of John Paul II addressing a large crowd with his arms raised. I thought maybe the secretary was a nun, but she wore no habit.
“Can I help you?” she asked me with a warm and friendly tone.
I explained to her I was a tourist from America, here to see Poland, and a great admirer of the pope, and very honored to visit a Polish church. I apologized profusely for interrupting the rosary, and the woman graciously translated this to the nun, who grumbled unappreciatively. She left the room and returned to the chapel, leaving me in the church office. What should I say?
“I would like to go to confession. Are there any priests here?” How presumptuous of me, to just pop in here and expect to be served at any hour. It was my conscience speaking again.
“Yes, we have a priest…” she began, and precisely at that moment, a young man opened the door in ordinary day clothes. She told him I was a gentleman from out of town who would like to confess.
He smiled at me. I looked at him and saw someone I might have been. Do many devout Catholic men wonder about becoming priests? I had always wondered. The life appealed to me, but somehow I felt the call to marriage. He was young, my age probably. He needed to put on the proper vestments, and would return, he said.
So I sat down alone, but the secretary, out of an inclination towards hospitality, stayed to speak with me. I pointed out the picture of the Pope, and she beamed proudly. “He was very great, not only for Poland, but for the whole world. He is very close to us, almost closer now than when he was alive.” There was no hint of any exaggeration or falsity in her words; I felt for a moment the profound impact this man had on the people of Poland. She looked at the poster as she spoke to me, and I could see the sincere love emanating from her eyes for Pope John Paul.
After a few awkward moments, a different priest came, an older one, with Slavic cheekbones and dark sweaty hair. He had slightly better English skills, lacked deodorant, and said he would be happy to hear my confession. I looked at the church secretary, hoping it wasn’t going to be here and now, in this room, but he calmed my fears and suggested we head to the chapel.
The rosary had apparently ended, and the pews were empty. We sat down next to each other and began the sacrament. He looked at me with great concentration as I recounted my various sins, making sure he understood what I was saying, asking me questions for clarification.
At the end, he said to me, with great sincerity and in a thick Polish accent, “The most important thing in a confession is you must feel very very sorry for your sins. You must never want to do them again.” I hadn’t heard this in a long time. In America the tone of some priests was so forgiving that it was almost nonchalant?at times I felt my sins weren’t really sins at all. This time, I knew they were, knew my forgiveness was undeserved and a gift, and felt my conscience clear and ready to go out, do penance and serve the Lord. Afterwards, he said, “Now, would you like to have Holy Communion?” Now, I thought? Right after confession? Is that normal? Plus, Anthony is waiting in the car. But, yes, I would actually. I had never experienced this right after a confession. I nodded and accepted the invitation.
He led me out of the chapel and into the main church. We walked down the center aisle towards the altar, and he said I could kneel down here by the steps. I knelt down, looking up at the crucifix. The weight of my sins was great, the gift of forgiveness greater, and the grace of the sacrament came over me. I felt it in my heart and soul and mind, while light tears flowed gently down my face.
The priest came out of the sacristy in full vestments, carrying the Eucharist. He walked towards the altar, did a benediction in Polish, turned to me, and held the Body of Christ to my lips, which, after my amen, I received. I closed my eyes in prayer. This is a beautiful moment, I thought. I am so thankful, and where am I? I’ve never been here before, we were just going to stop by, see Poland for an hour after work, and now I’m here in a church after a good confession, receiving the Blessed Sacrament alone outside of Mass. Is this a Polish custom? Is this even allowed? I told him during my confession I had been unable to take Communion for a few weeks. Is that why? And Anthony?he’s waiting outside. Will he be angry? The usual distractions of prayer came and went, and then I could concentrate on the presence of the Lord.
After my quiet period of prayer, I stood up to look at the church, and paused by the Stations of the Cross. On the way out, I thanked the priest for taking the time outside of normal confession periods for this. He said he hoped he had been of some help to me.
“What is your name?”
“Thaddeus, but you can call me Teddy.” He smiled.
Back in the car, Anthony wasn’t annoyed at all. He said he wouldn’t mind doing a confession himself sometime. He’d never done one.
As we drove back over the Oder to Germany, I looked downstream, at the brown and light yellow brush, the marshy islands dotting the winding river. The world is so clogged full of history. These lands have been swapped back and forth, languages changed, churches taken over by one faith and then another, then eliminated entirely. How has our faith survived? When countries cannot even pick the same side of the road to drive on, or currency, we can go anywhere in the world and be at home in the Mass, and participate in the same sacraments. In fact, we are all doing it together. The priests in Poland are the priests in America and the priests in Germany, they are all one of a piece, and so are all of us lay people, participating in this very Holy Communion of believers. The mystical body of Christ winds down the Oder, stretches east and west across the bridges and dark waters below, and rests in the Sacrament in each small chapel and church across the world.
After we passed through customs and got on the freeway back to Berlin, I was full of gratitude to be part of this body. I didn’t feel as though we had done this, as though we should be thanking ourselves for doing such a good job maintaining our church. Rather, despite us and everything else in this fallen world, God has given us an undying gift. The sun set over the Prussian forests, and our chattering slowed to silence during the drive. I contemplated our world and the mystery of faith, and the words emanating from the furnace in the third chapter of Daniel rang true in my heart: Let the earth bless the Lord, mountains and hills, everything growing from the earth, seas and rivers, bless the Lord.
Mark De Cristo is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and Schiller International University in Heidelberg, Germany.