Fast Confession – Edward Walczyk, Poland-based priest for the Czech Republic: I, too, will have a hard time in Purgatory
During Christmas, many people visit the church. Although everyone has a different reason for going, whether it is out of faith or out of habit, there is always THAT person there. The pastor, the priest. A holy man who says beautiful words. In an interview for LP-Life.com, we tuned in for the Christmas mood with Edward Walczyk, the Roman Catholic minister at St. Bartholomew's Church in Prague-Kyje. Do you wonder, how did a Polish priest become a messenger of God in the Czech Republic? We talked not only about faith, but also about the deep thoughts that trouble believers and non-believers alike and even included a wish for the readers...
You are from Poland, but you serve in the Czech Republic, why? Why not in Poland, where, in my opinion, people are more religious...
There are several reasons, but among them, of course, are general church problems in the Czech Republic during the communist era, when there were very few priests. Thus, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk needed to find a way to secure the priesthood service here in the Czech Republic. Therefore, he set out to visit Polish dioceses and ask for help from Poland, because there were already many priests in service there.
This actually leads to a general question of why there are Polish priests here at all and not, for example, Slovaks. I believe Poland makes more sense, since it didn't cause any historical problems in former parts of Czechoslovakia. And from the private point of view - why am I here? It was coincidentally connected with journalism, because I studied journalism in addition to theology and I did an interview for Radio Krakow about Polish priests working in Bohemia. That's how I first encountered the reality of the Czech Church and it really appealed to me. In particular, it was Cardinal Vlk who sat me on a bench at that time and said, "Listen, Edward, let me explain to you why there are Polish priests here. You are paying the debt for the death of St. Adalbert, that is the interest for his blood, the Polish interest.
So I laughed, I didn't know what to think, but after 10 years of service in Bohemia, I asked him if I had already paid the interest and could start earning. So he laughed and told me: Yeah, Edward, enough with the joking, thank you for your service.
That first meeting, that was kind of the point where I started thinking I wanted to be a priest in Bohemia.
From my point of view, the Czechs are atheists...
When it comes to the Czech Republic I try to divide people into practitioners and non-practising. I know some who practice regular worship in that they always go to the Christmas Mass – once a year, but regularly. It's hard to tell whether it's a matter of faith or habit and tradition. That is why I think that if we are talking about our Czech situation, I would rather say that most people have an open relationship to faith and that faith is a question that comes to them when they are having a hard time. When they're afraid, when they're scared... Coincidentally, in the times we live in, that openness to faith is much greater.
When people are comfortable, they prefer to just keep some Christian customs. Because we're a Christian country, we can't deny that. Of course, people who already practice the faith, I would say they do it with deep conviction and also with an inner need. That it is not a demonstration of piety or a religious activity, but that it is really a living relationship with God. Faith is a relationship between two entities, only on the one side we have a person that is limited in the flesh and on the other hand we have Go. Sometimes we do need to raise ourselves above the level of body and soul, that intellect of ours, our reasoning, our thinking, to an even higher level of spirit. And it is only that encounter that is the distinctive expression of faith.
Then, when I compare it with Poland, we see the same thing there. There we find people who are deeply religious and practicing, but in even greater numbers we find people who practice some religious activity, keep certain tradition or go to church because that's how they were brought up. This is not to say that the church does not have true witnesses to the faith there. It has far more of them than in the Czech Republic, simply because the number of believers is far greater there.
But Poland is also exceptional in that it is the only country in Europe with such a high percentage of people who profess faith. It is over 90 percent. And the number of practitioners who go to church every Sunday still remains around 45 percent. By comparison, my congregation has about 50,000 inhabitants. If I got 40 percent, I'd have to have around 20,000 people in church every Sunday. That would be hard to fit in the beautiful Romanesque church in Kyje where I function.
The coronavirus has really made people's lives miserable, whether it's them or their loved ones that are sick or even dying. Do you perceive that even non-practicing people, who really only go to church once a year at Christmas, are now more open to the faith, that they need it?
Every person has spiritual needs, these are the needs given to us by nature. It means that we don't run away from the question of what comes next, what comes after death. And when there comes a time when death is really so close that we feel threatened by it, that we feel the fear, that ordinary human fear that everyone has, believers or non-believers, that's when those basic questions come up. What comes then? How do we prepare for it?
And of course, just thinking about the meaning of your life and also its fragility makes that openness even greater. Because when we are well and, quote-unquote, enjoying life, we don't really have time for the kind of reflection that leads us to transcend earthly time, earthly existence. But when we see that someone we know has died next to us, that a colleague, a fellow worker has fallen ill and is on the edge of life and death, then we start to ask questions. What are the most important things, why are we here? Where are we going? And what is the purpose of our being here on Earth? And there, of course, come the questions of not only having faith, but what kind of faith.
Because, unfortunately, in this pluralism, we have an abundance of information from which we have to sort out what has meaning and what is completely useless. And that is a very difficult thing. Today, finding what is an objective truth and not some manipulated information feels almost impossible. In fact, we are starting to drown in this. Because when you don't know what to build on anymore, you start looking for some certainties. And, of course, even faith is built on the certainty of believing that something is a Divine revelation. That it's not just my idea of God, of what he could possibly be like, but that he has revealed himself to us, first as a little child, then as the Jesus who came and announced before Pilate that he was born for this, to bear witness to the truth. That is the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ, alongside, of course, the fact He came as messiah, saviour, redeemer. But if we look at the first day after Jesus' birth, where he is worshipped, worshipped by kings, not knowing what kind of child he is – mind you, he wasn't born in a royal court, he was born in a manger – and yet, kings pay homage to him, so there must have been something those kings have felt and known, that this was someone special.
And then the final trial of Jesus, which takes place before Pilate, gives us answers to why Jesus was or is. He is the only one who is right because he is God. And if we want to find any objective truth, we need to explore the things that are the Divine revelation. Or what is the way God approaches man so that man can grasp Him. We cannot grasp God except through Jesus Christ. He was a man. The Creator of Heaven on Earth, the Demiurge, as some call him, or the one they could not describe, is so far away in our imaginations that even the best words don't even begin to describe who the one who created the beauty of the world, who created the love, who created the good, who gives us happiness could be. These are concepts we recognize, but we as people did not create them. That's why there is Jesus, the human and the incarnate, that is, God in a human form.
How come you speak such perfect Czech? I guess it wasn't easy.
I'll admit, Czech is hard. Mine is not perfect, it is, let's say, decent. It depends a lot on my fatigue level, as well as whether one is in a good mood at the moment... But I try to speak the way people speak. I actually learned Czech on the fly, because after two months at the seminary here in Prague, in Dejvice, I was sent to Kralupy and there I started leading the parish without understanding Czech. So I always smiled and said “yes” to everything. That was a beautiful time, because everybody was happy. Until I started to understand and say “no” as well. (Laughter) But I remember that Kralupy, my first location, was a really beautiful place. We had a very good time there, I experienced a lot of nice moments there, and I still remember it was wonderful.
What does a priest's regular day look like? Not many people can imagine it. We only see you in church, I can also imagine people coming to you to confess their sins, but otherwise...
The nature of the priesthood service in Bohemia is a little different than in other areas. I know Poland, of course, I know a little bit of Germany, Austria, also quite a bit of Italy, because I worked there too. Here, it basically depends on each individual priest who has to decide how to start his day. The way I set it up is that in the morning when I get u, I obviously do my morning hygiene, but then I have a coffee and go to church. There I pray the basic priesthood prayers and have a moment for meditation or dwelling before the tabernacle, before God, to recharge my strength for the day ahead.
After that, I usually attend various meetings in the morning. From, say, business, with a developer about buying land, to pastoral visits. This morning, for example, I had a meeting of cultural representatives of the city to discuss another year of our joint activities. And they also wanted to film some greetings for the people and so on. Sometimes I also use that time to go shopping, cook some lunch, or if there's not enough time, to go out to eat somewhere.
And then in the afternoons I usually teach religion. So I go to school, or we have places here at the rectory and elsewhere where I teach religion to children. When I'm done, there's usually a little bit of time for private meetings, which means spiritual conversation, sometimes it's confession, sometimes I'll find time to read the Bible or read a spiritual word. And then comes Mass, with a few exceptions. That starts at 6:00 p.m. and ends around 7:00 p.m. And then there are the regular meetings, which are connected with the pastoral work. Meeting people who need something. There are meetings of adults who are preparing for baptism, these are called catechumens. We have Bible classes, Bible studies, women's meetings, men's meetings, youth meetings... In short, there are different kinds of meetings for people who can't go before because they are working. So I usually finish the service around 8 o'clock at night.
But like I said, I don't start at 6:00 in the morning either. I usually start around eight o'clock with prayer, although that's not work, that's a pleasant thing that I can experience as a private matter. And then there are special days like feasts, celebrations, these are closely connected with the liturgy, with the Mass, with the service of confession, etc. And then there are, for example, the school holidays, when it's a little more relaxed. There I find time for activities for my body, soul and spirit, so to speak.
We have this feeling that the clergy only live in a church. And now we've been proven wrong by Pastor Martina Viktorie Kopecká dancing in TV’s StarDance. Do you watch it, or have you seen her dance?
I must admit that I don't watch TV at all anymore. I mean, it does stand here, but I don't follow it, I don't watch it. I did notice it, though. I don't know whether it was the news, or whether somebody told me about it, that there's a pastor in that competition. I think everyone should have hobbies. That always motivates us to develop a bit. I've evolved too, for example in sports. I used to love to play football, but at my age, it's just my head that keeps up with it, my legs can't keep up anymore. So I had to take a slightly different route and I got interested in golf, which attracted me, because it teaches humility and it is also a sport that you can basically play even at an advanced age. But at the same time, it's not completely without challenge. Some people think that golf isn't physically demanding, but that is not true. And then there is skiing, which is the nearest and dearest to me. On Mondays, when I have a free day, I don't have any obligations, so when I have the opportunity, I go to Liberec or to the Jizera Mountains or somewhere near there for a few hours.
But wait, I thought you were a diving enthusiast.
Scuba diving is a thing I tried in the United States. It started there with my cousin, he got me into it. He gave me a course and trained me a little bit, because he's a diving instructor. And then I tried it again in Egypt. However, lately I haven't had time to do it. I'll admit it's a bit of a neglected sport that I'd like to get back to at some point, but you have to have a little more time for that. One day is not enough. You need to go away for at least a week and go over the basics again, brush it up, because diving is not exactly an easy thing to do. You have to respect a lot of other things to make it safe.
But I have to admit, two years ago a friend of mine got me into biking. I mean, he lent me his motorbike. And we've already done two road trips together, sort of motorcycle wanderings. One was through Bohemia to southern Poland and we came back through Slovakia. The other one was to the Baltic Sea, also in Poland, we were there for a week on motorbikes. It's quite an interesting experience. Of course, I try to ride very carefully, because motorbikes are more dangerous than cars after all. But I enjoy it, I feel certain freedom there, which, on the other hand, I feel I'm losing in everyday life. On a motorbike it's like, at least here I can feel like I am the last cowboy, who can make a stop wherever he ends up and is alone, if need be.
Will you go to heaven for what you do for people?
No, definitely not; on the contrary, I often worry that I'll have a pretty hard time in purgatory.
The more one thinks about one's life, but also about the imperfections of life, the more he feels remorse and fears that he has neglected this, maybe one hasn't done that right, maybe he hasn't been careful enough to say things in such a way that it sounds different and appeals to someone.
One of the most important questions I asked myself when I became a priest was precisely the question of confession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We think of the Confession as someone coming in, listing their sins, the priest gives them absolution, and that's it. I'm going to use the name Sacrament of Reconciliation on purpose, as it is a gift for our salvation, to become reconciled to ourselves, to people, and to God. That's how the act of Confession could be translated in a broader context, that confession. It means that one has to be very careful with it, so as not to put anyone off. To show that he really cares about addressing what the other person needs to address.
We can confess to anyone, but we can only receive forgiveness of sins through the ministry of a priest, so that it really motivates that person to change their life. When one hears people's confessions, one sees individuals much more perfect than oneself, but one also sees the more sinful ones. But one still realizes that he should be the more perfect one.
I haven't compared myself to anyone for many years because I've been told that comparing ourselves to people only brings out mostly negative emotions in us. Either I'm not that good, or I'm too proud of being better. We only need to compare ourselves to one thing - the perfect truth, Jesus or God. And there I perceive that we are sinful before Him. That's where the feeling comes in, that it's not just about good deeds, but about sincerely regretting something as well. Nowadays, we emphasize good deeds a lot, the mercy of God, who is such this kind grandfather who forgives everyone everything. And if someone happens to do something good for once, that's absolutely great.
But God is also just and doesn't want to damn anyone, not at all. However, he wants you to be sorry. To be honest with yourself, saying Yes, this was pleasant, nice, fun, but it didn't really help me or anyone else, as it didn't lead to any particular goal, which should be the real good here, instead of some kind of experience or moment, a second in time that pleases us but brings disappointment, frustration and so on in the end.
That is the world we live in. On the one hand, we have lots of tempting experiences and all sorts of things, but on the other hand, if one thinks globally, one finds what? For example, I teach young people and I see how they are changing, year by year. Kids today have a terrible problem with emotions, huge problems. They have self-esteem problems even though they dye everything they can to get noticed at least by someone. Because their parents don't pay attention to them growing up. They have problems with negative thinking in general. I mean dark moods, depression, suicidal thoughts and so on. There's a terrible increase in suicides as well, and it all basically starts with them being manipulated by the screen they have in their hand all the time. They don't even know that a normal person five, ten years ago wouldn't have been involved in politics at 12 years old. A 12-year-old girl would be thinking about how to put on nice makeup to get a boy to notice her.
Today, I come to the religion class and the girl tells me about politics. And it's such a kind of information that I’m simply amazed at what the kid is watching. Of course, with this in mind, I see why they want to lower the voting age to 16 in Germany. I can tell someone cares about manipulating the masses. And the younger the person, the more immature they are and the easier they are to manipulate.
We live in a very strange time indeed. When you see it every day, it scares you. When a mother comes crying to me that her daughter wants to commit suicide, then that is a very complicated matter of how to actually deal with it. So as not to give away the secret of Confession. That's what weighs on the conscience and belief of the person who is a priest. But at the same time, the most difficult question is how I am going to confess people so that I don't discourage anyone.
When I enter the confessional, I know that at that moment I am not entering as Edward Walczyk or a priest, a pastor, but rather as someone who is supposed to be some kind of a mediator. That's where it starts working. Sometimes one doesn't know what to say and suddenly a sentence comes to him, a word comes to him that completely opens the other person up, talks to them and they leave satisfied. That is why I believe that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not just a confession. It is really a moment when God intervenes directly with people. Of course, using an instrument that is imperfect, that is sinful, but it is in the hands of God.
Christmas are just about to start. What would you, as God's messenger, say to the people? What would you wish our readers for Christmas?
First of all, I would wish all your readers to have the courage not to be afraid. And by that, I don't mean the world and the threats that affect us, but not to be afraid to touch the most fundamental issues of our lives. To talk about the spiritual life and about the hope that comes from the faith and love that is Christian teaching. Not to be afraid that one day we will die, because we will all die. And we don't have to believe that some cure will save us or some belief that we will live here forever, that's not true.
But at the same time, I would wish everyone to live with respect for people and debate their views. Let's debate our opinions, but let's love the person, because an opinion is not the same as a person. Man is good at his core. We can change our opinion, sometimes we have to change it. So my wish for everyone at Christmas is that they take time for discussion, for dialogue, for honesty, that they have the courage to open up topics that may not be comfortable, but that they love their neighbor. And to live in health, happiness, in peace, with God's blessing.