Today I was at a Catholic church, attending the First Communion of the daughter of some friends and colleagues. This was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, since I was brought up in the Catholic tradition. The mass was entirely in Polish, and the congregation was almost entirely Polish, and I enjoyed saying all the English responses on top of the Polish ones and seeing how well they fit (I also did it sotto voce over the bits the celebrant said too). Yes, the rituals are evidently frozen into my memory.
It’s exactly the same structure as the masses I attended hundreds of times during my upbringing, and I’m amused that I remembered everything even without being prompted by the company of English speakers in my surroundings. Very enjoyable to see the kids all done up in their finery, all nervous but excited, as they know it is all about them. Fun to see other remnants of my childhood imagery in the form of a super-splendid Sunday hat – so rare these days – and generally people of a certain look that’s so familiar from Catholic churches I’ve see in several places around the world. With that and the excellent food and conversation at the reception afterwards, despite my being tired from having only two hours sleep last night (more later), it was a lovely day.
Here’s a thing, though…
On my way out, long after things were over and the church was empty (people were outside taking group photos and so forth), an older man with a walking stick was sitting in the very last pew by the door (in that little section between the back wall and the plexiglass screens that seal if off from the rest of the church pews -presumably baby-cry-proofing (an innovation I don’t recall from my childhood days). I’d sat near him in that section (since I was a bit late and did not want to move into the main part and disturb people) and even shaken hands during the `Let us offer each other a sign of peace’ bit (or whatever it is in Polish).
He stopped me and said “You’re not Polish, are you?”. I paused, smiled and said no. He offered me his hand which I took and shook. He asked my name and gave me his upon my answer. He said “Neither an I. I am American.” Then he ventured, “Used to be in Poland a while back and they had a black priest there from Africa. The Poles used to help the Africans, you know. That’s why he was there.”
I smiled, “Oh, I see,” nodded politely, and continued on my way, but he pressed on, looking me directly in the eye, “I wish the black people well. They’re good people.” Then he thought about it and said “Well, not all of them, but most of them”.
I said “I see,” and immediately wished I’d said “I’ll be sure to pass if on when I see them”, but what I said instead, while walking away determinedly, was the less witty “Well, we’re all more or less basically good people, really, no matter where we’re from…”
I don’t know if he got it.