Lidia Konar writes about her experiences as a Polish Catholic in Scotland.
I arrived in Aberdeen at the end of 2005 and like any good Pole, the first thing I did was find a nearby Catholic church. As it happened, St Mary’s Cathedral at Huntly Street. The sparse interior surprised me, raised on the rich appearance of Polish Churches.
I was also astonished by the diversity of the congregation: alongside the Scots were Nigerians, Indians, Spanish and people from South America. In the hall after Mass, over tea and coffee, I found some of the attendees weren’t even Catholic.
An Indian family with two children told me they didn’t have a temple in the town but believed that Catholicism was close to their religion, especially the idea of the Holy Trinity. I also met a man who was brought up without religion but would come to church to talk to God.
These encounters were pleasant in their novelty but I was stunned some people talked loudly to each other in the church after holy mass; even during the Eucharist some were waving to their friends.
Shortly, after arriving in Scotland I went to Confession, as I couldn’t imagine celebrating Christmas without receiving holy Communion.I didn’t yet feel confident while speaking English, so I wrote down all of my trespasses on a piece of paper and went to the church. The parish priest at that time was Fr Stuart Chalmers. he asked me to sit down on the chair in front of him. I started that Confession with the sentence: “Could I read out my sins, please?”
The priest took it easy on me and even seemed to be glad that I came with this little note. I loved right away the melodic lines of the English hymns that came easily to me and I quickly joined the cathedral choir, but after a few months I had to quit because of my job.
With the start of the Polish Masses, which our community had longed for, I got heavily involved with the Polish Mission in Aberdeen. Over the years I have adapted to the new environment, although it wasn’t easy. Being in a diverse environment is interesting but often feels in conflict with my Christian identity.
At times I have felt like a tree growing alone in the desert, the only one for miles around. I am wary and careful of what I say and to whom since here Faith is seen as a private matter. Sometimes I need to take annual leave to go to Confession or Mass.
In the past, I worked all weekend and wouldn’t get a day off, but there was one Mass at 8am on Sunday that I could attend. I have had to beg employers for a holiday to celebrate Easter or Christmas. One boss even asked me to remove the crucifix from my neck, as one customer had said that this sign insulted him. I didn’t take it off but placed it on a longer chain. I still miss churches open all day where I could stop to pray and it still shocks me to see churches turned into pubs or shops.
As is the Polish way I have never been to any halloween party: I celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on November 1 and 2, and miss holy Masses said on those days at cemeteries. I long for other Polish traditions,such as Bitter Lamentations, the Corpus Christi processions, blessing bouquets of herbs on Assumption Day, Rosary services in October, and many more.
But I have come to appreciate some local customs,such as painting a cross on the forehead with ash on Ash Wednesday, as in Poland, ashes are sprinkled on top of people’s heads. Once, in the vegetable department at Morrison’s, I saw a lady with ashes on her forehead and felt a wave of solidarity with her. Living in such a secular environment I see how a lack of any Faith, any belief can lead to self-destruction.
There are serious problems here, with mental health and suicide, and I suspect they’re connected to that emptiness in the wider society. I believe that the real experience of Faith stays in your heart forever, but you need to mind your conscience. I have faced difficult choices many times but I think I have come through them. If something or someone were to prevent me from receiving holy Communion, it was a sign for me that it would not be a good choice. As St John Paul II said, we must demand from ourselves, even if no one else is demanding from us.
- Lidia Konar is a writer, poet, broadcaster, and musician from Tegoborze, in Southern Poland who lives in Aberdeen.