Néhémie Prybinski, OFM
I was not a hero, but I had moments both big and small. Rarely do we just shape our life on our own, but we adapt to the conditions in which we find ourselves. This was how it was with my family. Living in Poland while communism was the governing ideology, I wanted to enjoy freedom and live like the rest of the world.
I remember walking around from morning to evening with a latchkey strung around my neck. On foot or by bike, I would go across town to the park and enjoy the sight of the flowers and trees, the lilies of the valley, violets and chestnuts. I would go fishing, swimming, walking around ponds, hills, barns and many other places that I liked.
Then I would come home, dirty and suffering from nettle stings, with my pockets filled with fruits or colored pebbles.
Most days, I would play in the backyard with my friends who had come from all over Poland. We played all the children’s games we knew, including some invented by us.
In summer, I would sit with my friends on the benches in front of the house, playing cards and telling terrible and funny stories until late in the night.
I remember that everything went through the window. If there was a game in the backyard, I would call my mom to give me something to eat. I remember a pie turned into a sandwich wrapped in a paper bag that had once held sugar falling from the fourth floor, with the contents now smashed, but tasting delicious! There was always someone asking: Can I have a bite? We shared. We were like one family, everything belonged to us together, especially the dreams.
At that time, I wanted to dress well and eat well. Unfortunately, during my childhood and adolescence, the stores were empty. Radio and TV offered propaganda programs. In history and civics classes, we were told how good it was to live under Socialism and that our nation’s greatest friend was the Soviet Union. Times were turbulent and dangerous, and there were difficult choices that I had to make. I had no influence on the political developments in my country, but when I could, I helped others. At other times, I accepted their help. I managed to live.
Today, no one is playing outside any longer. People live sterile and orderly lives. They cut themselves off from everything that they do not want to see. They avoid nature, truth, life, old age, and death. Rather than being healed by the Holy Spirit, they want to take pills to make their inner emptiness go away. They reject God and his most basic commandments to love your neighbor as yourself and live a fraternal life.
Then, growing up during the Cold War and before the Iron Curtain was torn apart, I did not know mature inner peace, joy, and happiness. The socialist promises could not give it to me. My family and I were Christian believers, and I understood my life as a Way of the Cross. I hoped and prayed for an eventual day of liberation, reconciliation, and renewal. Because of my working-class background, I did not have the privileges that other children had whose parents were members of the communist party.
In secret, I would go to religion classes at the church. Many people were persecuted for their faith, and thousands left the country to being a new life in France, Canada, or the United States. These were the difficulties of the world in which I was growing up. Everything was gray. Even the streets and buildings were gray.
Then the special day came when a Pole became Pope! “Open wide the doors for Christ!”, he said, and the journey to our liberation began. People began to flock to the Church. The trade union Solidarity was established. In the end the Berlin Wall fell, and Europe stopped being divided.
Together with all the people of Poland, I experienced the day as the day of national resurrection and freedom that I had hoped for. Throughout the difficult days that followed, all came together to help each other. God was in the hearts of the people, not the Red Book of the Communist party.
Everyone helped each other. Apartments and houses were always open to family, neighbors, and unexpected guests. No one counted the money in their wallet because there wasn’t any. The only security to be had was trust in God’s providence.
Looking back today at that time, despite various conflicts now in the world, the ongoing fight for ecology and a dignified life for everyone, I still trust and believe that human beings as created by God can do good deeds and sow peace and love. The power of God in the human heart is like a small seed that must be allowed to grow at its own pace. In this way, the world becomes the image of the Kingdom of God, a place without division caused by politics and wealth. It becomes a place where everyone can feel at home, understood, loved, and accepted. Just an idyll, dreams, wishes? It’s worth living like it today, rather than wait for it until tomorrow!
Originally from Poland, Néhémie Prybinski received his Master of Divinity from the Pontifical Academy in Krakow. He then specialized in homiletics and computer science. He has been a Franciscan since 1987 and a priest since 1994. He has worked in parishes as a retreat preacher and in schools as a catechist. For fifteen years, he was a missionary in Madagascar and Mauritius. In 2009, he arrived in Canada. He animates recollections, retreats, and is responsible for the Franciscan community in Montreal.
Feature Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd; other photos: Néhémie Prybinski