Book Break: Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero

My first visit to the University of Mary Bookstore, a slim little volume caught my eye, perhaps because I was hungry. The book was titled Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero by William C. Sherman and John Guerrero and is pictured to the right. In proper Polish, the good Father’s name is rendered Walerian Pączek (pronounced va-LAIR-yan POWN-chek, though it appears his Plains parishioners may have said it “paycheck”) and his last name is the singular form of pączki, those stout, fruit- or custard-filled pastries Poles and others enjoy on Fat Tuesday.

I received the book for Christmas and finished it last night. At just 88 pages, it is a quick read, and worth every moment — if for no other reason than to imagine this Polish hero serving as a parish priest in rural North Dakota and recognizing that most of the time, we have no idea what people have been through in their lives.

Fr. Pączek was born in 1909 in East Prussia, a region of Poland which at that time was under German control. He grew up speaking Polish and accentless German, became a Catholic Pallotine priest, joined the Polish Army, served in the British Army after World War II, then moved to the States, ultimately to become a parish priest at historically German and Czech parishes North Dakota. He was quiet about himself and his experiences in the War, so most people had little idea that their Polish pastor:

  • Served in the Polish Home Army (the underground military resistance to the Nazis) under the code-name Germen, providing for the spiritual needs of fighters and refugees with secret Masses and moving intelligence, communications, and large sums of money under the noses of the Germans, even to the Polish government in exile in London.
  • Personally forged documents for Jewish families using the identities of recently deceased Poles gleaned from the growing cemeteries around Warsaw to help them avoid detection by the Nazis. (One of the most compelling scenes in the book is a chance meeting between Fr. Pączek and a Jewish man who escaped to the States from Poland. The Jewish man shows Father his forged documents, and Fr. Pączek rewrites the information on a sheet of paper to show the handwriting is an exact match.)
  • Narrowly escaped death at least six times, was an excellent marksman and carried a handgun during (and after) the war, and was decorated by both the Polish and British armies and recognized by the U.S. Army as well.
  • Was a marked man by the Polish Communist Government after the War — and as a result, spoke little about his service and often destroyed correspondence about it to avoid endangering friends and family still in Eastern Europe (and himself).
  • Spoke several languages and earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate in canon law, which he completed via correspondence to scholars across Europe while serving in parishes in North Dakota.
  • Was known and welcomed by name, rank, and code-name by Pope John Paul II and greeted as Fr. Colonel Pączek by the Swiss Guards when he visited the Vatican.
Juxtapose these facts against this blog post from a former parishioner of Fr. Pączek’s, who recalls going to the Polish priest for Confession because he was more lenient than the other priests in terms of penance, and the words “quiet hero” seem particularly apt. Only at the end of his life did the parishioners who remember him really begin to know him.
The book is clearly a labor of love. Sections of it read like a draft, raising as many questions as they answer — and since so little was known about his life before Fr. Pączek’s death and he was not inclined to make it easy for people to sort out his past, many of those questions and controversies will not be answered this side of heaven. But all told, it is a compelling portrait of a man who shouldered the burdens of war and carried them with quiet dignity all the days of his life.

Season’s Greetings from the Thorp Gang, 2016 Edition!

Clockwise from bottom: Bren (19), Gabe (16), Emma (14), Trev (12), and Lily (5) 
Our annual Christmas letter is online now for your enjoyment! A Christmas card is on its way for friends and family, but to save ink and paper, our letter will appear here. Please feel free to print and pass it on. 

Past letters, Christmas poems, elf letters, and more are available here. Merry Christmas to all!

The Stray: A Christmas Poem

The Stray
Well-groomed for a shepherd, fragrant for a sheep, the sleepless lad lurches, shuffle-stomp, shuffle-stomp, out of town toward the hills. Dawn spills like too much wine, red above the ridges where flock and friends, abandoned, spent the night. Alright, he mutters thickly, steadying himself as for a blow. The sun is up, and now they know.
But what a night!
Ahead a man and donkey walk a slow, steady pace. Full of grace, his wife and infant rock and sway. Clop. Clop. Both stop—and pick their path with care. They see him there. The man measures with a carpenter’s eye. Radiant and shy, the woman offers him a smile as they pass. An ass, an old goat, and a kid—he returns a toothy grin—
But what a woman!
Head pounding, heart pounding, hung-over still. Narrow path, tumbled rock, all uphill. Grumbling and stumbling, the stray finds his way to the herd. Not a word. They are like pilgrims resting at a journey’s end, world-weary and at peace. Eyes bleary, still he sees they also spent the night in light and song. Something’s amiss, he says to one.
What did I miss?

J. Thorp

We Are a Pilgrim People

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

We are on the home stretch: a week out from the blessed Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Many of us, however, feel as though Christmas has been upon us for weeks now, an immense burden of gifts, lights, music, and cheer under which we labor to breathe—like a lone elf struggling to load the loot of the world into a glossy red sleigh.

The first Christmas was uncomfortable for a different set of reasons. In the days prior, a newly-married couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a few essentials and a donkey. They traveled not by choice, but by order of the emperor in Rome. They arrived not to familiar faces, food, and comfort, but to a town crowded with distant kin and strangers, and the crudest of accommodations: a dugout-stable-turned-makeshift-nursery where the woman would give birth to a son.

It turned into celebration of sorts, I suppose, as angels summoned shepherds from the hills to the town to greet the newborn as they were, dirt-poor and smelling of sheep. A star, too, beckoned Magi from the East, strange and majestic, in rich robes and bearing gifts too generous for the circumstances. (I wonder if Joseph might have gripped his staff a little tighter, wondering how he, his wife, and son would make it back across the dangerous country alive while carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)

Imagine a Christmas celebration in which only your third and fourth cousins showed up, along with the local indigent population and three fabulously wealthy foreigners—and then you had a baby the basement. Perhaps the stresses of this Christmas are more manageable from this perspective.

Mary and Joseph were displaced—from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census; from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for the presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and in exile to Egypt, to protect their son from the murderous intent of Herod. Even as a baby, “the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20).

In LIFT this month, we are completing our study of the Mass. As an introduction to the adult and teen lesson, we are watching a short video from elementsofthecatholicmass.comon the role of parishioners in the Mass. As the video explains, the word parishioner comes from the Greek work paraoikos, meaning pilgrim—it’s the same Greek word that gives us the English word pariah, which means outcast.

We don’t belong here. We, like the Holy Family, are a pilgrim people, en route to our true home with God in heaven. The Church is the ship that carries us: the ark which preserves God’s people from the storms and waves that batter and drown the rest of the world.* Let us take refuge here from the maelstrom—the dizzying spin the world has put on Christmas—and draw near, instead, to Mary, Joseph, and the newborn king of kings.

* * * * *
*In fact, the area of the church worship space where we sit, which we commonly call the sanctuary, is technically called the nave—which comes from the Latin word for ship.

Don’t Lose Your Sense of Wonder

I sometimes think of life as a high sledding hill with God at the top, giving us a push. It’s left to us to steer, but like any good father, He knows our tendencies to close our eyes or overcorrect better than we do, and so He can see every curve we’ll negotiate, every bump that will bounce us airborne, every tree we’ll hit. He sees the trajectories of other sledders and knows their tendencies, as well—He knows whose paths we’ll cross, for good or for ill, and when we’ll be blindsided. He alone has the long view, the Big Picture. We must persist with less—a glimpse of heaven through the treetops as we slip away, faster, faster…

I remember, as a boy, waiting breathlessly for Christmas. Christmas Eve was sweet agony—tossing and turning, knowing I had to fall asleep so Santa would come and yet straining my ears for the jingle of bells and the chance at a glimpse of that jolly, saintly man. I couldn’t wait for presents, of course, but I knew they would be great because I knew HE was great! And although we were not, for the most part, a church-going family, still we had a beautiful Nativity, and I knew the story of birth of Jesus. I knew, at least, that He too was a great man and a great gift to us. In these two stories, magic, hope, anticipation, and gratitude combined into one overwhelming sensation for my young heart: wonder!

Wonder seems harder to come by these days. Our science and technology have helped us explain the Heaven out of the world around us. And we have so much on our plates. In Mary’s day, she and Joseph were very much concerned with their daily bread, with doing God’s will, and with deliverance from evil. Now we have countless other worries, from careers to car repairs, birthday parties to ballgames. Beneath it all we hear the steady drumbeat to, as one retailer put it this year, “Win the Holidays.”  We seem so short of time, and the pressure on our heart squeezes it empty. Too many of us feel a hollow ache between our lungs as Christmas approaches, instead of joy and wonder.

The good news is that it’s not too late. Christmas is not a day so much as a season, which begins with the Feast of the Nativity on December 25th and continues for a dozen days: a celebration that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (John 3:16).” The good news is that Santa is ephemeral, while Christ is eternal. The good news is the Good News: that Jesus is God made flesh, that He came to live with us and suffer and die for us, that He rose again from dead, and that He saves us from our sins.

It is no wonder we sometimes feel blue at Christmas. We celebrate a joy we will not experience this side of heaven. No matter how blessed we are in this life, the gulf between what we have and what our heart yearns for in Heaven is so deep and so wide we cannot clearly see the other side or hope to cross it on our own. But Jesus came to show us the way; He gives us His Body and Blood to strengthen us, and His own Spirit to lead us.

The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it tests the strength of his legs. Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts.

– My Way of Life, a simplified Summa Theologica

May God bless you and yours with peace and love throughout this season and beyond. Merry Christmas!

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, Dec. 27, parish bulletin.