Blogger’s Note: Most of this post was meant to be the beginning of the annual Thorp family Christmas letter. At this point, we plan to send you all Valentines…
The morning is cold, black, and bitter, like the dregs of yesterday’s coffee left in the car overnight. The thin crescent moon seems a galaxy away; the stars, more ice than fire; the jagged air catches in your throat, and the wind seems to strip life, layer by layer, from your shrunken, shivered form.
It is easy, on mornings like this, to justify staying abed, comfortable and warm beside your lover; to shut off the alarm, burrow into blankets and dreams, and await the sun. On mornings like this it’s hard—and perhaps undesirable—to imagine those who live outdoors in this weather, for whom the blue ache of cold is chiefly a sign they have not died in the night. That which you can feel is not yet frozen.
These are not pleasant thoughts on an early winter morning, when you’d rather be asleep, but they are also nothing a hot shower and coffee won’t cure.
Absolute comfort corrupts absolutely.
He whispered fiat lux, and I appeared
To split the darkness with my brilliant light.
He sat upon the clouds and stroked his beard,
As lesser angels praised him day and night.
His vision too naive to comprehend—
Non serviam! I swore with righteous pride.
For how can one so perfect condescend
To serve a muddy meatling and his bride?
And now a virgin ripens with his seed,
And should the elders fail to have her stoned,
The girl will whelp a son of earthly breed
Who nonetheless will mount a heavenly throne.
And all the fires I’ve kindled for man’s doom
Are shadows to that spark within her womb.
* * * * *
Blogger’s Note: The featured illustration is Gustave Dore’s famous depiction of Dante’s Satan, frozen in ice for eternity in the deepest circle of Hell.
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.
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?