Footsore but free on the pilgrim way
WE ROSE at 4am and walked until night-fall, we walked through sand, bog and pouring rain, some went on crutches others in wheel chairs and most of us complained of aching feet. We were intimidated by low flying army aircraft and hidden groups of stand-hy militia. Yet for Poles this is one of the highlights of the year; they sing all the way and will talk about it for the rest of the year until they go again.
The pilgrimage means freedom to Poles. For eight days they sleep in open fields, carry their own food and depend on no one. Shopqueues, jobs and the state have no place on the journey which is a momentary release from the cruelty and hardship of everyday life brought to bear on churchgoers. Freedom of speech was the order of the day and over microphones dissidents and writers described their experiences in internment camps and their censored literature. It was a time of reflection and forgiveness. We prayed for the future, Lech Walesa, the Pope and those in military uniforms sent to watch us.
On the pilgrimage people come first. They share their food of which there was little and help each other along the way. In a country like Poland this is very important. For youngsters brought up under a state education system that teaches them material as opposed to humanitarian values "giving" means that a new culture and way of life is being discovered along the way.
I asked a seventeen year old student Solidarity member what the pilgrimage meant to him. "It means that I can help others to carry their load. I want to do this because I like talking to people and because I too am tired. The effort will help to reinforce the strength and will power I need to support my friends in our mutual plight and battle against the authorities. I want to fight for our rights to lead christian lives and for human rights" Jan, our 17-year-old Polish dissident, had already been arrested three times for distributing Solidarity leaflets. During martial law the army came to drag him out of school. "It happened during a maths lesson. Three soldiers suddenly burst into the class room and took me at gun point. I was taken to a Warsaw prison and Interrogated for five hours".
But Jan refused to give away his friends. "I only made one mistake," he told me. "They tricked me into picking up a book which was in fact made of sticky stuff in order to get my finger prints. That means if ever they want to put me in prison all they have to do is to transfer the prints onto stolen goods."
Jan was an ambitious youth who had hoped to learn languages. I asked him how his `criminal' record would affect his future. "It is now impossible for me to get a place at a state university or a decent job. If I left Poland I could probably do II, but this is my home. Perhaps I will study theology and become a priest, that is the best way to fight for humanity in Poland."
Walking along side Jan was Witek who had just completed two years of army service. Unlike Jan's selflessness and idealism, Witek was one of those who had opted for the material world no matter the cost. Witek is a perfect example of what the Church in Poland, and in many other parts of the world, is fighting against, the dehumanisation of people by the state.
The pilgrim who Impressed me most was an American called Arthur Blessitt. For the past twelve years he had travelled the world on foot carrying a full sire crucifix on his shoulder. He had visited 66 countries in this way during times of trouble and had visited the soldiers fighting in the Lebanon in 1982.
He had come to Poland on the personal request of John Paul II. His message was one which summed up the pilgrimage: "Happiness and peace by submitting to Christ". His wife and children travelled with him, and it was a touching sight to see walking by his side his thirteen year old son carrying .9 crucifix half the size of his father's.