Even if you never looked at any other cultural aspect, you could learn a lot about the differences between America and Poland simply by attending one Mass in each country.
American society is more egalitarian and open, and the Mass in an American Catholic church reflects this. Boys and girls both serve as altar – what? Children? The division between priest and layperson dissolves as laypeople–including women–hand out the host for communion.
Polish society is much more patriarchal and hierarchical. Girls serving as altar helpers would be scandalous, and the priest really is seen as, spiritually speaking if not otherwise, a notch above the average layperson. He, and only he, can hand out the host.
Other striking differences:
- In giving the sign of peace, husbands and wives gave each other a friendly kiss. In Poland, you just don’t kiss in the church. It’s not the place for affection.
- Immediately after services, congregants began mingling and chatting. You don’t chat in church in Poland. Kinga once gave me a poke in the ribs for trying out to some small talk with an ex-student sitting beside me in Mass.
- In Poland, the formality of the occasion is reflected in the priest’s chanting voice. Here, the priest simply spoke the liturgy.
- In Poland, you might get to partake of the communion wine twice in your life. Here, one could conceivably have a sip every day.
What was most striking for me occurred early on in the sermon. The first reading of the Mass dealt with Elijah being given a place to stay and promising his hostess that in a year, she would be pregnant. The priest summarized this as “hospitality.” He talked about different forms of hospitality, then mentioned “passive” hospitality. It included, and this is no exaggeration, not complaining about higher taxes used to support a war which gives Iraqi people their first chance at freedom. In one, short sentence, the priest showed
- He’s a Republican.
- American priests have no problem mixing politics and religion.
- He so desperately wanted to mention and support the war that he mentioned it in a most inappropriate way, basically calling it an act of hospitality.
Kinga was a bit disappointed by it. It was not much of a surprise for me, though.