1. The religious and liturgical landscape of Poland at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.
At the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the need to renew religious and liturgical life, especially the Eucharist, Eucharistic services and devotions to the saints was particularly clear in our country. A short but clear description of this problem was presented by Fr Michał Karpowicz in his sermon in the Holy Spirit Church in Vilnius. He spoke:
Oh, priests! It is our great sin; we are in a big number, so there must have been a defect of choice, science, virtue, and customs. This blindness and lack of education often rather multiplies superstitions and fanaticism instead of uprooting them and cause an enlightening of citizens. This darkness of fanatics is covered with the cloak of devotion, believes slightly, understands a little, teaches, and tells a lot. It is why there is so much murmuring, insulting, and rebellion against the pastoral orders to abolish feasts, capes, scourges, companies, and other superficialities. Hence so many fancy concepts that disgrace the purity of faith which scaremonger light and weak hearts, and deceive slightly faithful souls that don’t know the ground of true piety. Hence so many imaginative eccentricities and miracles that disgrace the faith and offend the seriousness of the true miracles that are present in the Church of Christ. Hence so many male and female idlers and harmful vagrants, visiting the holy places in search of amusement, not the real piety. Hence there are so many fake energumens, possessed, haunted, messengers, and thousands other fruits of blind fanatism. Who can list all those inventions that insult the faith of Christ, disfigure the pulpits, poison conversations, and immortalize the ignominious superstitions among the people?
The reforms that some bishops, including Massalski and Poniatowski, started to introduce, met with resistance from a large part of the faithful and clergy. It was symbolically proved by the fact that after mentioned above sermon a scandal occurred in the church when a Dominican father invaded the pulpit and accused Fr Karpowicz of being a libertine and the teaching he preached named profane.
The crisis in the liturgy was noticeable e.g. in the celebrating of the mass, while an external rite was emphasized, its meaning was left without explanation. Many practices, foreign to Christian spirituality, were implemented to liturgical services; for example, in the liturgy of Good Friday, during the singing of Miserere the members of the confraternity of copers (scourgers dressed in the cope) were scourging themselves, usually 5 times, to commemorate 5 wounds of Christ and then they laid prostrated. This rite was so drastic that it often caused disapproval of the faithful.
There was a lack of proper clergy education that led to this crisis. The other component was a crisis of theology, which resulted in poor preaching. The shocking symptom of this crisis was the fact that many parishes and pastors did not have the Bible at all. Therefore one cannot be surprised that the preaching was deprived of the word of God. That is why Bishop Zbigniew Rybiński spoke to priests: Whoever does not stick to the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers in his spiritual speech is not worthy of the preacher’s name.
2. Towards the reform
Several dozen of the most luminous bishops and priests were aware that a low level of pastoral ministry was an additional threat in the confrontation with the Enlightenment currents. Therefore, an attempt at reform was made.
Fr Hugo Kołłątaj, in his instruction issued in 1779, wrote: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is our most sacred law, and the people should be familiar with it. The Church orders to read it every Sunday, so let us try to make people taste it. If there is not enough time, let us leave rather the Catechism teaching by asking questions, but let us never leave explaining the Gospel, that was read, without going far with our thoughts over the simplicity of what Christ commanded or advised.
Bishop Poniatowski ordered the seminarians to study the exegesis of the Holy Scriptures in the seminary. The Bishop of Poznan extended to 3 years the period of education of the seminarians, emphasizing the study of the Holy Scriptures. Bishop Massalski reformed the Vilnius seminary. In 1774 he issued a new Ratio studiorum, by which he introduced lectures of Holy Scripture not connected with other subjects. The bishop wanted the seminarians to get friendly [with the Scripture] and not to experience difficulties in understanding it.
To increase the quality of preaching, they started publishing homilies of foreign authors, including St. Alphonse Liguori. Two examples: in 1873 in Warsaw, the book was published: X. A. Liguori, Kazania, czyli homilie niedzielne, napisane w języku włoskim […[, teraz na ojczysty przetłumaczone przez Tomasza Dominika Waluszewicza […], z listem o sposobie kazania po apostolsku, t. 1-2, Warszawa, Druk. Nadworney, 1783. [English: Sermons, or Sunday homilies, written in Italian […[, now translated into Polish by Tomasz Dominik Waluszewicz […], along with a letter about the manner of apostolic preaching, vol. 1-2, Warsaw, Print. Nadworney, 1783]. Another St. Alphonsus Liguori’s book issued in Vilnius: Nauka o mszy X. Alf. [English: The Doctrine of Mass by Rev. Alf. Liguori], included in X. Compaing’s book, O świętobliwości y obowiązkach kapłanów xiąg troie [English: On the priest’s sanctity and their obligations], Vilnius, Vol. 3, pp. 125-274.
3. The first Bennonites – “graduates” of the St. Alphonsus Liguori school
In 1788 Fr. Klemens Hofbauer and Fr. Tadeusz Hübl began their pastoral work in St. Benno Church in Warsaw. They were well educated; the first studied at the University of Vienna, the second in Olomouc. They received their religious and ecclesiastical formation from one of the greatest theologians of the time, Father A. Liguori, their confrere. Although they never met him, his numerous theological and ascetic works were the basis of their formation. At that time it was A. Liguori who was setting new ways of thinking about evangelization, theology, homiletics, liturgy.
Father Benedict XVI (general audience 30.03.2011) characterized this figure as follows:
Alphonsus was canonized in 1839 and in 1871 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. This title suited him for many reason. First of all, because he offered rich teaching of moral theology, which expressed adequately the Catholic doctrine, to the point that Pope Pius XII proclaimed him “Patron of all confessors and moral theologians” […] Read and translated into many languages, the works of St Alphonsus have contributed to molding the popular spirituality of the last two centuries. […] Among the forms of prayer fervently recommended by St Alphonsus, stands out the visit to the Blessed Sacrament […]. “Certainly”, St Alphonsus writes, “amongst all devotions, after that of receiving the sacraments, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament takes the first place, is the most pleasing to God, and the most useful to ourselves…. Oh, what a beautiful delight to be before an altar with faith… to represent our wants to him, as a friend does to a friend in whom he places all his trust” (Visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin Mary for Each Day of the Month. Introduction).
Alphonsian spirituality is in fact eminently Christological, centered on Christ and on his Gospel. Meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation and on the Lord’s Passion were often the subject of St Alphonsus’ preaching. In these events, in fact, Redemption is offered to all human beings “in abundance”. And precisely because it is Christological, Alphonsian piety is also exquisitely Marian.
Thus, the pastoral work of the Bennonites was built upon the spirituality of St. Alphonsus, who aptly indicated the paths of liturgical renewal and was the cause of an extremely dynamic pastoral development at the St. Benno church.
4. The Eucharist is an invaluable treasure (St. A. Liguori)
4.1. Eucharist – the center of piety
The Eucharist is at the center of St Alphonsus’ theology; everything should lead to it and start from it. “It is Jesus’ desire, to unite with us. Let us be convinced, then, that we cannot do Jesus anything nicer than to receive him in the Eucharist, with the proper attitude to receive this wonderful guest,” said St Alphonsus. Indeed, the Eucharist is a meeting of God with the man. That is why this event must have the greatest meaning for a Catholic. For the Bennonites, the celebration of the Eucharist was an essential event in their pastoral ministry.
Fr. Sabelli C.Ss.R. wrote down: Every morning three Masses were celebrated, with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and with the assist dressed in dalmatics. The first Mass was sung and celebrated in Polish. During the second Mass, also in Polish, a choir of the sisters of the Confraternity of St. Joseph sang. The third, solemn Mass, [in German] was sung with the accompaniment of music.
The program of the festive service was as follows:
At 5.00, 6.00 and 8.00 a.m. – Mass with a sermon in Polish
10.00 – Mass with a sermon in German
15.00 – Marian service: Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary
17.00 – Vespers with a sermon or other service.
4.2. Eucharist – meeting spiritually prepared
St. Alphonse, speaking of the importance of the Eucharist, he pointed out: We must try to prepare ourselves properly for this great masterpiece, with all our spiritual exercises directed towards this goal.
The most important form of preparation for experiencing the Eucharist was the purification of the heart in the sacrament of Penance. The Bennonites were ministering in Warsaw at a time when some (and influential) ecclesiastical circles did not recommend frequent Holy Communion. The Redemptorists decisively denied such an attitude, following the words of the Founder: It is important to know that regardless of the state in which one lives or one’s profession, nothing can prevent one from receiving Holy Communion frequently (The Practice of Loving Jesus Christ,).
Still, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Fr. Joseph Hube CR wrote:
Frequent Communion is almost unknown among the faithful. No wonder, therefore, that the spiritual life has left us almost completely. We are left with barely the name of Christians, without Christian deeds and virtues. What the Saviour said, has fulfilled for us: “If you do not eat the Body of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you will have no life in you. We have become like cut off branches, which cannot bear fruit.
And yet the Council of Trent, in a document of September 17, 1562, gave clear support for the practice of frequent communion: The Holy Council would like the faithful present at every Mass to receive Communion not only with a spiritual desire but also with the sacramental reception of the Eucharist, so that they may receive the abundant fruit of the Most Holy Sacrifice.
For this reason, the Bennonites took care to constantly celebrate the sacrament of Penance and thus open to the faithful the way to Holy Communion. Fr. Sabelli noted: After morning meditation, at five o’clock, they were hearing confession in seven confessionals until the night, with only a two-hour break at noon. In addition to the city’s inhabitants who visited their church every day, there were many people from the upcountry every week, even from villages about 40 miles away from the capital. As a result, the number of believers receiving communion during the year reached 90,960.
Thus, in the tiny church in 1803, more than 100,000 people received communion. And since it is never the case that all the participants of the liturgy receive the communion, one can imagine how many people have benefited from the pastoral ministry of the Bennonites.
4.3. Liturgy of the word during the Mass
An integral part of the Eucharist is the liturgy of the word: reading the word of God taken from the Bible and the sermon. At that time in Poland, it was a rather exceptional situation when a preacher knew the Bile and was able to interpret them. Thus sermons were rarely an explanation of God’s word. The Bennonites cared that the sermons explain the mass readings. Fr. Sabelli noted down:
The second sermon, also in Polish, called the great sermon, was preached every morning by the same preacher, Father Blumenau, a speaker famous throughout the city. His sermons had a great influence on the audience. In his sermons, he used to refer to the Gospel reading from the previous Sunday, and throughout a year he was able to address all dogmas and moral issues. […] The third sermon was in German and was preached by Father Hofbauer. He explained the Scriptures, clarified the history of salvation and the thoughts of the Church Fathers.
It is hard to oversee that the Bennonites were greatly influenced by St. Alphonsus. One cannot find a single publication where the reader would not be fed abundantly with word of God in numerous biblical quotations that St. Alphonsus placed in his writings. The Bennonites followed this style of preaching, which was aptly harmonized with the bishops’ attempts to bring back the Scripture to the pulpit.
4.4. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as a continuation of the Eucharist
St. A. Liguori emphasized: The Eucharist is an invaluable treasure: not only its celebration but also its adoration outside the Mass. We need to remember that Christ is present on our altars as if on the throne of love that he is giving to us, as he wants to be present among us day and night.
For this reason, with a view to the personal encounter between God and man, St. Alphonsus wrote the Visitation of the Blessed Sacrament, which expresses the deep bond, honor, and adoration of man to God. The Bennonites translated this book into Polish and German making it available for the faithful and they used to gather with at the service of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Just a cursory analysis of the pastoral ministry of the Bennonites which has been presented in this article shows that Redemptorists, as they came to Warsaw, they were not encumbered with the problems of the Church in Poland. Thus, they were able to assess the state of the local Church in Warsaw looking at it from a certain distance. At the same time, they were able to deploy their style of pastoral ministry and thereby to contribute to solving the pastoral problems, including the task of liturgical renewal.
However, in their efforts, the Benonites did not isolate themselves from the local clergy, also aware of the problems, and trying to seek ways out. The monastery at Piesza Str. became a kind of a meeting point to gather some educated and openminded priests, who slowly pushed forward the renewal of the Church in Poland. Among the members of the group there was the Primate, Archbishop Michał Jerzy Poniatowski, Hugo Kołłątaj, Jan Chrzciciel Albertrandi, the later auxiliary bishop of Warsaw and probably most renowned Warsaw erudite, and also the religious priests: Franciscan Reformists, Piarists, and missionaries of the Vincent de Paul from the Holy Cross Church.
In a relatively short time, the Bennonites created the spiritual center of the capital city, where they presented the renewed shape of liturgical life. In this context, it is not surprising Fr. Sabelli’s remark who wrote that many people visiting Warsaw testified that there was no other church in the whole of Europe that had so much splendor and majesty at the celebration of God’s worship, and that would be visited by as many faithful as St. Benno church in Warsaw, where the fathers from the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer were ministering.
Fr. Kazimierz Piotrowski CSsR
Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia staropolska ilustrowana, t. 2, przedruk fotooffsetowy wydania czterotomowego z lat 1900–1903 w dwóch woluminach, Warszawa, Wiedza Powszechna 1958, s. 3
Michał Karpowicz, Kazanie IV jubileuszowe, w porządku 80., z rozkazu J.O. Książęcia Jmci Pasterza dnia 24 września w kościele Św. Ducha miane: O powinnej poddanym od panów miłości względem ich duszy, a zatem o powinności wyprowadzenia ich z tej grubości rozumu, w której zostają, i o szkołach parafialnych, w: tenże, Kazania i inne dzieła, t. 6, Warszawa 1813
Ks. Rafał Szczurowski, Biblia w oświeceniowych korektach religijności w Polsce XVIII wieku, „Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny”, rok LXIV (2011) nr 2
Magdalena Ślusarska, Ku odnowie życia religijno-moralnego wiernych i poprawie ich obyczajów. Duchowieństwo diecezji wileńskiej w okresie pontyfikatu biskupa Ignacego Jakuba Massalskiego (1762–1794) a oświeceniowa reforma katolicka, „Senoji Lietuvos Literatura” 33 knyga, 2012.
Papież Benedykt XVI, Św. Alfons Liguori. Audiencja generalna 30 marca 2011 r.
Ks. Józef Hube CR, O częstej Komunii świętej, Kraków 2007
Św. Alfons Liguori, Nawiedzenia Najświętszego Odkupiciela, Tuchów 201
O. Jan Józef Sabelli CSsR, Relacje z działalności duszpasterskiej ojców Kongregacji Najświętszego Odkupiciela, Archiwum Generalne Redemptorystów, rękopis z 1843 r.