Paul Josef Cordes, «Signs of hope, Movements and new realities in the life of the Church on the eve of the Jubilee», Edycja Swietego Pawla, Czestochowa 1998, pp. 151-163.
By Dorota Narewska
Let’s go back to the beginnings. Where did your interest in spiritual life spring from, Father?
It was fifty years ago this year that I first entered onto the path of interior life. I was always crazy, brimming with idealism and the desire to dedicate myself totally to some cause. Initially it was my Fatherland. When I was in high school, heroic Polish freedom fighters like Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Prince Jozef Poniatowski made a very deep impression on me. I was also interested in the Napoleonic Era and Polish Insurrections. I simply wanted to lay down my life for my Fatherland. However, it later dawned on me that I cannot study Political Science at University under communist rule!
A period of illness helped me. It is not easy to lie in bed for four and a half months. Having piled up many books around me, I still had lots of time to think. There were several religious books in their midst, like ‘Hidden Hero’ (Ukryty Bohater), a story based on the life of Father William Doyle, and Father Marian Pirozynski’s ‘Formation of Character’ (Ksztalcenie charakteru). I found it shocking to read the fragment about the Garden of Gethsemane in a book by the Jesuit priest Fr Jan Roztworowski.
Did the struggle regarding your choice of vocation last long?
It lasted nearly the entire time of my prolonged flu infection. Just like Jacob, I didn’t want to submit to God. I could not envision myself as a priest. However, as a result of my reading and interior struggle, my ideals shifted from patriotism to religion. I still didn’t think about becoming a priest, but of totally giving everything to the God – yes!
How did your vocation to the priesthood emerge?
The call to live exclusively for God had to crystallize eventually. Somehow I couldn’t see myself realizing this call by remaining in the world so my thoughts shifted to entering a seminary or religious congregation. After giving it serious thought, I entered the seminary. During this period of my life, I often frequented the Jesuit library in Warsaw to scour through religious books.
But how long can a person pray by trying to stir one’s emotions? I was young and very strong, so this state of affairs lasted a long time… a few years, until finally something snapped. I came to the conclusion that I don’t feel anything and I can’t even make myself feel anything. It’s interesting that God most often came to me through books. And the same was true this time. A seminarian friend of mine gave me a very faded and worn copy of Rene Voillaume’s book, Au Coeur de Masses (later published in Poland under the title Echa Nazaretu [‘Seeds of the desert’]). When I finished reading this book I felt like Columbus or Copernicus faced with the discovery that prayer does not have to be emotional. I was surprised that no one had ever told me about this.
Father, how did you experience your first years of priesthood?
Loneliness set in. In my first parish I decided to shake the parishioners up and draw them to God. I bought 5,000 medals of our Lady of La Salette from the La Salette Fathers, delivered a ‘stunning’ sermon and gave out the medals and holy pictures to everyone thinking that they will all be converted now. The holy pictures were nice; the sermon was about the tears of Our Lady. And I was surprised that the results were so modest.
I instinctively began looking for like-minded priests who were spiritually close to me and I imbibed the things I heard during the meetings of a group of priests among whom were Fr Jan Zieja, Fr Jan Twardowski, Fr Bronislaw Bozowski and Fr Alexander Fedorowicz. During one of those meetings, for instance, Fr Bronislaw Bozowski said that the dismissal Ite, Missa Est, (Go, the Mass is ended) should be a sending forth, a commissioning to go out among people for the Holy Mass does not end. I listened to those words with bated breath – this was something completely new.
I must say that I owe a lot to Fr Aleksander Fedorowicz whom we regularly visited as a small group of priests (among whom was also Fr Wojciech Danielski). Though he spoke in an incredibly simple manner, we were enchanted by his words; it was as though something emanated from him…
During this time the spirituality of Father Charles de Foucauld also had a great impact on me.
However, my greatest and most painfully felt lack was the absence of a spiritual director. The lack of light to discern the will of God.
Did God come out to meet your needs in your spiritual search?
Yes, that is what happened. The opportunity arose in 1966 when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski sent me to study in Rome. After I had been there for a few weeks, I decided to go to San Giovanni Rotondo. This was two years before Padre Pio’s death. When I got as far as Foggia I learned that I was unable to go any further because there was a sciopero. I didn’t understand what this was. Having come from communist Poland, I didn’t know what a strike was.
Finally, in a car crammed with people, I arrived at San Giovanni Rotondo and rented a room in the cheapest boarding house there. It was late when I had got to sleep, but at 3:00 a.m. I was woken up by blaring car horns and shouts of people in the street. I thought that something terrible had happened.
I got dressed and went outside. The Italians, surprised at my question, explained that they were getting ready to attend Holy Mass celebrated by Padre Pio, which was to begin at 4:00 a.m. And true as it was, at that very hour an enormous crowd was standing in front of the Church with me being somewhere at the front, close to the main entrance. The doors were opened precisely at four and my only comfort was that, thanks to the force of the crowd, I was literally ‘carried’ before the altar by the crowd. I was kneeling very close to Padre Pio, just a few yards away from him. Holy Mass lasted about forty minutes. Padre Pio was being supported by two fellow friars.
Father, you remember that experience in great detail. It must have been important.
That’s true. I had been waiting for this meeting in an exceptional way. I was absolutely convinced of Padre Pio’s holiness and convinced that God Himself would tell me through him what I was to do next. This experience has remained alive in my memory to this day, even though many years have since passed. Padre Pio’s face made a particularly striking impression on me; it was the face of a person who SEES. Padre Pio was engaged in a muted dialogue with SOMEONE present on the altar. One could sense that he was speaking with a LIVING PERSON. His face showed that he was deeply moved; it revealed the presence of a profound experience.
Padre Pio was renowned as an outstanding confessor. Did you confess to him?
Yes. My confession before Padre Pio had a tremendous impact on me. There were about twenty of us men waiting in the chapel. I tried to collect my thoughts while preparing for confession but my concentration was interrupted by a raised voice coming from the cell. I asked the Italian kneeling next to me about it. Surprised by my question, he replied: ‘Why, it’s Padre Pio who speaks so loud.’ The actual words were incomprehensible, but every now and then I could hear this raised voice.
I was led to the cell where Padre Pio was listening to confession. The cell had no door which accounted for his voice being heard in the chapel. When I entered the room I saw Padre Pio sitting on a bench, his extraordinary gaze penetrated my being. It’s interesting that not once throughout the whole meeting did I notice anything unusual or miraculous. I also did not have the impression that Padre Pio penetrated my conscience because he interrupted me to ask how long it had been since my last confession.
The teaching he gave me was in fact limited to one sentence that he repeated, perhaps tens of times, over and over again, with increasingly greater amazement. To this day I can hear those words echoing in my ears: ‘Ma perché…?’: ’But why…? But, why don’t you want to follow God to the end?’ I tried to justify myself, that I was seeking, that I didn’t know, don’t know… ‘But why…?’ was being uttered with an ever greater amazement. The degree of amazement entailed in those very loud and very harsh words was in fact the main indication. As I totally believed in the holiness of Padre Pio and that his voice was in the fact the voice of God, I realized that it was God himself calling out to me in this way.
After confession, one of the friars standing nearby led me through the maze of friary corridors. Once outside, I stood there leaning against the friary wall in a state of shock. I simply became totally oblivious of the world and of myself, having lost all sense of time. Just one question remained, a question that was pounding like a sledge-hammer in my ears: Ma perché…? Exactly how long I must have stood there, I don’t know, it may have been three, maybe four hours. It was only later that I gradually regained my awareness of ordinary reality and the thought came to mind: How very much must I change, since God treated me so strongly.
Why was this encounter with Padre Pio such a profound experience for you, Father?
It changed my well-organized value system, the direction I was heading in and my place before God. Everything I had lived by so far collapsed and lay in ruins. If one was to call it some form of conversion, from the spiritual point of view it would mean deep humiliation. This new situation demanded that I totally change my direction in life. I had to set myself less on constructing my own plans and more on listening to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit who had shaken me up. This event was a form of ‘giving birth to me’- by Padre Pio - anew. And I was and am grateful to him for this. I feel I am his spiritual son. The process of being born again is painful; both physical and spiritually. This is the principle; this is the way it goes… I slipped down an incline… it was even stronger than that… it was a fall from a pedestal. Before I met Padre Pio, I felt I was ‘somebody special’, I had received much light, I had a deep awareness of having been chosen by God and of striving towards great ideals. And all of a sudden… I felt I was a ‘nobody’. In other words, God gave me a tough lesson of humility.
Does this mean that this was the beginning of a completely new stage in your life, Father?
A person does not change instantaneously and I cannot say that I became somebody different, but the mark of meeting a man of God had a lasting impact on my life and certainly radically changed my interior attitude.
Upon your return to Rome from San Giovanni Rotondo, you continued your studies. What were your most important scientific inspirations during this period?
My scientific pursuit centered upon Mircea Eliade, a historian of religions of worldwide acclaim. His scientific works and lectures which I attended in Chicago were an inspiration for my work.
There were also some difficulties connected with my personal tutor, a professor who was undoubtedly an exceptional scholar, but at the same time not an easy person to relate to. He was known for exacting a great deal from his students and it was for this reason that I was his only doctoral student at the time. And I was left to my own devices in terms of scientific research.
Aware of the fact that I would not be able to find the appropriate literature for my post-doctoral research in Poland I decided to reverse the order: I first began to write the post-doctoral thesis, and did my doctoral dissertation ‘in the meantime’. The lack of active help from my professor turned out to be providential for me. I developed my own independent scientific workshop.
Did both these currents of interior life and scholarly research begin to coalesce during that time?
The study of the history of religions helped me tremendously in my interior life because if I hadn’t had studied the history of religions and ‘Eliadism’, I would never have discovered the phenomenon of secularization in Western culture so strongly. In my research of the contemporary and ancient cultures of the Near and Far East, both contemporary and ancient, sacrum was fundamentally present throughout their whole lives; the secular sphere made up only a tiny fraction.
In Western culture, however, the situation seems to be reversed. The sacrum sphere has only a marginal role in the life of a contemporary person of Western culture. I observed this on many occasions in Holland, Germany, and France, among others. And on the other hand, I was moved by the statement of a Buddhist monk who admitted in all simplicity that he dedicated nine hours a day to meditation.
Using the Gospel imagery from the parable of the sower, I was able to continually confirm the principle that, from the point of view of our faith, non-Christian religions that have not been secularized yet do not fully possess the good ‘seed’, but have very good ‘soil’, that is, a person very open to sacrum. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the elements of truth and goodness in those religions as well as the co-existing elements of error and falsity in them. In Christianity, however, the perfect ‘seed’ of the Gospel and of grace falls on secularized ‘soil’ of the Western culture.
It was from reflecting on this problem that my interior vocation to work the ‘soil’ of human souls was born. This was made manifest in the ministry of a regular confessor and, in exceptional cases, a spiritual director.
Father, what is your understanding of spiritual direction?
Spiritual direction should follow some basic principles. The most important principle flows from the conviction that it is the Holy Spirit who leads a soul, and in connection with this, there is need to stress the ancillary and subordinate nature of a priest as an instrument of God. Since the Holy Spirit is the true director of a soul, the priest above all strives to listen to God’s voice in such a way that he will not forestall the action of grace.
Spiritual direction, particularly striving to form a mature conscience, is understood as the imparting of the Holy Spirit to a person in the context of the meeting of two freedoms: the freedom of God and the freedom of man. This means that the spiritual director should not forestall the action of grace and on the other hand, should respect a person’s freedom and approach them with a respect stemming from humility and love that takes into account the difficulty that a person usually has in opening up and revealing their interior.
In accordance with the principle contemplata aliis tradere (you pass on that, which you live by), a spiritual director should above all be a person of prayer and humility. He should, at the same time respect the individual and unique path of every person, without forcing his personal concepts or way that he himself is following.
The one who directs souls should himself have experienced the mercy of God in order to accompany a soul in the most sensitive moment of its encounter with grace which is its experience of weakness. It is these very moments of weakness that are the privileged moments on our way to God. The soul can then no longer concentrate all its own effort on fulfilling the expectations of the director and becomes its true self, awaiting for God to pour out His mercy over it. And then, thanks to His mercy, the most important thing occurs: The Holy Spirit can impart Himself to a person and power is made perfect in weakness.
Father, in what way did your understanding of faith take shape?
It is connected with a certain deep spiritual experience that I had at the beginning of August in the Jubilee Year of 1975. I was traveling on the night train to Zakopane. It was tiring for me as I couldn’t get to sleep. I began to dwell on my faith and as the hours went by I was coming to the conclusion that I was a man of little faith.
I understood then that faith is a different, a completely different way of looking at the world. It was as if one was looking at the world from a great height. The world seen from on high is small; we can see people of minuscule size, and some kind of movement. This perspective ‘from above’ seemed to be closer to the way that God looks at the world.
Many thoughts flashed through my mind like lightning. After all, I thought to myself, the Apostles left everything behind to follow Christ. They believed in Him and yet His most frequent reproach concerned their lack of faith or their little faith. This means that Christ was thinking about a completely different faith. He questioned ‘their’ faith.
I was beginning to understand ever more fully - and all of this was taking place in time to the pounding rhythm of the train - that in order to discover how I am to believe, I must, following Christ’s advice, question my faith.
Does this mean that you understood questioning one’s faith as the essence of conversion?
The very act of questioning one’s faith was to be merely the starting point – the destruction of that, which was lifeless, twisted and not connected with the truth of the Gospel. My thoughts concerning this truth were accompanied by an incredible enthusiasm, as though something new was happening within me. I began to understand that questioning my current faith was to help me discover that faith means seeing the world in a light different than that of the mundane. It was as if I was looking at the world from a very tall tower and seeing it anew. It was as though I was seeing it for the first time, but this time in a supernatural way.
What was the first result of this spiritual experience?
Having arrived in Zakopane I exclaimed to those who were waiting for me at the station: ‘I have found the way to conversion. I want to tell you about faith.’ I delivered a series of conferences on faith to this group of people. I tried to tell them that everything we come into contact with in life has a different dimension, the meaning of which we discover precisely through faith.
I set aside the time in between the conferences for individual talks; I tried, above all, to listen to the person I was talking to.
What did they come to you with?
They were primarily secular problems concerning the family, work, health, ordinary daily concerns… I tried to show every matter in the light of faith. It was a search for the deeper, supernatural sense of events. The point was to discover the supernatural element hidden behind the veil of secularity.
Those talks were not easy because it is very difficult for a person to change their views and opinions. This was nevertheless an attempt at revealing to my listeners that every event they told me about is the passing by of God and a call directed to the person. I tried to show them that everything that is happening in their lives is important from the point of view of faith, that God wants something more; He is waiting for another conversion.
Did that spiritual experience you describe have its continuation?
I came to the conclusion on the very next day after my arrival in Zakopane that everything that I was experiencing and that I was starting to live by was connected with a special grace.
I set out to climb Mount Gubalowka and while climbing I realized that my lips were incessantly uttering the words of a prayer. I was repeating it without fail for a good few hours, without tiring. And after a few hours break the prayer once again returned.
At this time I was in awe of the book I was reading ‘To come to know St Therese of Lisieux better’ (Aby lepiej poznac Sw. Terese z Lisieux). I was already familiar with her works, particularly her ‘Advice and memoirs’, but during this time when I was reading this book I felt as though I was rediscovering her ‘little way’.
Did this bear specific spiritual fruit?
I tried to share my experiences connected with my personal discovery of what faith is with others. I gave many conferences during that time, among others addressed to religious nuns.
If the theory and practice of interior life became my life’s passion from the time of my first conversion, then after my ‘Zakopane’ spiritual experience this passion was greatly intensified. This bore fruit in my deep involvement in forming and leading groups of interior life. They practiced asceticism according to its best examples, like that of St Therese of Lisieux, St John of the Cross and St Maximilian Kolbe, with incredible fervor.
The majority of the participants of these groups experienced a constant unquenchable thirst for spiritual life. An important answer to this desire was their discovery of the need for spiritual direction. I had already been ministering as a spiritual director for several years then, but from that time on it was greatly intensified.
The incredible openness to grace among the lay participants of the groups I was leading was expressed in a great apostolic fervor, the fruit of which was the establishment of The Families of Nazareth Movement in 1985. It was due to the great help of Fr Andrzej Buczel, that, with great difficulty, we were able to meet the spiritual needs of an enormous number of new members of the Movement.
To illustrate this, at the beginning of 1987 there were over a hundred people connected with the Movement while towards the end of that same year the number increased to over a thousand. The further dynamic expansion of the Movement was connected with the active involvement of a wide group of priests.
The Families of Nazareth Movement is present in many countries today. How did this come about?
The extraordinary apostolic zeal of the members of the Movement was expressed in the creation of communities throughout the whole world. As an example, Archbishop Rosendo Huesca established the Movement in the Archdiocese of Puebla in as early as 1989.
The creation of communities in various countries gave rise to a great need for formational materials. It was in this way that the series of booklets of The FNM arose, of which there are at present approximately forty titles. Each booklet talks about a separate theme of interior life or family life.
A new and incredibly dynamic impulse for the development of the Movement was the appointment in 1992 by Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Primate of Poland, of Rev. Jaroslaw Pilat D.D. as the moderator of the Movement. This resulted in the further, rapid development of the Movement outside of Poland, particularly in the Philippines. One of the Filipino bishops, the Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of Legazpi, Bishop Jose C. Sorra, deeply interested in the Movement, came to Poland in 1996 in order to gain better insight into our methods of apostolic work and spiritual formation.
At present, there are several thousand people throughout all the Continents that are connected with the Movement and particularly with its spirituality.
Father, could you briefly summarize the essence of the Families of Nazareth Movement?
This Movement is a community for whom contact with God is specified by the priority of the person over action (agere sequitur esse). According to the teaching of St Basil the Great, the spirituality of the Movement emphasizes that God is more concerned for us than for our actions. The most important is for Christ to increase in us because then our action will be ever more submissive to the action the Holy Spirit, so that finally it can bear fruit in transforming union.
How would you define holiness, Father? What is it for the members of the Families of Nazareth Movement?
Holiness is understood in many different ways today. The Families of Nazareth Movement bases its understanding on the doctrine of St John of the Cross for whom sanctity is for the soul to be completely consumed by God – which he refers to as transforming union – in which, it is as though the will of the person disappears in its entity, totally accepting the will of God in such a way that there is complete unity of a person’s will and God’s will and that nothing separates them. The soul is so possessed by God that it is no longer the person that lives but God in them. St Paul expressed this in the words: ‘I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me.” (Gal 2:20).