In the months that followed, there were heated debates in Poland about Jewish/Christian history, prompted by the publication of the book Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross. The book described the murder by Poland’s non-Jewish citizens of their Jewish neighbours during the German occupation. The controversy awakened in me a desire to learn more about the Christian-Jewish story. At the age of 17, I found myself sitting on the floor during a panel about Christian-Jewish relations (it was so crowded there were no seats left), and out of the blue I realized: this is exactly what I want to do with my life.
I spent the next couple of years exploring Judaism and Christian-Jewish issues. I was not the most studious teenager and I preferred having experiences to reading books, so I began hanging out in the synagogue and drinking tea with Holocaust survivors from the Warsaw ghetto. Before going to church and family lunch on Sundays, I would attend a class about parshat hashavua, which is a portion of the Jewish Scripture prescribed for reading in a particular week. I discovered the Christian Liturgy of the Hours because I envied my Jewish friend having his siddur, a prayer book with psalms and prayers to be said five times a day. I was fascinated by the new light Judaism shed on my Christianity.
I was a teenage Catholic girl who had become a regular visitor to the Jewish community in Warsaw, but one day, someone approached me in a cafeteria and said: “You are a Catholic, right? Do you know what Catholics think about the Jews?” Of course I knew. I had memorized the best quotes from Nostra Aetate and other church documents, and I knew that Pope John Paul II had said that Jews are our older brothers in faith and that anti-Semitism is a sin. However, as I started to explain the man interrupted me. “That’s not what I mean,” he said. “Go and look in the bookstore across the street. That’s what Catholics really think about the Jews.” Disturbed by this conversation, I went immediately to the church bookstore and contemplated its shelves in shock.
It was full of anti-Semitic literature: conspiracy theories, lists of Jews hidden among politicians, revisionist history. For months I kept going there and reading, to avoid supporting them by buying any of the books. After some inner wrangling, I approached the parish priest and asked if he was aware that the literature they were selling was against the Church’s teaching. “I’m not going to be a censor,” he said, speaking through an intercom. He explained that he was just renting out the space. Would he have used that excuse if they were selling pornography and not “just” hate and prejudice? My arguments failed to persuade him. He said, “God bless you!” and hung up. I stood sobbing in front of his closed door.
It took several months before I tried again. This time I approached the bishop’s office and asked for a meeting. Eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing, I managed to speak to the archbishop’s chancellor. That was as far as things went. It felt like being slapped. Here I was, almost 19 years old, allowed to buy alcohol, drive and vote, but unable to get an appointment with my own bishop.
It was one of the worst conversations of my life. The chancellor dismissed the whole issue and refused to listen to my arguments. At one point he asked, “Why is a laywoman dealing with this issue and not a priest?” “Why not?” I thought, but said nothing. I knew they disciplined and punished priests who caused trouble by moving them to difficult or poor parishes. The lesson I learned that day was that lay women are far more difficult to stop, which probably makes us more threatening.
That experience led me to question whether or not I should stay in the Catholic Church. I suddenly felt I was surrounded by hypocrites and no one was interested in hearing me out. The young idealistic Catholic girl in me had died, giving birth to an adult sceptic. I was angry, but anger is also a sign of commitment. So I stayed, helped by long conversations with an experienced lay Catholic activist who told me clearly: “This is the first time you have been disappointed, but it won’t be the last. You need to get tougher.”
The ultimate irony is that I pushed myself to study Catholic theology. I wanted to specialize in Christian-Jewish relations, having discovered how fractured they were. As for the bookstore, after many failed attempts and five years later, it FINALLY closed.
That bookstore carved out my path in life. It determined my profession, but also how I approach the reality of the Catholic Church. The bookstore experience became a metaphor for what it was like to find myself helpless before such a massive institution, which tolerated breaking its own principals by giving a place to anti-Semitic teachings. It was about being undermined and ignored as a young woman, and I have to say that the degrees I have earned and the experiences I have had since are no remedy for that. There needs to be a change of culture in the Church if it is to fulfil the egalitarian vision of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Young people must be taken seriously, women must be listened to, and nobody should be ignored.
Still today I feel uncomfortable in the bishop’s office, even when I am invited. Always ready to be rejected by the Church again, I keep my expectations low to avoid being hurt. I believe I have unique expertise to offer, but I no longer want to be treated as a usurper. I once offered to facilitate a group of priests who were learning about the Holocaust. I was told that I could act only as a translator, because they would reject a woman as an expert. Why should I try again? How many women have similar stories to tell? I see those women all around me. They may be the best in their field, but they are not good enough for leadership in the Catholic Church because those positions are for priests. I am with those women as they swallow the pain of rejection – again and again.
Why do we stay in the Church, despite being treated as second-class citizens? I stay because this is where I belong and I am nourished by Catholic tradition, theology, liturgy and sacraments. I am at home. I do not want to go anywhere else. I am a Catholic, but one that cannot stand gender injustice in the global Church, or quiet acceptance of racism and anti-Semitism in the Church in Poland. I am not going to ask for forgiveness for my outrage. My question to the priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope is: why you are not eagerly fighting with us? Why you are so often against us? Why do you ignore and disregard these realities?
Despite all the difficulties, we are here, in the Church – competent, engaged, prepared for work that is rarely given to us. Even if we are angry, our anger shows that we are committed and not giving up on the Church, and we trust that she will not give up on us and our vocations. We are ready to be included and involved at any time – and the time is now.