Much of my pleasure in following Pope John Paul's homecoming to Poland came from the memories it refreshed of the Polish Catholicism I had seen as a boy. In Glen Cove, N.Y. - which in the 1940s was in unhectic transition from a village to a town - the Polish community of Long Island's north shore had its spiritual needs filled at St. Hyacinth's church.
The sacraments were there, as was the unchangingness of faith and the holy rituals that expressed it. News accounts last week of Polish families walking long distances to masses celebrated by John Paul brought to mind the Sunday morning scenes in Glen Cove: Poles walking along the roadsides to St. Hyacinth's, some from as far away as Old Westburg, about a 15-mile round trip.
These weekly pilgrimages - in all weather, even snow - formed the sub-structure of a piety that a modern sophisticate would dismiss as "peasant-like," but which actually expressed in mute simplicity what every giant theologian from Tertullian to Buber has strained to proclaim: The world is perishable, and man's place is with the sustaining God who endures.
I went to Mass at St. Hyacinth's with my father. He was a lawyer who found contentment serving his Polish clients who worked as gardeners, caretakers and farmers on the immense estates of J.P. Morgan, Clarence Mackie and other gentry. Before and after mass, my father would go among the clusters of Polish laborers to do his lawyering: give a signed deed to Suharski, help Laszewicki make out his will, explain the zoning laws to Walszak and tell Somofloski where to sign his citizenship papers.
Generous barterers, one would pay with fresh brown eggs, another with a bushel of squash, and a third with Polish sausage. The aroma and wallop of the latter became my earliest argument for vegetarianism.
During Mass, the Polish womenfolk, clad in farm shawls and highlaced boots, would crowd the front of the church. Silently, they prayed the rosary during the Introit, Kyrie and Gloria, this being before guitar ensembles, Sr. Corita banners and nimble lectors took over the sanctuaries.
The women came to Mass to get solace, unerringly convinced that prayer was as much God's comfort to the soul as the soul's link to all the old footings of belief. They confirmed Kierkegaard's view that "Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays."
Mass was in Latin, the sermon in Polish. Many of the women - the more devout, it appeared - kept on with their rosaries, as though a timeout for the words of a mortal priest would undercut the flow of heaven's grace. Near the end of Mass, the congregation, down on hardwood kneelers, would join the celebrant in reciting three Hail Marys - "for the conversion of atheistic Russia." My father, who agreed with Chesterton that "The test of a good religion is whether you can make a joke about it," would whisper to Suharski or Walszak next to him. "and for the conversion of atheistic America, too."
In the courtyard after Mass, the families would visit each other for as long as one or two hours. Then the long walk home. To offer them a ride would have been an invitation to weaken their faith. I have thought for a long time that the decline in Sunday worship in America began with the rise of the automobile. If getting there is easy, why bother to go?
This was a large part of the celebration that overtook Poland last week. John Paul, backed by the substance of a theology refined by the centuries and emboldened by his experiences as the bishop of Cracow, told the Poles that a faith that demands sacrifice is a faith worth cherishing.
This was not a new idea the Pope thought of in a roseate moment before millions of believers in open meadows and city suares. He has been saying it all along. It may well be the reason Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy. In the spring of 1976, he was invited to the Vatican by Pope Paul VI to give the Curia its annual religious retreat.
What he said in sermons to the Vatican's elect three years ago differed little from his message to his Poles last week: "The tragedy of atheistic humanism is that it strips man of his transcendental character, destroying his ultimate significance as a person."
I haven't been back to St. Hyacinth's in some time. A new church has been built about a mile away, I'm told, with more curates and more pews. But I imagine the old strengths remain. What the stories from Poland missed last week was the effect of John Paul's words on the Poles in America. Without doubt, preserves like St. Hyacinth's in the ethnic neighborhoods also had a moment of surging hope and triumph. CAPTION: Picture, Pope John Paul II makes a comical grimace at the vast size of crowd greeting him on arrival in Warsaw. UPI