Poland Keeps the Lord’s Day Holy

After Polish Catholics lined the country’s 2,000-mile border to pray the “Rosary to the Borders,” Poland made another headline last week: Poland’s Sejm (lower house of Poland’s parliament) voted last week to phase out shopping on Sundays by 2020. The idea behind the bill is to allow Poles to spend more time with their families and less time shopping on Sundays. How will the phasing work? “The lower house, dominated by the ruling party, voted 254 to 156 with 23 abstentions to limit Sunday shopping to the first and last Sunday of the month from March 1 until the end of 2018; only on the last Sunday in the month in 2019; and to ban it totally starting in 2020. There will, however, be some exceptions that will allow Sunday shopping before major holidays like Christmas and Easter, and on the last Sunday in January, April, June, and August. Also, online shops and bakeries are to be exempted from the ban,” according to the Associated Press. This is the second time in the last two months that Poland has asserted its Christian roots and battled the European Union against measures which Poles believe will hurt its Christian identity.

Poland’s proposed ban on shopping reminded me of the 1980s and early ’90s in Italy, Rome to be exact. (Since then much has changed in Italy, as in other European countries, and progressively shops are open and shopping is available on Sundays.) Coming from Albania, which then was still suffering under a Communist dictatorship, finding shops closed in Rome and life concentrated on rest and reverence, was a pleasant surprise. In Albania, as in other socialist East-bloc countries, where religion (especially the Catholic Church) was persecuted, Sundays were volunteer-unpaid-work days. There was hardly any possibility for anybody to observe Sabbath. Sundays were days of neighborhood and city cleaning by its citizens: a collective volunteer labor of giving back to the society and the Party.

Also, Sundays turned out to be social gatherings, where neighbors get to know other neighbors who lived in the massive Communist-style apartment buildings. Labor Sundays were also thought to be educational: all citizens needed to be prepared and able to handle manual labor, which included work in the agriculture or in the factory. Additionally, Sunday volunteer work was an exercise in humility especially for the intelligencia—the educated elites who were involved in academia or other intellectual fields, for every activity which contributed to building socialism was a noble activity. Volunteer work was part and parcel of building a classless society. The new socialist men ought to be kept busy, they never should be idle; idleness was punishable and an enemy in forging the Communist soul with Communist morality. By giving oneself to idleness or gossip instead of diligent work of building Communism, one was not only doing harm to oneself but becoming a distraction to others. The Communist Party members led by example: they worked on the seventh day of the week and forced others to do the same.

The Communist ideology behind Sunday volunteer labor was Labor omnia vincit—never-ending work conquered all things—including thinking of and keeping the Lord’s Day Holy. Communists wanted to annihilate God by annihilating Sabbath; annihilate Christianity by annihilating the Day of the Lord—this was part and parcel of the Communist Party ideology. The party wanted people chained in a deceptive Communist heaven or as St. John Paul II puts it in his 1998 Apostolic Letter on the Lord’s Day Dies Domini: “locked within a horizon so limited that they could no longer see the heavens.”

So, is Poland’s phasing Sunday shopping a sound idea, or is it arbitrary to prevent people from shopping?

Poland is keeping up with the Sacred Tradition and the third commandment which stated, “Remember to keep holy Sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your God. No work may be done then either by you… In six days, the Lord made the heavens and earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day He rested. That is why the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:8-11). In the Old Testament, Sabbath served two purposes: rest and reverence. Consequently, rest had not only a social purpose but more importantly a religious one. God, who labored six days, rested the seventh day. Consequently, man, who was created in the image and likeness of God, is expected to imitate God and do the same: work for six days and rest the seventh day. God’s “work” is an example for mankind, the same is true of God’s “rest.” The Creator’s rest turns out to be a joyful rest, where he enjoyed the beauty of his creation.

In A.D., 321 Emperor Constantine transferred the day of rest from Saturday to Sunday. Council of Orleans in A.D. 538 forbade all agricultural work on Sundays as Sunday was the feast of the Resurrection of Christ, the first day of the week and a day of rest and reverence. The Dies Domini became the Dies Christi. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2185) states: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.” So, the primary purpose of the Sunday is restful rest that allows joyful and mindful participation in the Holy Eucharist. Engaging in shopping, labor or other activities that distract from keeping Holy the Lord’s Day and rest was not part of the Church’s tradition. Keeping with the tradition the Church, also recognizes Sunday as a day to visit the elderly, the poor, and the infirm, which is often difficult to do during the weekdays. But above all, “Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life” (CCC 2186).

Poles know communism and Communist persecution first-hand. They do not want to return to what they have already suffered—restless and irreverent Sundays of the Communist past. Keeping Holy the Lord’s Day is keeping the faith and continuing the tradition. It does not take much to test the spirit of Poland and the Poles. Visit a church, any church, either in city-center or in the periphery, a university campus or a church run by a religious order, and you will marvel at the number of young people attending Mass or the lines of the faithful waiting for confession. In Poland, faith is vibrant among the young and the generation who still carry the wounds of Communist persecution. Poland has much to teach the old and highly secularized Western Europe. Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II thought of Europe as a continent in deep crisis. For Benedict XVI the crisis in Europe and the crisis of Christianity in Europe are inherently related. He is convinced that only a rediscovery of the Christian faith and heritage can offer a remedy for the current spiritual crisis in Europe. Poland is showing Europe the way, and this begins with keeping the Lord’s Day Holy and not shopping on Sundays.

Poland is a nation with a soul. In Poland, faith has deep and meaningful roots. Maybe old Europe with empty-museum churches needs to turn East, towards the mightily tried and martyred Churches in Soviet-bloc countries to renew its faith. Europe is in desperate need of a soul, and Poland is showing her the way to get one.

Ines A. Murzaku

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Ines A. Murzaku is Professor of Church History, Department of Religion, Seton Hall University in New Jersey and until June 2016 was the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies. She earned a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books the most recent Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (2016).

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