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Tuesday, 11 December 2012 21:27

Serving hearts in exile

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Much of the present discourse on Australia’s immigration policy involves the approaches to restrict and discourage the flow of refugees and asylum seekers. But the discussions overshadow another dimension to the immigrant experience - one that involves the equally difficult phase of adjustment and assimilation which may take years, decades or even a lifetime for some to overcome. It is easy to forget how difficult, confusing and lonely an immigrant life can be.

One religious congregation that understands migrant people’s need for support and social inclusion, the sadness and confusion they experience, and the need to reconnect with their own culture is the Missionary Sisters of Christ the King. There are currently nine Sisters working in Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, making it their life’s work to minister to Polish expatriates in Australia.

“Our main role is to be with the elderly,” explained Sister Bernadeta Pasinska mchr , Australian Delegate to the Provincial Superior, who supervises the work of the congregation. “We work among Polish migrants in nursing homes and visit them in their own homes. Most of them are very lonely. Because of their age, they cannot travel to visit Poland.”

“We also help priests around the parishes. During the weekend, we work with the children and young people in the Saturday Polish School and catechism classes or on Sunday Polish masses,” she said. 

“Our mission is to keep spirituality, Polish tradition and language alive.”

A spiritual and cultural need

The biggest wave of Polish emigration into Australia occurred after World War II. Many of them were former soldiers from the Second World War and arrived as displaced persons (DPs) to escape persecution from the communist regime that took over Poland after the war. Over a seven-year period from 1947, Poland immigrants to Australia grew from about 7,000 to 60,000. 

The second wave occurred in the 1980s. The Australian Polish Historical Society provides figures of about 20,000 people arriving from Poland under the Special Humanitarian Program to escape political and social unrest that ended in the fall of communism in 1989.

The pastoral work of ministering to Polish expatriates began through the work of the founder of the Missionary Sisters of Christ the King, Fr. Ignacy Posadzy. His advocacy for the care of Polish people all over the world began when he took brief breaks from his ministry as a priest in Poland in the early 1920s. He visited Polish centres of migration in Europe, Asia Minor and South America and grew concerned about the problems faced by Polish expatriates abroad that led to the deterioration of their faith life. He wrote reports and articles in newspapers, detailing the problems of Polish expatriates and advocated for their care. 

Upon the order of Cardinal August Hlond, he conducted an inspection of Polish pastoral institutions in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in1930. A year later he was invited by the Cardinal Hlond to establish a congregation of priests, the Society of Christ. In 1958, he saw the need for a congregation of women to support the work of the priests and formally established the Missionary Sisters of Christ the King on 21 November 1959.

The inner voice in prayer

The Sisters see their work as a response to God’s call: bringing Christ to Polish people on foreign soil, helping them appreciate and cultivate Polish culture and traditions. They recognise that being able to keep their identity and live out the spiritual heritage of their culture also helps migrants adapt to a new environment and contribute to the wider Australian community.

Sr Bernadeta explains, “When you live in another country, and when you pray, you usually pray with the voice inside you, using your first language.”

“How you feel God, how you express your spirituality, you actually express it in your first language. That’s why it’s important for us to be with Polish people especially the young generation.”

This small group of sisters attends to large communities of Polish parishioners in Australia. “In Sydney, there are 10 or 12 Masses every Sunday in the Polish language. In areas where there are younger people, there are more numbers. In areas where there are more elderly Polish people, who are less mobile,  not a lot of them can easily come to mass,” said Sr Bernadeta.

“In the Divine Mercy Shrine in Melbourne for example, attending in one mass, there are 400 to 500 Polish people.”

The task is made easy, as the Sisters are encouraged by new vocations that continue to grow from their base in Poznan, Poland. The blessing of more young women joining their congregation has allowed them to establish new apostolic areas all over the world in response to requests from Polish communities.

Yet the Sisters’ do not limit themselves to those with Polish backgrounds. Their own experiences of being uprooted, far from their homeland, gave them the capacity to minister to those from other cultures and religions. 

“We are sisters to all those we meet on our roads, aware that each of them live in Christ.”

Photo, right: The Missionary Sisters of Christ the King in Australia during the visit of their Mother Superior Edyta Rychel (standing at the centre, middle row) early in December 2012.

By Giselle Lapitan