While many of us choose to abstain from coffee, sweets, or Facebook for Lent, we can often hear priests tell us in their homilies that rather than giving up something, it is better to do something to grow closer to God. Growing numbers of mostly young Catholics in Poland – and, increasingly, in other European countries as well – have used Lent as an opportunity to confront themselves and God. The countercultural Extreme Way of the Cross is a unique, yet ultimately simple initiative that is helping tens of thousands of Catholics deepen or discover anew their faith amidst the stark, harsh mortifications imposed by nature and human weakness.
In recent years, many new initiatives aimed at encouraging Catholics to experience Lent more fully have appeared in Poland. They include the Night of the Confessionals (Noc konfesjonałów), in which more than 200 churches across the country will be open all night during Holy Week with priests offering the sacrament of penance to those who claim to have no time to confess their sins. In Krakow, the newly installed Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski has created a new devotion based on Rome’s ancient station liturgy (revived by St. John Paul II after having been neglected for centuries); on each of the forty days of Lent, evening Masses in one of the city’s historical churches are held. Meanwhile, in Lodz, one of Poland’s least religious cities, the recent “Walks of Healing” (Spacery Uzdrowienia) involved priests walking around the cathedral and several important churches to look for sheep who might need to confess or talk about their struggles with a priest on the spot.
However, arguably the most spectacular, popular, and – yes – extreme new form of Polish Lenten devotion has been the Extreme Way of the Cross (Ekstremalna Droga Krzyżowa). This new form of pilgrimage is true to its name. Participants begin the Extreme Way of the Cross by attending a Mass in the evening. Afterwards, they embark on a pilgrimage to a place of worship – a church, shrine, basilica, or even a simply wayside chapel – that must take place at night and walk a minimum of forty kilometers (twenty-five miles) over the course of a minimum of eight hours. The pilgrimage can be thirty kilometers (18.75 miles), but only under the condition that it is over very hilly or rough terrain. A common shorter route is from Krakow to the “Polish Jerusalem,” Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a forty-two kilometer walk (26.25 miles). Meanwhile, the longest Extreme Way of the Cross this year was the 133-kilometer (83.125-mile) trek from Krakow to the Marian shrine in Wiktorówka in the Tatra Mountains.
Participants in the Extreme Way of the Cross can go alone or in groups with a maximum of ten people, but they vow to walk in silence. Before leaving, the pilgrims are given detailed and accurate maps leading mostly across country roads off the beaten path, a reflective armband, and a booklet with reflections written by young lay Catholics on each of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The Extreme Stations of the Cross usually take place one week before Good Friday. Along with the silence, the fact that the pilgrimage is undertaken at night and the long distance travelled, the weather is often another discomfort for participants: in Poland, March and April are often chilly and rainy months. Along the way, however, these self-mortifying pilgrims sometimes encounter the hospitality of others, as priests and ordinary faithful in churches on the road prepare food to fortify the pilgrims. According to Father Jarosław Raczak, responsible for media contacts with the SPRING Foundation (Stowarzyszenie WIOSNA), the organization in charge of the Extreme Way of the Cross, most participants are practicing Catholics, although a large number are those who are wracked with doubt and are looking for their place in the Church. He says that the Extreme Way of the Cross helped several pilgrims successfully kick drinking or drug addicts.
The Extreme Way of the Cross is the brainchild of Father Jacek Stryczek, chairman of the SPRING Foundation (Stowarzyszenie WIOSNA), and lay Catholics from the WIO Community (Wspólnota Indiwidualności Otwartych, “The Community of Open Individuals”). Father Stryczek’s foundation organizes numerous charitable initiatives intended to help the needy. The founders of the Extreme Station of the Cross saw a “crisis of masculinity,” and so they decided to create a new initiative whose participants would face themselves and God amidst hardship. Participants are forced to leave their comfort zones for one night, face their weaknesses, and ultimately meet God.
In today’s consumer society, in which most people seek out comfort rather than voluntary hardship, the Extreme Way of the Cross seems very countercultural. Yet it is becoming increasingly popular. Last year, 26,000 participants took part in it. This year, however, the number of pilgrims more than doubled, as 60,000 walked a minimum of forty kilometers in the middle of the night to religious shrines across Poland and elsewhere. The “extreme” pilgrimage received widespread coverage in Poland’s media, Catholic and secular alike. What draws these mostly young people?
Marta Warias, 26, a journalist and English teacher from Mielec in the Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland, says that she and her brother-in-law have been attracted to the Extreme Way of the Cross because they found a living, vibrant, and genuine faith there. “The Extreme Stations of the Cross are different than typical Sunday Mass in Subcarpathia. There, people look to see how money much the people sitting next to them in the pews gave during the collection, and there is something of a fashion show as people are concerned what other people will say about their clothing,” she says, adding that, by contrast, the piety of the “extreme” pilgrims was genuine.
Many Catholics have hoped that Poland, one of the last bastions of popular Catholicism in Europe, can give new life to the Church in the Old Continent. Since Poland’s accession into the European Union in 2004, more than two million Poles have left the country for Western Europe, often taking their faith with them. A growing number of Polish émigrés have started new routes of the Extreme Stations of the Cross in their adopted homelands. Father Raczak says that the testimony of Polish immigrants participating in it often arouses the curiosity of their coworkers or friends, who frequently go with them the following year. He gives the example of a young Polish woman named Maria who worked in a hospital in Ireland, home to a large Polish immigrant community, for several years. She started to organize Extreme Stations of the Cross to various Irish shrines, and a growing number of both Poles and Irish took part. Maria has since returned to Poland, but Extreme Way of the Cross are still held in Ireland. Given that the Emerald Isle is perhaps the most spectacular example of the rapid decline of a once arch-Catholic culture, such new initiatives can only be welcome there.
Recently, however, the Extreme Way of the Cross has been expanding internationally on its own. The initiative’s website is translated into a growing number of languages, and this year the Extreme Way of the Cross was held in eleven countries. In Romania, a group of Roman Catholics representing the country’s Hungarian minority organized an Extreme Way of the Cross on their own, without any Polish encouragement.
The middle and older generations of Poles don’t seem to “get” the Extreme Way of the Cross. “My dad says that for him it’s stupid and he would never go,” Marta Warias says. However, it’s clear that while the Extreme Way of the Cross may seem unconventional and novel, it is successfully drawing tens of thousands of Catholics closer to God and the interior life.