‘Our hope lies in Jesus Christ’
The priestly life
THE PRIEST: Fr Andrzej Niski
PARISH: St Lawrence’s, Dingwall, and St Peter and St Boniface, Fortrose
YEAR OF ORDINATION: 2017
In the fifth in our series lifting the lid on the experience of being a priest today, a young Pole who is priest-in-charge of a parish in the Scottish Highlands reflects on the joy of serving in a Church that is being stripped of its wealth and prestige
My history is simple. I was 22 and I’d got myself into trouble, back in Poland. I was a good son. A devoted member of the local Catholic community. An exemplary student, my parents thought, at Warsaw University. But I’d been leading a double life. I was caught up with drink and drugs, and I’d dropped out of my course. Then I got depressed. Terribly depressed. To the point that I ended up in hospital for two weeks.
A friend said: “I think it would be good for you to leave Warsaw for the time being.” So we left for Sweden. Then Italy. Travelling and earning money for travel. It was not long after Pope John Paul’s death. We paid a visit to his tomb and there – out of nowhere – came a profound conviction that I would not be going back.
We ended up in Scotland. Megabus was selling tickets for £1 to Inverness so we came to Inverness. After a couple of weeks, it felt like it was time to move on, but the sense of not knowing what to do with my life was haunting me. So where did I go? To the church. Just to sit. And there was Fr James. He looked at me. Invited me to tea. And I told him my story, more or less. Told him I’d tried the seminary in Poland and dropped out. And he instantly said: “Why don’t you become a priest here?”
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I wasn’t yet in the right shape spiritually or psychologically. But, four years later, I was accepted as a seminarian and in 2017 I was ordained. Saying Mass for the first time was solemn, emotional, joyful – and very tiring.
The moment when the gift of priesthood really hit me was in the confessional, early on. Someone came and halfway through I realised my mind had really drifted off. “Lord Jesus, help!” I thought. “I don’t know what to say.” And then it flew out. Words of encouragement and good counsel. As if someone was dictating. And the sheer joy that came from that experience. Because moments like this are very powerful. And they do happen.
Prayer is indispensable. As priests, we are expected to pray the Office every day. And I think many priests struggle with this – myself included. But my feelings are not important here. I say this out of fidelity to the people on whose behalf I pray. I betray my people if I do not do it. So it is simply a matter of discipline. And it gives you a basic structure which does, I believe, safeguard priests.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is my real treasure, because this is not obligatory. This is a time of truly, freely chosen friendship with Jesus. It’s like in a relationship. You have to do something. Bring flowers. Invite them for dinner. It doesn’t need to be the same thing over and over again. Sometimes I just spend time thinking of my troubles. Thinking of others. What is important is that I make time. Make an effort. Keep in touch.
Celibacy isn’t just about sexual continence. When you are twentysomething, you can see it this way. You can get excited by the challenge. It is like, let’s do it! Let’s endure it for the sake of the kingdom. But though the sexual element does not go away, as you age there are added elements. Like the lack of a significant other. An exclusive relationship. Children. It doesn’t get any easier. Quite the opposite. So you need a truly human friendship with Jesus. You need a profound understanding that this is not a concept. It is not an idea. It is a relationship in faith with someone real. And if really lived out, it doesn’t make you lonely.
Since getting ordained, my relationships have changed. Old friends sometimes want me to be involved in their lives to an extent that I can’t be anymore. They may come to me for counsel in their present-day relationships. But do they come to a friend or do they come to a priest? It’s the same with your family: never again is it the same with them. And I have to be careful with women. I have to make it clear that I’m interested in the spiritual and emotional aspects of a woman’s life but I’m not interested in her as her. Because that can create a dependency, a neediness, expectations and a sense of entitlement. That this is “my priest”. And, oh gosh, when there is then a human and emotional, not to mention a sexual, response on the part of the priest, it can all get very messy.
But human friendships are important. This is how the Church began – Paul and Mark, Paul and Barnabas, John looking after Mary and so forth – and this is what we need to regain. Being a faithful community doesn’t just mean tea and coffee after Mass. It’s about praying and sharing life together. Having a real person in front of me with whom I can share my experience of faith. That’s something I really want to encourage in this parish.
I want to change the culture. To work towards friendship in faith. Being together on the journey of becoming better friends with our Master and Lord. By reading the Gospels. Meditating upon his qualities. The Sacred Heart devotion, and reading The Lives of the Saints. Because here we have real people – flesh and blood in weakness and sin – transformed by the power of the divine. All of this comes slowly. But I will start with simple things. A wholesome liturgy. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Preaching about the tried and tested practices of the Church.
It’s an exciting prospect. It gives me joy. Obviously, people react to change, so it’s not always going to be rosy. Will it work? I don’t know. I leave that up to the Lord. But I’ve decided to take a parish pilgrimage to Medjugorje. I’m hoping that will stir up thirst. Stir up interest. Because people say it is a place of profound prayer and peace, which can connect people to the supernatural.
I live in the Church of the future. That’s how I define it for myself. I think it will be small, probably stripped of all social airs and positions, and possibly also of wealth. I really liked how Pope Francis began his pontificate: I want the Church to be poor. That’s nothing to do with selling beautiful things, it’s about attitude. Recognising our dependency, as the poor do, every day.
The risk to the Church comes from believing we are the source of our own salvation. That by sticking to this or that liturgy, and not the other, we are safe. Or by implementing this or that policy, we are safe. But we can’t heal ourselves as a community. As St Paul says, we have all sinned. But that’s not the end of the story. Our hope lies in Jesus Christ.
I wasn’t put off by the state of the Church. Far from it. I think this is just the right time to become a priest. The history of the Church always comes and goes. Some say it is in crisis every 500 years. And then, very often, God raises up great saints. In these low times you can only go up! And we have the chance to redefine ourselves. And that, I believe, is quite a beautiful thing to be part of.
As told to Blanche Girouard.