A Polish Catholic priest, who provided spiritual sustenance to lorry drivers who were caught up in the recent English Channel disruption, has urged people to not be indifferent in such circumstances and instead “act and go out to people”.
Fr Dawid Jasiński, who is in charge of the local Polish Mission in Lewisham, was one of two Polish Catholic priests from the South East, who visited Manston Airport in Kent to pray for, and with, the thousands of drivers as they faced long delays before continuing their journeys, after France temporarily closed its border with the UK in response to the fast-spreading variant of coronavirus.
Fr Jasiński said he recognised the frustration and pain many of the drivers must have felt as they found themselves facing the prospect of spending Christmas in the cabs of their vehicles.
Manston Airport in Kent is used as a lorry park during ‘Operation Stack’ – the protocols enacted to keep Kent’s motorways and major roads open when delays hold up traffic through the Channel Tunnel or Port of Dover.
As many as 8,000 vehicles with their tired, hungry and thirsty drivers were holed up at the airport on Christmas Eve with hundreds of volunteers helping to supply food for the drivers as they waited to cross the English Channel.
Military personnel also attended to help get things moving after people were allowed to cross to France on the condition they tested negative for Covid-19 before boarding a train or ferry.
Fr Bartosz Rajewski, a Polish priest in charge of the local Polish Catholic Mission at South Kensington (Little Brompton Oratory), said he had been deliberating on the significance of the issue and contacted the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, asking for assistance to make it possible for the drivers at to receive pastoral ministry.
“It was necessary to establish contact with the local and national authorities and this could only be achieved by the Embassy,” he said.
At this point Fr Jasiński agreed to join a delegation to Manston Airport, pending permission.
“We had to give the drivers the possibility of Confession at Christmas and opportunity to talk with a priest,” he said. “In Poland, Christmas is an extremely family-orientated occasion. Being away from home during these holy days is very hard to bear.”
The Embassy’s application was successful and, on Thursday 24th December, a group, led by Frs Rajewski and Jasiński were able to travel to Manston. Many people who belong to the Polish Catholic Community assisted in preparations, with groups making sandwiches, arranging toiletries and organising groceries.
A number of individual donors, shops and bakeries were also involved in the venture and overnight from Wednesday 23rd to Thursday 24th December both The Polish Bakery and Polish Village Bakery undertook to provide fresh bread as well as over two thousand cakes and doughnuts, in readiness for distribution.
This was all co-ordinated by the Polish journalist Artur Kieruzal, who is based in London, whilst transport was provided by Polish transport companies and taxi drivers.
On arrival, the priests offered pastoral support to everyone they encountered with Christmas Blessings, prayers and also the chance to receive Opłatek (the blessed Christmas wafer), which is traditionally shared with loved ones in Poland at the Christmas Eve meal.
At the same time a group of helpers distributed festive bread, pastries and much needed practical items to drivers. Marcin Mazur, who is a member of the Catholic Polish Community in London joined the delegation as the photographer for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“There is tradition in Poland at that dinner we keep one empty space on the table for someone who might join us, and we always should welcome that person,” he said. “In Dover, the Polish community brought food to those that needed it, as such, filling that empty space at the dinner table.”
The backlog of lorries and trucks at Manston Airport had cleared within a number of days and the situation on the M20 is now being managed.
Although the aim of the mission to Kent was largely to help the Polish community, those involved also encountered Spaniards, Italians, Romanians, Slovakians, Ukrainians and people from across all of Europe.
Fr Rajewski recalled a particular incident where one van had run out of goods and they had nothing to offer the Polish driver that approached them. “A Ukrainian driver overheard our conversation and shared the contents of his bag equally with the Polish driver,” he said. “The moment had particular significance as he broke the bread in half. This was the true spirit of Christmas.”
In a situation which some might describe as akin to the Gospel story of the Feeding of the 5,000, four vanloads of food remained after the journey to Kent, which have since been offered to the needy and homeless. Fr Jasiński said: “The gospel words have been fulfilled, ‘They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over’. This is a lesson for us all: we cannot be indifferent in such circumstances, preoccupied solely with ourselves. We must act and go out to people.”
Picture: © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk