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RIMINI MEETING/ Dabrowski: Learning to Pray in Prison

The National President of the Catholic Association of Polish Railways, Jozef Dabrowski talks about meeting John Paul II and learning to pray, which got him through his years in prison.

Jozef Dabrowski Jozef Dabrowski

Addressing an audience at the 32nd annual Rimini Meeting, Jozef Dabrowski began with the words:  “May Jesus Christ be praised”. It was the first thing that the new John Paul II announced to the world on his election to the papacy, and Dabrowski explained that this is an everyday greeting in his country. The National President of Catholic Association of Polish Railway, flanked by Msgr. Luigi Negri, Bishop of San Marino-Montefeltro and Alberto Savorana, gave testimony to his friend the Polish pope, who was the inspiration for him to learn to pray in prison.

A former Solidarity trade union member, Dabrowski and his wife first met Cardinal Wojtyla in 1973, and they remained friends from then on. They were witnesses at the inauguration of the new Pope on October 22, 1978, when, with the other attendees, they were asked to open the doors to Christ and to witness to him. On that day, Dabrowski wondered how he and his wife could help the pope, even while he knew the times required it. He understood that the language of Christianity was not one of force, but of charity. Those who knew Wojtyla knew how much time he spent kneeling before the Lord every day, but Dabrowski didn’t have much time for prayer then. He could not imagine how he himself would soon be asked to give testimony to Christ. 

Dabrowski would learn that to give witness to the Lord meant to kneel down, to follow him and to enroll himself in his school to enter his mystery. He couldn't show Christ to others without meeting him himself.  That school for Dabrowski would be held in prison.

In 1981, with the imposition of martial law, he was given a five month sentence, which he learned was for his own conversion, to bring him as close as possible to the Lord.  He carried the Gospels in with him, and that book became his friend.  Dabrowski showed the audience the small volume, "the bread of my life", which was signed by the bishops who had visited him in prison.

Twenty-four hours a day of doing nothing raised many doubts. He was disturbed at night with questions from the guard and kept out of contact with his family.  As he read the Gospels from beginning to end, he was helped.  By the time he left jail, what had been unendurable became a blessing, and he thanked his jailers for allowing him to spend those five months very close to Christ.  They could only think that he had been driven mad.

There Dabrowski also discovered the beauty of the Eucharist. Once a week the prisoners received communion, finding in it a way to survive and endure their difficult circumstances. The hardest battle of his life, he related, was resisting the atmosphere of hatred, where they were treated as enemies of the system and a danger to society. The challenge was to look on his jailers with the gaze of love, and he was moved to this by prayer, especially the "Our Father".