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95th Anniversary of the Birth of Father Jan Twardowski

Jan Twardowski (1 June 1915 - 18 January 2006) used to call himself "a priest writing poems". He had loving parents, Jan and Aniela, three sisters, and a big multigenerational family, which secured him a happy childhood. The atmosphere at home, countryside holidays and the books he was reading shaped the future poet's sensitivity. One of his favourite authors was J. Ch. Andersen. Thanks to his works Twardowski learned to notice poverty, harm, injustice, humiliation, undeserved ugliness. In 1935, having graduated from a gymnasium with maths and biology double major curriculum, Jan Twardowski entered Polish language faculty at the University of Warsaw. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 interrupted his studies. During Warsaw Uprising (1944), the poet was involved in the resistance movement, in the ranks of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). He was wounded twice. In 1945, he entered a seminary and simultaneously went back to the University of Warsaw to continue his interrupted studies, which he completed in 1948. His MA thesis was devoted to the poetry of Juliusz Słowacki. The same year, he was ordained priest.

In 1948-1951, he worked at a village parish in Żbików (county of Pruszków, at the outskirts of Warsaw) and at the same time he taught religion at a school for disabled children. In 1951, he permanently returned to Warsaw, where he worked in three parishes in the years 1951-1959. In 1959-2004, he was a provost in the church of St. Joseph the Betrothed of the Virgin Mary in the convent of the Order of the Sisters of the Visitation. He became famous for his homilies, especially the ones addressed to children, for informal style of lessons in religion and preparing adults to receive sacraments. People seeking God, having religious doubts or simply confused gathered around father Twardowski. He attracted people through his attitude of an unimposing witness of Christ.

Father Jan Twardowski was writing poems throughout his life. These were conceived as a diary of emotions, observations, encounters, conversations with friends. In 1932, he first published his poems in a school gazette "Kuźnia Modych", which he co-edited from 1933 to 1935. His first volume of verse Powrót Andersena (The Return of Andersen) was published in 1937. After World War II, father Twardowski published mostly in periodicals, primarily in "Tygodnik Powszechny". His first post-war volume of verse Wiersze (Verses) was published in 1959, the next one - Znaki ufności (Signs of Trust) in 1970. The first collection of poems Nie przyszedłem pana nawracać (I Have Not Come to Convert You) appeared in 1986. Literary critics positively welcome Twardowski's poems as a new phenomenon in sacerdotal and religious poetry. The verses' ties to the ?Franciscan" poetry were much emphasised. Bold, often critical opinions of the poet proved avant-garde to the later decisions of the Second Vatican Council. Twardowski's verses showed cheerful view of the world, its affirmation and the admiration for God present in nature and people, as well as an acceptance of suffering, disability, loneliness, seeking good, astonishment at the incomprehensible. Father Twardowski's loving smile was sensed in his poetry. He reintroduced humour, joy, but also irony or self-ridicule, which had been absent in Polish religious poetry since baroque period. He used simple means of expression - confiding, conversation, prayer, reflection. As a poet he was much praised for clarity, conciseness, inclination to use aphorisms, paradox and a skillful combination of theological and philosophical reflection with vernacular, often colloquial language. Father Jan Twardowski's artistic work derives from his pastoral experience, observation of everyday life and, above all, a profound analysis of the Scripture. Some of his verses have become aphorisms, well-known quotations, e.g. "Śpieszmy się kochać ludzi tak szybko odchodzą" (Let us love people now they leave us so fast - from the poem ?Love Now", translated by Maya Peretz), "zapomnij, że jesteś, gdy mówisz, że kochasz" (forget that you are when you say that you love - from the poem ?When You Say", translated by Zofia Błaszczyk), "kiedy Bóg drzwi zamyka to otwiera okno" (when God shuts the door - He opens the window - from the poem ?When You Say", translated by Zofia Błaszczyk)*.

From 1973 he published books for children. Two most popular collections: Zeszyt w kratkę (The Graph-Paper Notebook), Patyki i patyczki (Sticks and Twigs) were introduced into the canon of the required reading in 2007. He was resilient to poetical trends and fashion. He preserved his individualism and authenticity. His poetry complemented his pastoral service and served as a tool to show faithful attitude: "W świecie niewiary próbuję mówić o wierze, w świecie bez nadziei - o nadziei, w świecie bez miłości - o miłości" (In the world of unbelief I try to speak about faith, in the world lacking hope - about hope, in the world without love - about love).

At the end of the 20th century, father Twardowski's works were immensely popular, and he himself was ranked among the most valued Polish poets - even by the agnostic circles. Prosaic works, much varied in form (deliberations, thoughts, essays, aphorisms, tales for children) mirror rich diversity of reflection of father Twardowski as a thinker, philosopher, spiritual guide and an outstanding preacher. He was popular among all generations of readers, and was acclaimed one of the best Polish authors as well as a moral authority. He was awarded many literary awards, distinctions or medals, both in Poland and abroad. He highly valued the title of the Knight of the Order of Smile (1996) and the title of the Doctor Honoris Causa of the Catholic University of Lublin (1999).

Collections of his poems and prose are often published, also abroad (his works were translated, among others, into German, Slovak, Flemish, Bulgarian, French, Ukrainian, Macedonian, English, Czech, Hungarian, Hebrew, Russian, Italian, Spanish).

Already in father Twardowski's lifetime, many schools and libraries were named after him. In his publications Zaufałem drodze. Wiersze zebrane (I Have Trusted the Way. Collected Poems) (2004), Budzić nadzieję. Abecadło dziewięćdziesięciolatka (Raising Hope. The Alphabet of a Nonagenarian) (2005), Autobiografia (Autobiography) (2006-2007), he expressed (in poems and prose) the essence of his reflections on God, nature, faith, life, love, simplicity, on his attitude towards humiliation, suffering and death, as well as on the role of a clergyman in the contemporary world.

Aleksandra Iwanowska, Ph.D.
University of Gdansk