‘Gorzkie Żale’ — The Polish Eucharistic Devotion for Lent

If you live near a Polish-American parish, why not visit during Lent?

Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified”, c. 1632
Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified”, c. 1632 (photo: Public Domain)

Today, I want to introduce English-speaking Catholics to a particular Polish Lenten devotion: Gorzkie żale (Bitter Lamentations).

Just as Stations of the Cross are a staple feature in the prayer repertoire in many American parishes on Lenten Fridays (as they are in Poland), so Gorzkie żale is found in almost every parish in Poland (and many Polish American parishes) during Lent, usually on Sundays. It is typically prayed before the exposed Blessed Sacrament and usually concludes with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Gorzkie żale originated in 1707, at Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. The text was written by Father Wawrzyniec (Lawrence) Benik, a Vincentian, at the request of the church’s then-pastor, Father Michał (Michael) Tarło for a pious association at the parish. Its popularity grew, and it became a staple of Polish Lenten popular devotions.

The basic structure (which has textual variants over three weeks), consists of Exposition; an opening hymn (Pobudka, a “wake-up” or “reveille” to meditate on the Lord’s Passion; a statement of intentions; another hymn; an extended sung “Lament on the Soul of the Suffering Jesus;” another extended song, “Dialogue of the Soul with the Sorrowful Mother,”—an extended meditation on the Passion through Mary’s eyes; a final refrain calling for mercy; and Benediction.

Polish Wikipedia attributes Benik’s sources to two: the popular medieval Passion plays, which focused on Christ’s Suffering and the role that each individual sinner played in it, and some of the structure of the Liturgy of the Hours of the times. Not being a historian of the subject, I do not discount those sources, but would underscore a third: the tradition of Lamentations found in the Old Testament, most especially in the Book of the same name, as well as in other images of the Suffering Servant. These motifs and images are frequently invoked in Gorzkie żale, as when Christ asks why, having led his people out of captivity to a land of milk and honey, they now serve him gall and vinegar.

Popular devotions (e.g., novenas) were eclipsed in many parts of the Western world after the Second Vatican Council, supposedly in the name of reinforcing the primacy of the liturgy itself. One unfortunate casualty of that trend, particularly in the United States, was the decline in Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Holy Hours, Forty Hours Devotions, and First Friday Nocturnal Adoration—once commonplace in most parishes—disappeared, although happily they are making a recovery in many places today. The corner appears finally to be turning on the faulty and simplistic idea that somehow Adoration detracted from the centrality of the Eucharist, and Exposition is returning to some parishes. That’s good, because Vatican II’s emphasis on the Eucharist as the central sacrament is in fact reinforced by Eucharistic devotion outside Mass.

The Eucharist is, after all, a sacrifice, a sacrifice that makes present Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This is the central truth of our faith.

And all this is captured in Gorzkie żale. When celebrated before the Blessed Sacrament, it recalls the Lord’s sacrifice. As I noted, it is also built around many Biblical motifs culled from the Old Testament, and so has a sound foundation in Scripture. For a devotion that hails from the 18th century, it surprisingly strikes many of the modern notes of Catholic liturgical and para-liturgical celebration: Eucharistic (including a recognition of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist), Biblical, and rooted in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. In addition, it also underscores another neglected element of much modern Catholic spirituality: it has a strong Marian dimension. One of the series of reflections in each of the three weeks of Gorzkie żale is a “dialogue” with Our Lady of Sorrows. It is also musical and, “in singing we pray twice.”

For those wanting to hear Gorzkie żale in the original, see here, here and here. A translation of the texts into English has been developed and is accessible here. If you live near a Polish-American parish, why not visit during Lent?