CZESTOCHOWA, POLAND — MASS is being celebrated by gold-robed priests in the ornate chapel at Jasna Gora monastery that houses Polish Catholicism's most sacred relic: the Black Madonna icon.
A thunderous trumpet fanfare rings out as the sculpted golden door that conceals the holy picture is raised to reveal it for the service.
Gasps and sobs ring out from the hundreds of pilgrims who fill the sanctuary, stretching out behind the small chapel. Their faces wear expressions of intense religious concentration and prayer.
Later in the service, scores of pilgrims make their way along side aisles toward the holy picture, walking on their knees in prayer and penitence.
"You cannot understand Poland without understanding Czestochowa," Archbishop Henryk Muszynski says after the mass, referring to the intense Roman Catholic faith that has sustained many Poles through the centuries - and still sustains them despite the recent controversy over the role of the church in the country's nonreligious life.
This mass, Muszynski tells the congregation in a sermon, has special meaning.
In his role as head of the Polish episcopate's commission for dialogue with Judaism, Muszynski has brought a high-level delegation of American Jews and Catholics to Czestochowa to experience the fervor of Polish faith as part of their efforts to strengthen interreligious dialogue and Polish-Jewish relations.
"It was important [for them] to come here," he says.
Indeed, one of the central themes that emerged during the four-day visit of the United States delegation in the last week of July was the need for each side to learn about each other in order to achieve understanding and overcome stereotypes - Jewish stereotypes about Polish Catholics and Polish Catholic stereotypes about Jews.
"A sign of this understanding was the presence of our Jewish brothers at Czestochowa," Muszynski says. "They realized that they cannot understand the other side without understanding what the others hold sacred. I am in their debt for this."
JEWISH members of the delegation agreed that the experience was valuable.
"I for one came as one with much to learn," said Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Lawrence, N.Y., who along with Baltimore Archbishop William Keeler was co-leader of the US delegation.
Said Jerome Chanes, of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, "It was an extremely important experience in Polish-Jewish relations. After having heard about the Polish Catholic soul, this for me crystalized in a very real way the Polish Catholic national and religious experience.... It enhanced my understanding of those areas that are troubled in the Polish-Jewish encounter,"
The 25-member group, described as the highest level joint American Jewish-Catholic delegation to go to Poland, was coordinated by the newly founded Center for Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Before going to Czestochowa, the group held an interfaith memorial service at the Auschwitz concentration camp and held what it called "extensive and fruitful" talks with the Polish episcopate, centering on concrete programs aimed at educating ordinary Poles about Jews and Judaism and overcoming lingering anti-Semitism.
More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and only a few thousand now live in the country.