There's no place like home for a man with two homes. Father Ryszard Biernat took a trip back to his Polish homeland in July and experienced some sadness and joy with his family. Father Biernat had booked time this fall to spend with his family, but sad news forced him to fly to Poland earlier than planned. He received word that his sister-in-law was losing a battle with cancer.
"She was dying, so they called me on Saturday. I left on Sunday. She died on Monday, while I was still in transit. So, I started my stay there with my sister-in-law's funeral, which was the first time my family experienced me preach," he said, shortly after arriving back in Buffalo.
One niece had just been born and another arrived two weeks after Uncle Ryszard arrived.
"So we had two births and a death in the same month," he said.
Father Biernat, secretary to Bishop Richard J. Malone, was born in the small mountainous town of Limanowa, Poland, located southeast of Krakow. He came to the United States in 2002 to attend SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich. He arrived in Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora, two years later, and ordained to the priesthood in 2009. Back in April he returned home for the first time in three years. Immigration issues prevented him from visiting. Now that he has his permanent resident card he can travel freely, and plans to take advantage of it. He still has that fall trip scheduled.
"I'll make up this year for the three years I haven't been home," he joked.
During his April visit, he attended his nephew Jacob's first Communion, which took place the day of the canonization of Saints John Paul II and John XXIII.
"It was a cool thing. The parish where I was at (Our Lady of Grace in Siekierczyna), John Paul II visited several times when he was archbishop of Krakow."
The parents of Cardinal John Joseph Krol, the late archbishop of Philadelphia, attended Our Lady of Grace before immigrating to America. Whenever he came back to visit his family, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla would accompany him.
"It was very neat to be there and celebrate Eucharist in the same place as John Paul II was as a cardinal celebrating Eucharist himself," Father Biernat said.
The Mass took place the same day and time as the canonization Mass, so Father Biernat got to be one of the first priests to say the names of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Another interesting factoid, Jacob's parents' were married the same day as St. John Paul's death.
The canonization of the first Polish pope has sparked a renewed interest in John Paul. Parishes show off their pride in having had a saint visit.
"Now is a time of reflection on what has been. The places he visited in Poland. You see more plaques now, more of his pictures and stuff. That is more visible," he said.
Father Biernat took time to visit his elementary school.
"It was nice to see the teachers. Some of them who taught me are still there," he said. "I had a chance to talk to third-graders. They were talking a little bit about geography, so I got to tell them about Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes and things like that."
He spoke to sixth-graders about faith and the Church in the United States. It was a public school, but religion can be talked about openly in Poland.
"We welcome all religions. If you are Protestant, you are taught Protestant religion in public school. If you're Catholic, you will be taught Catholic religion in school. If you select that you are atheist or agnostic, you'll be taught a course in ethics in place of religion," Father Biernat explained.
With 94 percent of the population being Catholic, there is not too much difference of religion. It wasn't until Father Biernat entered the seminary that he learned not everyone is Catholic.
During his latest trip in July, Father Biernat began researching his genealogy, aided by his family in America. The day he left for Poland, he had a family reunion of the American branch of the Biernat family, which provided him with addresses and photos to help trace his lineage.
"Three of my grandfather's siblings came to U.S. Father Leon's grandfather came from Poland. My grandfather and his grand father were brothers," he explained. "It was neat to visit with the family here and then go home. So, information that I had from here allowed me to go to the place where my grandfather's brother lived in Krakow. It was neat. The people were very welcoming at that address, so we were able to go inside and look around and see where he lived. It was a very neat experience."
Polish national archives have microfilms of baptismal records gathered from the local churches, which allowed Father Biernat to trace his roots to the early 1800s. He learned his father had a brother with the same name. The elder Joseph Biernat passed away at age 10, three years before the birth of Father Ryszard's father. It's not a traditional family name, so he doesn't know why it was used twice.
When not speaking or researching, Father Biernat spent his time visiting with his mother and his eight siblings. He enjoys the quiet of the outdoors and much time walking and mountain biking.
"I remember growing up in Poland we walked everywhere. I kind of missed that in the sense that when you walk somewhere you have time to think. When you walk to church you have time to think about everything, what's one your mind, so when you get to the church, you can sit and focus. If you drive, you have to be focused on driving, so when you get to the pew, what you mind does, it started wondering about everything. We need processing time. You know how our computers need processing time, and sometimes you get that circle running around when the computer has to figure out things? Our brain has to do that too. But we rarely give it a chance to do that, to process things. That's' why we have a hard time focusing during Mass, during prayer. In order to be present, you have to be alone for a little while."
The last piece of business he had to attend to was going down to the town hall and canceling his address. After receiving his Green Card, Father Biernat realized that America is his home. He plans to be buried in Buffalo. He's even losing his Polish accent, which might be hard to believe for anyone locally who has spoken with him, but even while speaking a short distance from the family farm, his neighbors ask him where is from. One girl at his old school asked why he talked so funny.
"It was an interesting experience, making it official," he said. "It's like closing a chapter of my life."