Nature, Grace and Plum Brandy


Published January 25, 2024

The Catholic Thing

The brandy, which the Poles call śliwowica, is made from plums (śliwka, meaning plum) and tastes more or less like turpentine cut with jet fuel. It also has, one must concede, a slight savor of plums. It is not recommended to smoke while drinking śliwowica. Or while standing close to someone who has recently been drinking it. Serving it ice cold tends to mitigate the liquid’s volatility.

The highlanders of southern Poland are especially well known for the quality (and quantity) of the śliwowica they produce. And I have heard stories of villages in which the local economy – at least during certain parts of the year – consists largely in selling the homemade hooch to travelers on their way to and from the mountains.

The śliwowica you can buy in the duty-free shops at the airport is usually bottled at 80 or 100 proof, presumably because this is more civilized alcohol content and safer for air travel. The more rustic versions are often bottled at 142 proof. That’s strong enough to make one think twice when the airport staff asks pro forma security questions about explosives in one’s luggage.

(A dear friend and colleague who has spent a great deal of time in central Europe once told me a story about the first time he tried śliwowica. The story involves a farmer, an accordion player, and Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” But that’s his story and besides, it took place on the Slovak side of the Tatra Mountains, which is outside my ken.)

Over the years, my colleagues and I have developed several rules for drinking śliwowica and the first of these rules is this: never have more than one.

Speaking of Poland, every summer since 2006, I have spent the first several weeks of July in Poland with the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. Our annual seminar (“TMS” we call it) brings together about three dozen students from the United States, Poland, and various countries of central and eastern Europe to study the Church’s social doctrine in Kraków.

Every year, the students arrive eager for an intensive study of social doctrine with a world-class faculty: George Weigel, Russell Hittinger, Fr. Raymond de Souza, Nick and Mary Eberstadt, to name a few of our regulars. And every year, the same curious thing happens. The intellectual program of the seminar gives way to a deeper and more lasting kind of formation.

It is one thing to read about social ontology or study the principle of solidarity and another thing to experience those realities in a concrete way. Our students study, pray, discuss, travel, eat, argue, and laugh in a group that begins as total strangers from different countries and ends in fast, often life-long, friendships. Vocations are formed, fostered, and strengthened.

Our students come to Kraków hoping to study great ideas with excellent teachers, and they do that. But for so many of our students, it is the liturgical (daily Mass, celebrated simply but beautifully) and communal dimensions of the seminar which make the deepest and most lasting impression.

I wish the faculty and staff of the seminar could take full credit for this remarkable program. But the truth is that over more than three decades, much of the genius of the seminar has developed, as it were, naturally. Or, if you prefer, by grace.

And this, too, is part of the seminar’s importance. The normal experience of a healthy community with a robust liturgical and sacramental life, engaged in serious study of important questions, and sharing the simple delights of a common table and good friendship is, well, not so normal. For many of our students – who are young enough to know nothing but our alienated and screen-addled age – it can be positively extraordinary.

This extraordinary normalcy is reinforced by the history and culture of the place in which we study and pray. The rich cultural and ecclesial history of Krakow and its environs is wonderful and palpable, but also serves as a powerful check against both triumphalism and despair. The heroic virtues of Polish saints like Maximilian Kolbe, Faustina Kowalska, and John Paul II are as evident as the desperate historical and cultural circumstances in which those virtues were forged.

Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more. The sins visited upon Poland in the (not-so-distant) 20th century are, in the wisdom of Providence, inseparable from the examples of sanctity Poland gave to the world out of those same dark years.

Young people today face a strange, uncertain future. This is as true for our students who come from the United States as it is for those who come from Ukraine, though in starkly different ways. Knowing that greatness and sanctity can blossom, even in ordinary men and women living in extraordinarily dark times, is a compelling reason for hope.

This also reminds me of our second rule for drinking śliwowica: never have more than two.

I jest, of course, but only partly. At the heart of the Church’s social teaching is an account of the human person who is made by God for communion. We make no sense on our own as mere individuals. We make no sense without one another, and we make even less sense without God.

Our seminar does nothing to teach Catholic social doctrine more effectively than by giving our young students a taste of what the life of a community can be like when it is centered around celebration of the Eucharist and ratified by the ordinary goodness of a lively conversation over a good meal. It’s nature and grace and maybe even a glass of śliwowica. It’s life changing stuff.

This summer, the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society will run from July 1 through July 19. If you are interested, or know of someone who might be, applications are open now through March 29. Participants are not required to try śliwowica.


Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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