In 2016, I was blessed to travel with my son Gabe and STMA Catholic Youth Ministry to World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Southern Poland is a wonderful place for a Catholic pilgrimage; so many ancient and modern saints lived and died in so small a region that every day it seemed we visited another sacred site in another blessed city. The big three, of course, were 20th century saints: St. John Paul II, St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe.
In the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we were blessed to visit his religious community at Niepokalanów as well as the concentration camp where he gave his life at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). I say blessed truly, but not in the typical sense of the word. On a sunny summer day, Auschwitz is still and green and peaceful as an cemetery, but still more somber and hushed; the fences, ruins, and the dreadful sign above the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Free You), bear silent witness to the cruelty of which humanity is capable.
As we left the camp, we passed a small booth selling items commemorating the place—most prominently, a book entitled Hope Is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum. Born Halina Grynsztajn to a Jewish family in Warsaw, she survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation, followed by four prison camps in succession: Majdanek and Auschwitz in Poland, and Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe in Germany.
I bought the book, as the most appropriate way to recall the place and what happened there. I finally found the courage to read it this Lent.
Last weekend, Fr. Park preached on the importance of rest. The Lord calls His followers to come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile (Mark 6:31). We do well to rest with the Lord by keeping holy the Sabbath—attending Mass and resting from activities that do not renew us in body and spirit—and by regularly withdrawing from the world to spend time with Jesus on retreat.
First, I want to second Father’s retreat recommendation. I’ve been blessed to make a personal retreat almost every year since I left the University of Minnesota and came to work for the Church. The first was a hermitage retreat at Pacem in Terris in Isanti, during which I spent a few days and nights in a comfortable one-room cabin in the woods; a basket of simple foods and water were left on my doorstep each morning, and I was encouraged to read scripture, reflect and pray in silence, on my own. A couple years ago I did something similar at Holy Hill in Wisconsin, renting a room in the old monastery and enjoying a self-imposed silence and reflection at an otherwise bustling shrine.
The rest have been three-day silent retreats at Demontreville in Lake Elmo, with a Jesuit retreat master leading us through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, simple rooms, great food and quiet consistency from one year to the next. All have been fruitful, and when I re-enter the silence of retreat, I find God waiting for me, right where we left off.
Blogger’s Note: This is the third of three posts along my path to the Sacred Heart about the three Polish saints whose loving example pervaded World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland.
Pope St. John Paul II
“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” — Pope St. John Paul II
Born Karol Wojtyła in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920. Suffered the loss of his family, freedom, and country by the time he was 21 years old; risked his life under the Nazi regime to promote Polish cultural resistance and study for the priesthood. Recognized as a gifted theologian, pastor, and bishop; elected pope in 1978 and brought the Good News to 129 countries. Instrumental in the fall of dictatorships and Communism; wounded critically in an assassination attempt in 1981; credited Our Lady for preserving his life and met with and forgave the assassin. Served as pope until his death in 2005, despite declining health due to Parkinson’s and old age. One of the most recognized figures of the 20th century. View a more complete biography here.
My photo of a saint, taken at World Youth Day in Toronto, 2002.
Unlike yesterday’s saint, Faustina Kowalska, St. John Paul II is the Polish saint I know best. I’ve read countless articles and two biographies: Witness to Hope by George Weigel and Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves by Jason Evert. He was the pope during my return to Catholic church and for more than half my life so far. Additionally, he is the one (known) saint I’ve had the privilege of seeing and hearing in person, at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Continue reading
Blogger’s Note: This is the second of three posts along my path to the Sacred Heart about the three Polish saints whose loving example pervaded World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland.
St. Faustina Kowalska
“I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to my merciful heart.” — Jesus to St. Faustina
Born Helena Kowalska in Głogowiec, Poland, in 1905, to a poor, religious peasant family. Felt called to religious life at an early age, but went to work as a housekeeper to help support herself and her family. Accepted to the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy (OLM) in Warsaw in 1924, and in 1926, received her habit and the name Sister Maria Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament. Began having visions of Jesus as “the King of Divine Mercy” in February 1931, instructing her in His love and mercy, asking her to to paint His likeness with the inscription “Jesus, I Trust in You,” and to establish a feast of mercy in the Church. View a more complete biography here.
I have to admit, of the three Polish saints I am profiling, I know the least about Faustina. Unlike Maximilian Kolbe, whose zeal for saint-making, boundless energy, and prolific publishing career made him known even before his martyrdom, or John Paul II, who was the most well-traveled pontiff in history and one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century, St. Faustina lived out her vocation and mystical experience primarily in private. Like many Catholic mystics, she suffered poor health, and she died at just 33 years old. She is one of a handful of saints for whom an autobiography exists; it was written at the urging of her confessor, is some 600 pages long, and is on my reading list for this fall. Continue reading
Blogger’s Note: I have no set order for these Sacred Heart posts, but am writing as Providence provides and the Spirit moves. Today the readings in 33 Days to Morning Glory shifted to focus on John Paul II, and I was called back to July 2016, World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland…
Rome may be the the Eternal City and the seat of Catholic teaching authority, wisdom, and creativity in the world, but it seems to me that Poland is its bleeding, beating heart. Ravaged by wars and neighboring countries, ripped apart and reconstituted, invaded and occupied, the Poles have fought, suffered, and died for centuries, surrendering everything they had except their faith. Today, Poland is the homeland of ten 20th-century canonized Catholic saints and, I would argue, serves as the counter-cultural, Catholic conscience of Europe.
In summer of 2016, however, three specific Polish saints loomed large over World Youth Day in Kraków: the martyr of Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kolbe; the visionary nun, St. Faustina Kowalska; and the prophetic pope, St. John Paul the Great. Each in his or her own way lived out the love of Christ in the world, pouring themselves out for the salvation of souls. Each embodied His suffering Sacred Heart. Over the next three days I will look at them, one at a time, and explain as best I can what captured my imagination about each of them. Continue reading