On Nov. 12, 2011, Msgr. Stanisław Pindera, a member of John Paul II Council 14023 in Starachowice, Poland, celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church as the council hosted the pilgrim image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The 6,000-mile flight from Mexico to Poland takes 10 hours and crosses seven time zones. There are few diplomatic ties between these two countries, and when the average Polish citizen thinks of Mexico, the only thoughts that come to mind are stereotypical images of tequila, sombreros and spicy Mexican cooking. So when the Knights of Columbus in Poland were invited last August to participate in a Marian Prayer Program dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe an image that has particular meaning for Catholics in Mexico there was a certain sense of cautiousness.
“This image of Mary is little known in Poland,” said Stanisław Dziwiński, who is a member of Bishop Theodore Kubina Council 14955 in Częstochowa and the coordinator of the prayer program in Poland. “I remember the first time we displayed the image in one of the churches in Częstochowa. Many people came up to me and asked, ‘What is that portrait?’”
Nonetheless, Poles have responded positively over the past nine months, and participation has surpassed the organizers’ highest expectations. Since October 2011, a pilgrim image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has visited more than 20 local councils and some 150,000 people have participated in the program. When one factors in visitors who have prayed before the image between “official” prayer services, the number is likely much higher, according to Dziwiński.
“The message connected to this image is intended for all,” explained Father Wiesław Lenartowicz, chaplain of Radom Council 14004. “It is also the perfect chance to show others what our Order does.”
A HISTORY OF DEVOTION
Devotion to Mary has always been a key part of Polish Catholicism. According to Father Lenartowicz, “Marian spirituality, without question, lies very strongly within our heart. It is safe to say we are open to anything that is connected with Our Lady.”
Many historical events have strengthened the conviction that Poland is under Mary’s special protection. In the 16th century, for example, the Marian sanctuary in Częstochowa was one of the few places in the country that was able to defend itself against the Swedes. In 1920, the Poles were likewise able to defend against a large Soviet army in the Battle of Warsaw, known as the “Miracle at the Wisła.” A turning point in that victory occurred on Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. Later, in 1966, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński initiated a pilgrim prayer program, using an image of Our Lady of Częstochowa, in celebration of the millennial anniversary of Poland’s baptism. As this important symbol of the Church in Poland hastened from parish to parish, the people’s participation clearly manifested their objection to communist rule and foreshadowed the Solidarity movement that would follow.
Leszek Waksmundzki, coordinator of development for the Knights of Columbus in Poland, emphasized that the pilgrim image of Our Lady of Częstochowa set the stage for the Our Lady of Guadalupe prayer program. “This form of venerating Our Lady is not new to us,” he said,“and we can relate to it very well.”
“It is the chaplains who are doing an amazing job,” added Poland State Deputy Krzysztof Orzechowski. “In the weeks before the image arrives at a parish, [the chaplains] are busy preparing the faithful, teaching them about the image and about the meaning of the message, using their own pastoral programs.”
The themes of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s message resonate in Polish parishes, and the image allows Poles to feel closer to Blessed John Paul II. The beloved Polish pope visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City on four occasions and called Our Lady of Guadalupe “the star of the new evangelization.” Under her Guadalupan title, Mary is also regarded as the protector and patroness of life, because she is depicted with child.
“Our Lady hits straight to our hearts with her message, reminding us who the Lord of Life is,” said Father Lenartowicz, who believes that the protection of life is a special task for the Church today and is directly related to the mission of the Knights.
Indeed, Knights in Poland have found the Marian Prayer Program to be a great opportunity for people to pray together for the unborn, for pregnant women and for families. That prayer, in turn, has led to the launch of a new initiative called the Crusade for the Protection of Life, in which participants “spiritually adopt” a conceived child and pledge to protect all life from conception to natural death.
According to Orzechowski, the initiative was inspired by the Crusade for the Liberation of Man, launched in 1979 to combat substance abuse and other forms of modern slavery. “As for the Crusade for the Protection of Life, the intention is to pray regularly for the cause and participate in other [pro-life] activities,” he said.
Knights carry an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in procession in Skarzysko-Kamienna, Poland.
UNDER MARY’S CARE
Thanks to the efforts of the Polish priests who have committed their time to the Marian Prayer Program, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has served as a reminder to Catholics of the different dimensions that comprise their spiritual life. Faithful pilgrims have welcomed with an open heart a Marian image from a distant culture that was previously unknown to them.
Although each region of Poland has its own unique Marian image, Our Lady of Guadalupe did not become anyone’s “rival,” according to coordinator Dziwiński. Rather, she has allowed Poles to witness the universality of the Church.
“Some people have joked whether Our Lady of Ludźmierz, a well-known Marian image in Poland, would learn to speak Spanish so that she could converse with Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Dziwiński. “But it is evident to everyone that there is one Mary who is represented in many images, each having their own unique message.”
Since the program began, bishops have led at least seven of the celebrations in Poland, often giving the pilgrimage recognition throughout their dioceses. In Rzeszów alone, about 30,000 people visited the image in one week.
“The faithful came to me and said that Our Lady came to visit them because they did not have the money to travel to Mexico,” said Father Janusz Kosior, chaplain of St. Hedwig the Queen Council 15268 in Rzeszów. “They thought of it as their holiday and they made a pilgrimage from different areas of the province.”
Seeing their faith, Father Kosior suggested that the Knights look to government leaders to entrust the entire Podkarpacie province to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Local officials obliged, and on Feb. 13, the World Day of Prayer for Families, they read a declaration dedicating the province to Our Lady’s care. Bishop Kazimierz Górny of Rzeszów, rectors of local universities and military representatives were among those who took part in this unprecedented event.
Interestingly, Our Lady of Guadalupe turned out to be closer to Poland than anyone could have foreseen one year ago. Orzechowski remembers his surprise when he found out that Poland is the only country in Europe that has been entrusted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. During Mass at the basilica in Mexico City on May 3, 1959, Cardinal Miguel Darío Miranda y Gómez of Mexico consecrated Poland to Our Lady of Guadalupe’s care at the request of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.
Finally, the Marian Prayer Program has helped the Knights in Poland to maintain a healthy perspective about the active life and contemplative life. “I can see clearly that the calling of the Knights is not only being socially active, but it is also religious development,” said Orzechowski. “Prayer must precede all other activities without it, our activities would be barren.”
KRZYSZTOF MAZUR is a member of Our Lady of Mercy Council 15128 in Krakow.
Entrusting Poland to Our Lady of Guadalupe
After the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, a Polish soldier named Jerzy Skoryna settled in Mexico, where he visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and noticed the flags of countries that had been consecrated to Our Lady. He learned that in order for Poland to be consecrated, too, formal requests were needed from the cardinal primate of Poland and from the Polish government. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński quickly sent the first request, but the communist regime in Poland refused to send its own request for ideological reasons. The president of the Polish Republic in exile, who at that time was recognized by the Holy See, sent the second request instead.
The ceremony took place May 3, 1959 the feast of Our Lady, Queen of Poland and the anniversary of the first Polish Constitution, the world’s oldest constitution after the United States. In his homily, Cardinal Miranda y Gómez said that when Mexican Catholics experienced persecution in the 1920s and ’30s, the people of Poland prayed for them. And through this consecration and the prayers of the Church in Mexico, the spiritual favor was being repaid.
Entrusting Poland to Our Lady of Guadalupe also reinforced the belief that the victory over oppressive governments and enemies of the Church comes through Mary.