Poland is a land steeped in Catholic tradition. This is testified to by the glorious cathedrals, churches and shrines which we shall be able to visit.
Krackow, where we were based, is, arguably, the most beautiful of Poland’s cities with its ancient cathedral and castle at its heart. The Corpus Christi Procession on Thursday was probably one of the finest in Europe. We will visit the beautiful Shrine of Jasna Gora, where the Black Madonna is enshrined, and the Shrine of Divine Mercy. In addition, we will visit Auschwitz to honour the martyrs St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein.
It was hoped that this pilgrimage, led by Fr. Andrew Southwell and organised by the Latin Mass Society, would be a reflection of that greater pilgrimage which we are making through this life towards our heavenly home. As we journey, we do so with others, supporting each other by our prayers and encouragement. We hope we can do this on our pilgrimage and really form a good community over these coming days. At the heart of any pilgrimage is the Mass and each day we will have the traditional Mass and our daily prayers and devotions, as well as Sung Compline each evening. God willing, these days will be full of many graces and blessings to sustain us and help us as we draw closer to Our Blessed Lord.
Our pilgrimage came only six weeks after one of Poland’s worst peacetime tragedies. President Lech Kaczynski, some of his top aides and various government officials were among 96 people killed when their plane crashed in thick fog near Smolensk in western Russia. Tributes to them were still evident as we travelled around Poland.
Mogila Abbey in Krakow.
Few ancient monuments in Poland can rival the eight-century-old Mogila Abbey for the historical value. Yet this Cistercian monastery in Krakow, (See picture right) has been spared from the attention of tourists and the place stays pleasantly quiet apart from the Catholic feasts.
Apart from the core church and monastery the abbey’s compound consists of assorted buildings that date from various periods. The architecture doesn’t represent clear-cut styles as subsequent alterations have left their mark over past centuries. Most prominent structures are the basilica, monastery around a Gothic cloister, and the Renaissance abbot’s mansion of 1569.
This was our first visit and we immediately headed for Shrine of the Holy Cross. The icon is surrounded with instruments associated with Christ’s Crucifixion; the spear, nails, sponge, vinegar etc. There was an interesting fresco in the south transept which depicted the Crucifixion. At this shrine, Gill and I prayed for the little church and community of the Holy Cross at Seaview on the Island; one of the smallest churches in the Portsmouth Diocese. Sung Mass for this day; the Feast of the Holy Trinity; was at an adjacent convent, after which we had a brief tour of the church which included a door carved in 1466.
The Churches of Krakow
Krakow’s abundance of magnificent churches together with the plentitude of its monasteries and convents earned the city a reputation of “the Northern Rome” in the past. In fact, there are more churches per square mile in Krackow than in the Eternal City. While many of our English churches are closing; in Poland, they have remained the centres of spiritual life, attended throughout the week and crowded on Sundays and Holydays.
Wawel Cathedral on the Wawel Hill is Poland’s impressive national shrine. It dates from the 14th century and shelters some superb church art. The Sigismund Chapel is a masterpiece of the Renaissance art and architecture. The giant Zygmunt bell of 1520 ranks with the world’s largest. Most Polish kings are buried here together with the greatest national heroes.
On Wednesday 2nd June we attended early morning Mass in the cathedral at the altar of St. Stanislaus, Patron of Poland. This is a rare example of a European cathedral where there is a daily Latin (Extraordinary Form) Mass. This day marked the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 and also the anniversary of Pope John-Paul’s departure from Britain in 1982 after his glorious and successful visit.
We were privileged to have one of our morning Masses was at the Church of St. Stanislaus. (see picture – left) It was here in 1079 that Bishop Stanislaus; 1072–1079) was beheaded and dismembered by order of King Bolesław.
The cause of the conflict between bishop and king is complex and not entirely known, but it reached a boiling point when Stanislaus excommunicated the king. The king then accused the bishop of treason and had him brutally killed in this church. The violent story is remarkably similar to that of King Henry II and Bishop Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. Legend has it that the saint’s body was miraculously reassembled, which made an apt symbol of the restoration of Poland’s unity after its years of fragmentation. A martyr’s cult began immediately after his death; in 1088 his relics were moved to Wawel Cathedral where they remain today. A well outside the church is said to have sprung from the spot where Stanislaus was martyred (see photograph) and like many other pilgrims, we descended the steps to the well to drink its water.
Stanisłaus was canonized by Pope Innocent IV in Assisi in 1253. He was the first native Polish saint and is still patron saint of Poland, Kraków, and some Polish dioceses.
In the 14th century, the original Romanesque church was replaced by a new Gothic church by King Casimir III (1310-70). Since 1472, the church has belonged to the Pauline Fathers, who occupy an adjacent monastery. The church received a 18th century Baroque makeover.
St Stanislaus’s Procession on the first Sunday after May 8 gathers Poland’s cardinals and bishops, an array of celebrities, and huge crowds of the faithful, who follow the relics of the country’s patron saints from the Wawel Cathedral.
The Basilica of the Virgin Mary’s at the Grand Square is an immense Gothic church, the city of Krakow’s principal temple since the 13th century. (See picture left) It boasts the world’s greatest Gothic sculpture among its many excellent works of art. Huge stained-glass widows of the chancel date from the 14th century.
The Basilica of St. Francis is a stately 13th century Romanesque church. It has some masterpiece stain-glass windows by Krakow genius artist and playwright Stanislaw Wyspianski from the turn of the 20th century, notably “The Creation” above the church entrance. We saw a 15th-century a cloister with fine frescoes and stunning floral decor by the same artist. Adjoining the church is a Franciscan monastery. Whilst present we heard the Franciscan monks singing the midday Office. While many religious Orders in England are in freefall and monastic life is in crisis, it was encouraging to witness many young monks in traditional habits, not only here, but everywhere in Poland. The numerous priests, nuns and monks that we saw, gives witness to a vibrant Polish Church, with the seminaries, convents and abbeys full. Whilst many nuns and religious Sisters in Britain have thrown off their habit and veil, they are worn with pride in Poland. The result is that Vocations are plentiful.
Opposite this basilica stands the Archbishop’s Palace, where Pope John-Paul II made his last appearance in Krackow. It has some interesting John-Paul II memorabilia. This was his home when he was a priest in Krackow (1951-63). There were many gifts to the Pope on display that were given to him during his many papal visits. There was some fine historic church art, plus old vestments and relics and Pope John-Paul’s bicycle used in cycling around Krackow.
Church of St. Anne
This is another admirable Baroque edifice with exquisite stucco decor. This University church was built 1689-1705. St. John Kanty’s altar and mausoleum is situated in the south transept and it was here on the Feast of St. Francis Caracciolo that we were privileged to have Mass upon the relics of this famous Polish priest.
The Feast of Corpus Christi and the processions of our childhood, which were so very much part of the Pre-Conciliar Church, have been somewhat lost in recent years. These were not curtailed or even downgraded by Vatican II, but somehow, they lost their impetus. In Krackow on this day and elsewhere in Poland, there was a distinctive note of joyful triumph, as the crowds gathered outside the cathedral and loudspeakers relayed the Mass inside. Shortly afterwards altar servers appeared from the cathedral door and the First Communion children, immaculately dressed, dropped petals on the ground as the Cardinal Archbishop of Krackow carried the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance beneath of canopy. Hundreds of priests and religious followed while the congregation, singing hymns in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, was numbered in thousands. The bright sunshine of the day provided nature’s welcome for Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. This is clearly a feast of Faith. It is the church’s faith in the Real Presence that was being affirmed on this day and more than that, that Catholics celebrate gloriously on this feast. We have something unique here in the worship of Our Lord in the host. This is our pride and joy as Catholics. This was certainly evident among all age groups in Krackow. It is our pride because the Redeemer has placed himself in our unworthy hands until the world ends. Till then the Catholic Church will rightly glory in this unique privilege. It is our joy because in the host we know that our creator and Saviour delights to abide within us. On this day we proudly processed through the streets of Krackow, as the Blessed Sacrament is borne aloft and the mankind’s priceless treasure is solemnly carried beneath the canopy.
Benediction was given at four different stations around the city. At each station there were men and women in national costume carrying banners and statues depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary (see photographs). Finally, in the packed market square the procession arrived at its last temporary altar and the final blessing was given by the Cardinal, before the Blessed Sacrament was reposed.
It is evident that we have lost significant aspects of our Catholic heritage in England and other countries, that have chosen to move these wonderful solemnities to the following Sunday. In England this day has been reduced to a Feria. Not so in Catholic Poland. It was a joy to be present on this momentous occasion.
Church of Corpus Christi
It was fitting that on the great Feast of Corpus Christi we should have Mass in Krackow’s Church of Corpus Christi. Most of us had spent several hours following the procession through the streets of the city, concluding with Benediction in the market square. It was most impressive witnessing young Catholics giving due deference to the Blessed Sacrament. Sadly, the 16 to 30 year old are often missing from our churches in England, but they were very evident here in Krackow. Their reverence and devotion were awe inspiring. When we arrived at the church for our Mass, an Ordination ceremony was just concluding and many of our group had the privilege of kissing the newly anointed hands of the young priests and receiving their individual blessing. This 14th-century church, with a 1634 high altar, is in the grand gothic style with a rich, ornate interior. There was an impressive18th-century pulpit in the form of a boat. We were allocated the Rosary Chapel for our Mass. I had the privilege of serving the Mass offered by Fr. Andrew Southwell. In his sermon he reminded the congregation that “there is always the shadow of the Crucifixion that hangs over Maundy Thursday. This is why the Church has instituted this great feast. Today we rejoice in triumphant celebration. We have taken part this morning in the procession in honour of the Blessed Sacrament and we remember that at every Mass, Calvary is brought before us. The bread and the wine become Christ’s Body and Blood at the words of the Consecration. Do we prepare to receive Him worthily in this Holy Sacrament”? This is what we should ask ourselves before we approach the Communion rails.
Father went on to praise the faith and devotion of Polish Catholics over the years. “Look at these wonderful churches that we have visited and in which we have been able to offer Mass. They have been built and adorned magnificently for the glory of Almighty God. Compare this with what has happened in England and elsewhere over the past forty years”
After this (and every) Mass, we had sufficient time to explore and appreciate the church, to pray, meditate and admire the stunning architecture. The reverence and devotion of the Polish faithful was noticeable everywhere. It was evident that the Church played a more prominent role in family life, with children more respectful and deferential, and this is clearly maintained throughout their teenage years. Poland clearly exemplifies the appropriate wise words of the famous Rosary priest, Fr. Patrick Peyton, “the family that prays together, stays together”.
Church of St. Florian’s
This was originally built in 1184 as a mausoleum for the relics of St. Florian, the 3rd-century Roman soldier and martyr. Now it is an attractive Baroque church. Traditionally, it was the starting point for royal funeral processions to the Wawel Cathedral. John Paul II, then Father Wojtyla, was the curate here,1949-1951.
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.
This 17th-century church is one of the grandest Baroque churches after Rome’s del Gesu. It has an ornate white stone facade with sculptures, a huge dome and life-size stone statues of the Apostles. The crypt contains the sarcophagus of Father Skarga, the famous Jesuit preacher.
The Monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa
This is the third-largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world and the home to the beloved miraculous icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa. It was appropriate that we should be visiting this beautiful shrine on the Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin. (In the present Roman calendar, the Feast of the Visitation is now on this day, as there was a belief in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, that the subject of Mary’s Queenship would not assist positive ecumenical relationships). Today (as on all our coach journeys) we prayed the rosary and recited the Litany of Our Lady for the intentions of Our Holy Father and for the needs of the Church.
The adjacent monastery is also the national shrine of Poland and the centre of Catholicism. Our Blessed Lady is recognised as the Queen of Poland. During Nazi occupation, Hilter prohibited pilgrimages to Jasna Góra, but many still secretly made the journey. In 1945, after Poland was liberated, half a million pilgrims journeyed to Częstochowa to express their gratitude. On 8 September, 1946, 1.5 million people gathered at the shrine to dedicate the entire nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in thanksgiving for the end of World War II. This was exactly one hundred years after the opening of our own beloved St. Mary’s Church in Ryde, which was the first church in England to be dedicated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. During the Cold War, Jasna Góra was a centre of anti-Communist resistance.
According to tradition, the icon of Jasna Góra was painted by Luke the Evangelist on a tabletop built by Jesus himself, and the icon was discovered by St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine and collector of Christian relics in the Holy Land. The icon was then enshrined in the imperial city of Constantinople, where it remained for the next 500 years.
Pope John Paul II, was a fervent devotee of the Virgin Mary and of her icon at Częstochowa. As pope, he made pilgrimages to pray before the Black Madonna in 1979, 1983, 1991, and 1997. In 1991, he held his Sixth World Youth Day at Czestochowa, which was attended by 350,000 young people from across Europe (including Gill’s daughter, Emma, who went with a group of pilgrims from “Verbum Dei” at Carisbrooke)
Other popes have honoured the “Queen of Poland” as well. Pope Clement XI officially recognized the miraculous nature of the image in 1717 and in 1925 Pope Pius XI designated May 3 a feast day in her honour. Finally, Pope Benedict XVI visited the shrine on May 26, 2006.
Attached to the Chapel of the Black Madonna is the baroque basilica, named the Church of the Holy Cross and Nativity of Mary. Rebuilt in the 1690s, it has three aisles and ceilings decorated with accounts of the miracles of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The main altar was designed by the Italian artist Giacomo Antonio Buzzini in the 1720s.
Most of our group was present for the solemn unveiling of the icon in the early afternoon. Everywhere in and around Czestochowa, there were children in Communion dress, with their families, making pilgrimages to this famous shrine in thanksgiving for their First Communion within the past week.
We were allocated the Rosary Chapel for our Mass. Sadly this was more like a conference theatre compared to the altars and chapel that we had witnessed earlier in the day, but there were some interesting murals on the ceiling depicting the decades of the rosary
We visited the monastery’s treasury; a rich storehouse of votive offerings given to the Black Madonna over the centuries, from the 14th century to the present. Gifts range from swords and sceptres to rosaries made of dried bread in concentration camps. Kings, queens and popes have donated a vast array of precious objects, such as King Michael Korybut Wiśniowiecki and the Archduchess Eleanor of Austria on the occasion of their wedding in Jasna Góra in 1670. Also donated to the Virgin are tear-gas cylinders used by the Communists against Solidarity protestors in the 1980s, and the Nobel Peace Prize won by Lech Walesa in 1983.
Divine Mercy Convent at Lagiewniki.
We spent a few hours at the Sanctuary of Our Lord’s Mercy in Krakow’s Lagiewniki District. It was here that Christ appeared before a visionary Polish nun, St. Faustina Kowalska, in 1931. The Lord instructed her to commission this likeness of Himself, complete with the caption which reads in Polish: Jesus, I trust Thee. (see picture – left). In the series of appearances over the ensuing years He also revealed to St. Faustina His dogma of Divine Mercy.
At first the pious sister found little understanding among her contemporaries who thought the days of miracles were long past. The Church gave rather lukewarm support to St. Faustina and the revelations she had heard. Nonetheless, with time, the knowledge of them and the cult of the picture have spread far.
Nowadays the icon, depicting Christ’s abundant mercy flowing from His Sacred Heart adorns many a Catholic churches and chapels throughout the world. It was apt that we should be here at the start of June; the month which the Church dedicates to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The devotion of thousands of believers has made this (now familiar) painting sacrosanct. And pilgrims, both Polish and foreign, come daily in their thousands to pray before the original picture at the Krakow convent in the Lagiewniki area where 33-year-old Sister Faustina died in 1938 and where she is buried. Some of the resultant faith cures are well documented.
The church is modern and contemporary, (see picture – right) in contrast to the many wonderful Baroque churches that we had seen. Low Sunday is traditionally now Divine Mercy Sunday. Here on the Island there are Divine Mercy Chaplets with Devotions and Benediction quarterly in different churches. The next scheduled Chaplets are at St. Patrick’s, Sandown on Sunday 4th July and at Holy Cross, Seaview on Sunday 10th October.
The view from the top of the tower (similar to Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower) was magnificent (see photograph) views panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
The visit to Auschwitz reminded us of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man; where respect for human life and dignity were non existant. This was exemplified by the photographs of Nazi brutality, the victims’ belongings and personal possessions that were deposited before they went to the gas chambers, and by the unusual, eerie stillness in the atmosphere that pervaded the whole place.
It was in February 1941 that Maximilian Kolbe was arrested by the German Gestapo. On May 25 he was transferred to Auschwitz I as prisoner #16670.
In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine.) One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place. During the time in the cell he led the men in songs and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. Finally he was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid.
Father Kolbe was beatified as a confessor by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II on 10th October, 1982 in the presence of Franciszek Gajowniczek. Upon canonization, the Pope declared St. Maximilian Kolbe not a confessor, but a martyr. We saw a simple memorial to this brave and heroic priest in his cell (see photograph)
As on all pilgrimages we had made new friends and learnt a little more about ourselves both as individuals and as Catholics. Our pilgrimage reminded us of the greater pilgrimage here on earth; that which takes us, please God, to our eternal home. The future is necessarily unpredictable. We live in a world of not arriving but of travelling hopefully. “The most important part of any pilgrimage“, wrote G. K. Chesterton, “is going home afterwards“. This is not because we have reached our journey’s end, but because we have reached a new beginning. The purpose of any pilgrimage is to bring back something of what we have discovered to enrich our lives and the world in which we live. Confidence in the future is based on the wonderful promise made by Our Lord to the first ministers of the Church, the apostles: “Behold I am with you always, yes, even to the end of time“.