“When I saw the kindness of Jesus, I began to beg His blessing. Immediately Jesus said, For your sake I bless the entire country. And He made a big sign of the cross over our country. Seeing the goodness of God, a great joy filled my soul.” - The Diary of St. Faustina, entry 39
October 5th is the feast day of one of Poland’s great saints: St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. Along with many others, I proudly claim that St. Faustina became my favorite saint after I was introduced to her Diary. Little did I know that this spiritual masterpiece would lead me to fall in love not only with her and the Divine Mercy message, but also with the culture, language, history, and Catholicity of Poland.
Since opening Faustina’s Diary for the first time in 2015, I have traveled to Poland twice and learned about other great Polish Catholics such as Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, Blessed Michal Sopocko, and Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. I’ve gone deeper into the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and learned about his own devotion to St. Jadwiga, read about the Polish Solidarity Movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, and much more.
I’ve often felt that Poland has its own brand of “Catholic.” There’s the Eastern Rite Catholics, Latin Catholics, and then the Polish Catholics. In the 20th century alone, countless Polish saints have risen from the ashes of two world wars to shine lights of hope, mercy, justice, and love into the world. From its mystics and martyrs to its heroic and internationally beloved pontiff John Paul II, Poland is steeped in Catholicism. You can almost taste it in the air when you hop off the plane at John Paul II Kraków-Balice International Airport or walk the grounds of the Divine Mercy Shrine in Łagiewniki. I strongly hope that future generations treasure Poland’s rich history and the giants that paved the way for them to explore the faith in an incredibly deep and profound way, given the intense historic time periods through which their faith blossomed.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend’s young Polish au pair that made me wonder if this generation does not recognize the gems earned for them by their spiritual ancestors. As I tend to do when meeting anyone from Poland, I rattled off to this young woman about all of my favorite Polish places, saints, and historical moments. She found my love for Poland surprising, and talked about how many young Poles are trying to come to the United States.
This puzzled me. Understandably, a country’s own citizens are its biggest critics for a variety of legitimate reasons. But as fellow Catholics, I was hoping for a sense of pride, a recognition of the depth of their history and faith. Maybe, like our country and so many others, appreciation for heritage fades with each passing generation. Indeed, today’s Poles are further removed from the wounds of war and communism than their ancestors, and thus it becomes easy to forget what was fought and won before them.
As a result of my time spent in Poland and my subsequent research, I’ve come to admire that it is a place where national culture, identity, and faith was suppressed—unsuccessfully—over and over for centuries. It is a place whose heritage was preserved with blood, zeal, and grit. A place where Catholicism wasn’t freely available but had to be searched for underground and practiced in secret. Poland had to earn where it is today, and past generations understood the price of defending this heritage. Today, when you walk into a church in Poland, you will see a handful of priests hearing confessions before Mass. You will hear beautiful hymns sung—not with heads down buried in the missals, but eyes forward, sung by heart, and with pride. You will hear piercing silence during the consecration of the Sacred Host. You will find standing room only during Mass. You will not be able to find an open store or restaurant two days leading up to Easter. As an American living in a largely secular society, these observations were refreshing to me.
Ultimately, Poland’s historical example of turning suffering into mercy, justice, and love has much to teach us not only about the value of a life well lived, but about the value of misfortune well-suffered. From the surrender of St. Faustina, an uneducated peasant turned mystic-nun who penned one of our faith’s greatest spiritual works, to the small, frail priest and martyr Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko boldly, bravely, and publicly proclaiming the truth of Christ directly in the face of communist rule, to the quarry worker and poet-turned Pontiff St. John Paul II, and everyone in between, the saints of Poland show us how we can “shine truth through misfortune,” as Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. Every one of the saints mentioned here overcame significant suffering, but through their surrender to Christ, became who they were meant to be, and “set the world on fire.” (St. Catherine of Siena).
May you have a happy Feast Day! And if you haven’t, I invite you to open up St. Faustina’s Diary. You’ll be glad you did!
Whenever I go about my day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I am greeted by the faces of hundreds of saints illustrated in dozens of statues, mosaics, and portraits. Certainly, the focus of the Shrine — and indeed, any Catholic church — is on Christ (in this case through the Blessed Mother), but invariably one notices the honoring of God’s holy ones as well in side chapels and oratories. While one can hardly wander into the Great Upper Church of the Basilica without gazing in awe at the dominating mosaic Christ in Majesty — one of the largest images of Jesus in the world — it’s also impossible to miss the mere fraction of the Communion of Saints honored throughout the space; those who were so moved in their encounters with the Lord that they devoted their lives to the pursuit of Him.
Why does this church (and the Universal Church) assign so much importance to these figures? While the act of adoration and worship is solely reserved for God, the saints (including Mary) are, by contrast, venerated. When properly done, veneration does not interfere with the worship due to God, but rather fosters it. As the Second Vatican Council noted: “Our communion with those in heaven, provided that it is understood in the fuller light of faith according to its genuine nature, in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the latreutic [what is allowed to God alone] worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit” (Lumen Gentium 51).
Hailing from all walks of life, the saints represent the fervent love of God as he calls them to participate in and enrich the ministries of the Church, whether through charity, scholarship, prayer, catechesis, or apologetics. The saints rejected the status quo of society. They reformed society to be more like Christ’s ministry — sometimes at the cost of their own lives. They met people wherever they were in life in order to bring about a fruitful encounter with the Lord. If we have ever felt that we could not strive for the holiness God calls each of us to, we surely have countless role models to look to in the saints. We might think: “But I can’t possibly attain those standards — I’m a sinner!” But as the recently canonized Mother Teresa reportedly observed, “Saints are only sinners who keep trying.” Recognizing that their own shortcomings, however frequent, are infinitesimal compared to the love and mercy of God, the saints sought and found comfort in our perfect Lord, rather than wallowing in the imperfect condition of their lives.
In our own struggles for holiness, if we ever feel alone or without guidance, we have only to look to the saints for inspiration. The trials we face, whether they be doubts, abandonment, threats, or scorn were similarly faced by them. Yet the example of Christ’s experiences with these difficulties drove them forward, and so should also motivates us. We need not be intimidated with what is asked of us or the great witness of the saints. Again, in words attributed to Mother Teresa, we have only to concern ourselves with offering God “small things with great love.”
In the Basilica, the bas-relief of the Universal Call to Holiness rests directly opposite of Christ in Majesty, reflecting the theme of Lumen Gentium discussed above. Illustrated in the huge marble slab are people from all walks of life gazing upon and approaching God, the Holy Spirit. As Lumen Gentium, the bas-relief, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all emphasize: “all are called to holiness” (CCC 2013). The saints have embraced this, and not necessarily early in their lives. St. Augustine, one of the Church’s greatest converts, admitted to God in his autobiography called Confessions, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new.” God can turn our failures into moments of grace at any point in our lives (Romans 5:20)! The saints did not go about the great evangelical enterprise for their own sake or glory, but to share the Mystery of God’s unceasing love that so moved them to reject what the world offers in comforts and powers. Just as Christ initiated this work on earth during His ministry and the saints have sustained it throughout the millennia, it is now entrusted to us that the light of God’s truth may forever shine bright and call back to Him those who are lost in the world’s darkness.