One of the great things about World Youth Day is that it’s an opportunity for young people from all over the world to get up-close and personal with someone else’s culture. After all, one of the purposes of WYD is to show solidarity – or, as the Poles would say, solidarność (soh-lee-dahr-noshch) – with people from other parts of the world, and one of the surest ways of building that solidarity is to cultivate understanding. To that end, the participants in this year’s WYD festivities in Kraków will visit two places that are intensely important to Polish culture, and which represent both a high and a low for their people.
One of the places that pilgrims will visit during their stay in Poland is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi death camp, which is located outside a quiet farming village in south-western Poland. This might not sound like a whole lot of fun – I’ve been to Auschwitz, and trust me, it isn’t – but remember this: Pilgrimage isn’t always about having fun.
The horrors that were visited upon Poland during World War II have had an enormous impact on their mentality of the Polish people, and if you pay attention, you can still see the imprint they’ve left. Auschwitz is one of those horrors, one which the Polish people are determined not to forget.
While at Auschwitz, the pilgrims will take a tour of the grounds, including one of the cells where prisoners were starved to death. Here, a saint by the name of Maximilian Kolbe was martyred. Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan monk who actively worked against the Nazi machine by publishing anti-Nazi pamphlets and hiding thousands of Jewish refugees in his monastery. In 1941, the Nazis seized his monastery and sent him, along with his brother monks, to the Pawiak (pah-vee-ahk) concentration camp. Later, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
As the story goes, Kolbe witnessed the horrors at Auschwitz and volunteered to suffer them. When prisoners were being chosen for the starvation chamber, a man with a wife and family was chosen. Kolbe stepped up and offered to take his place. We can all imagine what the Nazi’s intention for the starvation chamber was, but Kolbe again took an active stance against it: He led the others in the chamber with him in prayer and kept everyone calm as they waited for the end. After two weeks, Kolbe was the only one left alive, and was given an injection of carbolic acid to finish him off. He’s the patron saint of drug addicts (because of that final injection), families, the pro-life movement, and prisoners.
Pilgrims will join in prayer at the site of Kolbe’s martyrdom, as well as in a recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
Now, before you ask, I can see two different questions forming. First: Why are Catholic pilgrims saying a Jewish prayer? Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all brothers in faith. We all worship the God of Abraham. Furthermore, the Christian faith is tied very closely to the Jewish faith. It’s not at all out of place for Christians to say a Jewish prayer, to help bring peace to our people who went before us.
Second: Is this really an appropriate stop for teenagers? This question I answer with another question: How irresponsible would it be to tell our youth to actively work to make the love of Christ manifest in this world without showing them what they’re up against?
The pilgrims’ time in Poland won’t be spent entirely on the atrocities of fourscore years ago. In fact, after bearing witness to one of the lowest points in human history, the pilgrims will move onto one of the most beautiful shrines in all of Poland, if not Europe.
The tiny, largely unremarkable town of Częstochowa (chess-toh-hoh-vah) holds a very special place in the hearts of the Polish people. This is because there’s a Pauline monastery there, by the name of Jasna Góra (yaz-nah goo-rah; Illuminated Mountain) which houses one of the most important relics in Polish Catholicism.
Catholics believe in a physical Church. Thus, the importance of the idea of pilgrimage (and, consequently, WYD). One way people physically encounter the Church is through relics, objects which are considered holy. In a (surprisingly) small chapel in Jasna Góra, one of the holiest relics in Poland is kept on display: the icon of the Black Madonna.
Polish tradition holds that this icon protected Poland during a time of war. In the 17th century, due to the complicated and ridiculous traditions of royal intermarriage, a war of succession broke out, called the Swedish Deluge. It was so named because the Swedes came down upon Poland like a torrential rain, and were seemingly unstoppable. They had almost conquered Poland – and won the throne for their leader – when they reached Częstochowa. The people had barricaded themselves into the only stronghold they had, the monastery at Jasna Góra. Under the leadership of Prior Augustyn Kordecki, (aw-gus-tin kohr-des-kee) the 310 men inside the monastery took on the Swedish army, 2,200 strong. That’s right, the strength of the Swedish army got their butts kicked by a monk with a twelve-pound cannon.
Needless to say, the Polish people rather like that story.
The victory was attributed to the intervention of Mary, in the form of the Black Madonna. Since then, she has remained an extremely important figure in Polish Catholicism, to the point where, during the Nazi occupation when all pilgrimage was punishable by summary execution, people would sneak out to Jasna Góra to make their devotions. In 1981, after surviving an assassination attempt, John Paul II (of whom the Poles are also very fond) credited his survival to the intervention of Mary through the Black Madonna. The pilgrims will be able to see his blood-stained belt, a votive offering made by John Paul II upon his recovery, hanging next to the icon.
By visiting these two places, hopefully the pilgrims will have a greater understanding not only of Poland and the Polish religious culture, but also of how their faith can fit into their everyday lives, through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hopefully, these places will give them the courage to stand strong in their beliefs and in their conviction of what is right. Hopefully, they’ll see how beautiful when lived in communion with others and with God.
And, hopefully, they’ll learn to stand in solidarity with each other.