This is the second in a series of posts entitled Retracing My Footsteps in the City of Saints by Eugenia Geisel for Eastern Catholic Person on her experience of encountering the saints in Kraków as part of the ordinary supernatural during World Youth Day. The first post, on the Black Madonna, can be found here.
Eugenia is an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle, majoring in Korean and minoring in Comparative Religion and Russian and Slavic Literatures; she took my course on Trans-Pacific Christianities, a class to which I recently had to issue a public retraction. Because Eugenia is a cradle Latin with Byzantine sympathies, I consider her for the purposes of this blog to be our Latin Catholic Person.
But there is another more compelling reason for Eugenia to post here. While Chris Altieri has criticized the participants at World Youth Day who are nearing age thirty for extended adulthood, Eugenia fits even his criterion for what ‘youth’ are. This is not to take a position on ‘youth’ – we can only be persons – but it is to say that this is an account of how one young Latin Catholic Person encountered the saints in the city of Kraków and cared enough about communion to tell an Eastern Catholic Person about it. The term ‘City of Saints’ is admittedly from George Weigel’s newest book, but it was also used widely during the festivities in Kraków, so any convergences with Weigel’s text is (unless noted) genuinely incidental.
As I discussed in my first post, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa remained a central image for me during my time participating at World Youth Day in Kraków. Along my pilgrimage, I was blessed to follow in the spiritual – and sometimes even geographical – footsteps of many other saints. In the Mercy Centre (the English language catechesis site where I contributed to the liturgical music), we were blessed with the presence of five Polish saints’ relics available to venerate and alongside which to pray. Although, as much as I like to think of it as me following in the footsteps of great saints, I have discovered that all too often, it is the saints who find us as individuals far more often than we find them ourselves, reaching out as intercessors and patrons into our earthly lives.
In fact, my family happens to have a special devotion to various Polish saints and my siblings are each named for great saints of Poland. As of late, one Polish saint in particular has been turning up everywhere I go, and learning more and more about him makes it less and less surprising that I would be drawn to him. Or, like I said, is it in fact him that is drawn to me? As the title might have suggested, this would be Bl. Jerzy Popiełuszko. When I learned his relics would be present at the Mercy Centre my heart literally skipped a beat. While Eastern Catholic Person Justin himself might have an interest in the theo-political and geographical context of this chapter in Poland’s history, I think that sharing Bl. Jerzy’s story is important in that it can be an opportunity to recognize that authentic solidarity is once again something that must ‘breathe with two lungs’. The Churches of the East and West must be in solidarity with one another in order to stand in solidarity for the oppressed and marginalized, particularly in certain geographical and social contexts, as both Pope Francis and the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church’s Patriarch Sviatoslav (Shevchuk) said about the importance of having World Youth Day in Poland.
Fr. Jerzy was a young parish priest from the small rural village of Okopy. On the surface, he may have seemed like your average parish priest, but the truth was his faith and heart for justice was anything but average. After being ordained a priest in 1972 (notably by Cardinal Wyszyński, another iconic figure of late 20th Century Poland), Fr. Jerzy was assigned to several small parishes before ultimately being sent to St. Stanisław Kostka Parish in Warsaw in 1980.
It was then that the extraordinariness of this ordinary man began to come into fruition. In September of 1980 at the Lenin Shipyard, a large scale strike of shipbuilders broke out and Fr. Jerzy was sent as their chaplain and said mass for the laborers. This strike resulted in the formation of the independent trade union Solidarność on 17 September, 1980 and Fr. Jerzy found himself as the union and movement’s chaplain and spiritual leader. He celebrated monthly masses, organize support and relief for families facing job losses, and his homilies that often highlighted the mercy and charity that’s intrinsic to Catholic Social Teaching would be regularly broadcast on Radio Free Europe.
Solidarność, or Solidarity, was both a trade union and an opposition movement to the bureaucratic and authoritarian government of Poland at the time, galvanizing the unrest among workers and the general population as the economy stagnated, into an organized and nonviolent entity. It was eventually outlawed after martial law was established from December of 1981 until 1983, leading many of its members, leaders, and sympathizers to be imprisoned, forced into labor, or even killed.
But this was the cost of Solidarity.