Recently, I wrote about the 1,050-year history of Christianity in Poland; another article about the current state of the Catholic Church there in preparation for World Youth Day in Krakow will be appearing at CWR soon. I would like to complement these two pieces on Polish Catholicism with a profile of nine unsung Polish Catholic heroes.
Henry the Pious (1196-1241): In 1241, the Mongols stormed across Europe, killing, raping, and pillaging as they went. The Polish duke of Silesia, Henry the Pious, led a coalition of Polish and Moravian knights and Knights Templar to stop them. Henry’s Christian army lost the Battle of Legnica on April 9, and he himself died a martyr in battle, but the losses the Mongols incurred were so large they retreated from Europe.
Paweł Włodkowic (1370-1435): Tragically, Europe has a long history of religious wars and persecutions. Before being partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a beacon of religious tolerance. Paweł Włodkowic was a canon lawyer and rector of the Krakow Academy (now the Jagiellonian University; one of the world’s oldest universities). At that time, the Teutonic Knights—an order of monk-knights—used violence to convert pagans in Prussia and Lithuania. Włodkowic saw this as blatantly anti-Christian, and he sent letters to the pope and cardinal archbishop of Krakow in protest. At the Council of Constance in 1414, he argued that violence couldn’t be used as a means of conversion, and that pagans have inherent God-given dignity. These were some of the earliest legal arguments regarding international law and universal human rights.
John III Sobieski (1629-1696): In 1683, Kara Mustafa’s Turks were at the gates of Vienna, ready to turn Europe into a Muslim colony. The Austrian emperor was cowardly and indecisive. He summoned the king of Poland, John III Sobieski, for help. Sobieski rode to Vienna with his army of hussars, decisively defeating the Turks and saving Christendom. “Venimus, vidimus, Deus vincit,” Sobieski wrote to Pope Innocent XI—“We came, we saw, God conquered.” Sobieski was also a patron of the arts and sciences as well as a devout Catholic.
St. Albert Chmielowski (1845-1916): Born Adam Chmielowski into a family of Polish nobility at a time when Poland had disappeared off the map and was divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, St. Albert was a talented and famous painter. His life of celebrity was unsatisfying, and he became a Third Order Franciscan, devoting himself to the poor. He built dozens of shelters for the homeless and sick, and for war invalids across Poland.
Father Ignacy Skorupka (1893-1920): After the Bolsheviks had overthrown Russia’s old regime, they wanted to export their revolution abroad. In 1919-1920, they tried to invade Poland and later conquer Western Europe. At that time, few believed in Polish victory, yet millions of Poles prayed for victory. The whole country mobilized to fight the barbarians. At the Battle of Warsaw in 1920—coincidentally, the most decisive fighting took place on the Feast of the Assumption—the Poles defeated the Bolsheviks, saving Europe. Father Skorupka was a military chaplain in the Polish Army. While giving the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to a wounded Polish soldier, Father Skorupka was fatally wounded by Bolshevik fire. Pope Pius XI, who was the papal nuncio to Warsaw at the time of the battle, later had a fresco of Father Skorupka painted for the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
Witold Pilecki (1901-1948): Before Auschwitz gained notoriety as the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, the Germans used it for terrorizing the Poles. In total, 150,000 non-Jewish Poles were imprisoned at the camp, making them the second-largest group of victims, after the Jews. Witold Pilecki was a devoutly Catholic family man who volunteered to go to Auschwitz by being deliberately present during a street roundup in Warsaw. He formed a resistance group in Auschwitz and wrote intelligence reports on what was happening there. Because he was an anti-communist, he was sentenced to the gallows by Poland’s post-war Stalinist government.
The Ulma Family (killed in 1944): During the Holocaust, penalties for aiding Jews in Western Europe were lenient or non-existent. In Poland, by contrast, the punishment was execution, often applied collectively. Yet Polish and Jewish historians estimate that several hundred thousand Poles were engaged in such efforts. Wiktoria and Józef Ulma were among them. These were devoutly Catholic, modest farm folk with six children (Wiktoria was pregnant with a seventh) who took the Fifth Commandment seriously. Knowing the risks, they nonetheless hid two Jewish families. After being denounced, they and the Jews they hid were killed by the Germans. The Ulmas’ cause for beatification is under study in Rome. As a German pope, Benedict XVI is said to have wanted to beatify the Ulmas, but unfortunately did not have the time.
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (1901-1981): Most East European countries dominated by the USSR saw their religious life obliterated or driven underground. In Poland, the opposite happened, largely thanks to Cardinal Wyszyński, the nation’s primate from 1948 to his death. Despite being thrown into prison for three years right after Stalin’s death, he was uncompromising with the communists: “Non possumus,” he said. “We cannot [make accommodations].” He re-evangelized the Polish nation in an ambitious program preparing the Polish nation for the 1,000th anniversary of its Christianization in 1966.
Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984): After Pope St. John Paul II visited his native Poland in 1979, the country would never be the same. The Catholic Church and Solidarity union greatly contributed to the fall of the Soviet Bloc. At this time, Father Jerzy was a charismatic priest at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Warsaw. Thousands of people, including non-believers, attended his Masses, during which he defended national sovereignty and the dignity of the working class. This was too much for the regime, and so he was kidnapped and brutally murdered in 1984 by communist police officers. A quarter million Poles attended his funeral, and 150,000 people (including yours truly) saw him beatified in Warsaw in 2010.