By CAROLE BRESLIN
There is only one organization on the face of the earth whose leader unfailingly draws the largest crowds in history. Literally millions will crowd into the city where the leader will be. Of course, it is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. No wonder political leaders down through history have tried to destroy the Church, but all have failed. In 1995, five million gathered in Manila for World Youth Day, while in 2013, three million gathered in Rio de Janeiro for another World Youth Day.
On June 7, 1999, in Warsaw, Poland, there was another huge gathering of the Polish people. During his seventh pastoral visit to his native country, Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass which drew 700,000 people. During the Mass he spoke on the beatification of 110 Polish people, 108 of whom were martyrs. Among this august group were bishops, priests, religious, and nuns, as well as laity. The cause of their deaths was the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.
When they were faced with impending death, the courage of these martyrs was nothing short of miraculous. Their self-sacrifice to save others and to witness to their love of God with unbounded joy demonstrates the overwhelming mercy of God. At a time when St. Faustina had only recently died and the Divine Mercy had not yet become popular, these martyrs not only spoke frequently of God’s mercy, but proved it by their lives.
Marianna Biernacka, born in 1888, married a poor farmer with whom she had two children. When some German soldiers were killed, presumably by the resistance in Poland, the Nazis rounded up some Poles to be shot in retaliation. Tragically, her son Stanislaw and his wife were singled out to be shot. Knowing that her daughter-in-law was pregnant, Marianna stepped forward and begged the Germans to take her life instead, and spare the life of her daughter-in-law. They agreed to the substitution. Marianna was shot and killed on July 13, 1943 in Naumovichi, Belarus.
The Catholic clergy became a prime target of the Nazis, who even had a special place in the camp of Dachau for them.
Bronislaw Kostkowski was born on March 11, 1915 in Slupsk, Poland, to Marcin and Maria. He went to school there and then to the State Grammar School in Bydgoszcz where his family had moved. At the age of 21, in 1936, he studied theology in the Higher Theological Seminary in Wloclawek. He received the two lower orders toward being ordained a priest in 1939.
However, his studies were interrupted when the Gestapo came to the seminary and arrested the students and the teachers. They offered Bronislaw his freedom if he would renounce his priesthood but he refused to do so. After being imprisoned and moved from camp to camp, he ended up in Dachau where he died by starvation on November 27, 1942, similar to the death suffered by his countryman, St. Maximilian Kolbe, on August 14, 1941 in Auschwitz.
In The State Of Mercy
An example of the zeal of the Polish youth resides in the glorious death of five young men who were leaders in the Salesian Youth Association. Aged from 19 to 21 years, these young men were arrested for belonging to a “subversive, patriotic” organization located in the Salesian Oratory in Poznan. Most were arrested in September of 1940. All died at the foot of the guillotine on August 24, 1942. Surprisingly, the young adults were allowed to write a final letter to their loved ones before their execution.
Czeslaw Jozwiak, born in 1919, served as president of the Salesian Youth Association. His strength in trials came from his firm trust in God as well as his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He approached his death with joy, a joy that came from knowing that he was going to meet Jesus and Mary. When he wrote to his mother, he urged her to “offer your pain to Mary, the Mother of God . . . she will heal your wounded heart.”
Edward Kazmierski, born in 1919, served as a leader in the association as well. Strong in his faith, he wrote to his sister and mother as he faced execution, “Say thank you to God for His inscrutable mercy. He has given me peace. . . . It is the will of God.”
Edward Klinik, born in 1919, had an unshakable faith in God and the protection of the Blessed Virgin. While admitting that he was in the battle of his life, he trusted that Mary kept him under her wings and would not abandon him. He wrote to his family, “These decisions of God are strange, but we must accept them because it is for the good of the soul. . . . Now, where you, Mummy, won’t have me, take Jesus.”
One of the younger men, born in 1920, Franciszek Kesy, also had a deep devotion to our Lady. His faith and his knowledge of his need for prayer were expressed clearly in his last letter to his loved ones. “Don’t feel sorry for me because I have to leave this world at such a young age. I’m in the state of mercy. . . . I go into Heaven. . . . Please pray for me.”
The last and youngest of the five Salesians was Jarogniew Wojciechowski. He was only 18 when he was arrested for participating in the “patriotic organization.” Of all of the men, he seemed to be the most eager to accept his sentence, considering it an “extraordinary grace from God.” As he anticipated his end, he wrote to his sister, “At every moment of your life, please offer your feelings to Maria and Jesus, because you find relief in them. Imagine how happy I am.”
The above are only seven of the 108 martyrs beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in Poland in 1999. They witnessed to their faith in God with the ultimate sacrifice of their lives at the hands of the Nazis. Their feast is celebrated on June 12. As Pope St. John Paul II noted in his homily, this group included both men and women, both religious and laity, both young and old, both those quickly executed and those slowly tortured and starved.
They were from all walks of life so that any person can take one of them as a mentor or patron.
Dear Lord, how blessed are we to have the holy example of these martyrs in our times. May we be edified by their courage, strengthened by their prayers, and follow their example in becoming martyrs for your greater glory. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)