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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Jozef Bilczewski

March 28, 2019 saints No Comments


Jozef Bilczewski was born in Poland as the country regained some of its respect as a cultured people. Chopin’s music spread across Europe and he is famous today for his wonderful sonatas. Madame Curie, who discovered the use of X-rays, was born seven years after Jozef. Ignacy Lukasiewicz invented the kerosene lamp and an oil refinery was built in Poland soon after — the world’s first.
Jozef was born to Franciszek Biba and Anna Kuczmierczyk on April 26, 1860. Jozef was the oldest of nine children born to the peasant parents in Wilamowice in the Diocese of Bielsko Zywiec, which was part of the Diocese of Krakow at the time.
As a young boy, from age eight to twelve, Jozef attended school in Wilamowice, continuing his studies in Wadowice from 1872 until 1880. After he received his diploma for high school, he went to Krakow where he studied for the priesthood.
He attended the Jagiellonian University — one of the oldest and most renowned universities in Europe. This university counted world-famous scientists, Nobel laureates, and a future Pope, Karol Wojtyla, among its students.
Jozef was ordained a priest on July 6, 1884 in Krakow by Albino Cardinal Dunajewski. Two years later he received his doctorate in theology from the University of Vienna.
After that Jozef went to Rome where he continued his studies, delving into dogmatics and archeology at the Gregorian in 1886 and 1887. Then for one year he studied in Paris.
After nearly 25 years of studying, Jozef received his first assignment. He returned to Krakow and became the catechetical assistant at Saints Peter and Paul Church.
In 1890, Jozef successfully completed the testing to become a university professor at the Jagiellonian and he began teaching dogmatic theology at the University of Lviv in what is now part of Ukraine, just east of the Polish border.
He was promoted the very next year, and from 1896 to 1897 he was the dean of the Theological Department in Lviv. He then was elected head of the college in 1900, but was called by Emperor Franz Joseph I on October 30, 1900 to become the next archbishop of the metropolitan see of Leopoli. This was at a time when secular authorities had input into ecclesiastical appointments.
On December 17, 1900, Pope Leo XIII formalized the assignment and Jozef was consecrated on January 21, 1901 as archbishop of Leopoli of the Latin Rite by Jan Cardinal Puzyna, bishop of Krakow.
This assignment proved challenging for many reasons. First of all, it was a very large diocese at the time. In addition, the turn of the century was a complicated era with religious, social, ethnic, and economic difficulties. Jozef well understood the plight of peasants, having come from a poor family. He had a strong work ethic and exemplary confidence in God, so he did well in his position. Most of all, his faith was daily strengthened by his deep prayer life.
On a practical level, he promoted “organic work,” meaning that national powers use their resources to help the working citizens rather than spending them on military conflicts. He began the daunting task of building new churches, having founded more than 300 of them.
Among these is the neo-Gothic style St. Elizabeth Church. Although this stunning church was partly destroyed in the bombings of World War II, it has been restored and it is now the Greek Catholic Church of Saints Olha and Elizabeth.
Jozef also encouraged devotion to Blessed James of Strepar who was a fourteenth-century Franciscan. James was also a bishop and wore his habit after his consecration as he traveled the countryside. Despite his high office, Jozef continued to wear his habit and travel on foot to preach and celebrate the sacraments with his people.
Jozef allowed the Pallottines to serve in his archdiocese and he promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an increase in Eucharistic adoration, and frequent reception of Holy Communion. The practice of receiving daily Holy Communion was also promoted by Pope Pius X.
Jozef’s care for priests became evident when he organized courses for them so they would be better prepared to work among the poor and needy in the archdiocese. In addition, he financed several Catholic societies and supported students. In 1904, because of his initiative, the first Mariological Congress in Poland was held.
As a pastor, Jozef became a wonderful model for his priests. He became widely known for his love of God and neighbor, his charity, humility, industriousness, and pastoral zeal. He lived to “totally sacrifice oneself for the Holy Church.”
As an archbishop, he wrote many letters to both the priests and the laity, addressing problems of faith and morals, as well as confronting the difficulties faced in their culture. These letters also encouraged devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. He well understood the sacred vocation of the priesthood and diligently worked to increase priestly vocations.
He instilled in these priests a great love of Christ in the Eucharist from which they gained their strength. They also were to serve the faithful by making the sacraments more widely available to sick and poor alike.
Archbishop Bilczewski labored always to sanctify his priests so they could sanctify the people. Encouraging a deeper love of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, he urged them to join the Association for Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament and the Association of Aid to Poor Catholic Churches.
His love for the poor was well known. During World War I he helped organize relief workers of Galicia — an area that straddled the border between Poland and Ukraine — because of the food shortages. In 1918, during the Polish-Ukrainian War, Lviv was under siege. Once again, Jozef organized food deliveries to the people. Together with Venerable Andrzej Sheptytsky and the apostolic nuncio, Achille Ratti (who later became Pope Pius XI), he tried to negotiate a truce but failed.
Three times Jozef traveled to Rome for ad limina visits with Popes Leo XIII, Pius X, and Benedict XV. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the Warsaw College in 1921, the Cross of Valor, and the Grand Cross level of the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1922.
Perhaps his most treasured title was “patron of louts” that the homeless awarded him in 1917. When he died on March 20, 1923 from pernicious anemia, he was buried in the Janow Cemetery of Leopoli, known as the cemetery of the poor.
On July 2, 1944, Archbishop Jozef Bilczewski was declared a servant of God by Pope Pius XII when his process for canonization was approved. Pope St. John Paul II declared him venerable on December 18, 1997 and on June 26, 2001, the archbishop was declared blessed after nine-year-old Marcin Gawlik received a miraculous cure from his third-degree burns. The beatification took place in the Lviv Hippodrome in Ukraine when the Pope visited.
Shortly before his death, Pope St. John Paul II approved the canonization of Bilczewski and Pope Benedict XVI canonized him at St. Peter’s Square on October 23, 2005. His feast is celebrated on March 20.

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