I recently accompanied a group of pilgrims from the Tatra Mountains of Poland to Warsaw for the Year of Faith. Twenty years ago, the Pilgrim Pope came to celebrate World Youth Day in Denver and spent time in prayer in a retreat center, high up in the Rocky Mountains. We decided that we would go to the mountains of [Saint] John Paul II to pray and to thank God for the graces of those days and for his witness to the faith, a witness like that of many of his countrymen that included the shedding of his own blood.
This pilgrimage took us to beautiful places of prayer that the Holy Father frequented as a priest and bishop, and later as Pope. We also visited Auschwitz and Birkenau where Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross were martyred and killed along with millions of others at the altars of social “progress.” Horrific things happen whenever people are looked on as burdens to what we think we want. Without God, even something as good as science can become a weapon against all that is good, noble and true. We ended our pilgrimage at a memorial to Blessed Jerzy Popieluzko – martyred in 1984 by his communist government for ministering to the workers of Poland while speaking out for religious freedom and Catholic social teaching. From beginning to end, this was a pilgrimage that contemplated the saints of God as they confronted a culture of death and civilization of hatred.
What we witnessed in Poland is a very beautiful truth about our faith and the solidarity we share together in prayer. Even when it looks as if heartless cruelty has destroyed all that is good and true in a society and in a people, before the mystery of the faith, human evil is never the final word. To this end, the blood of Blessed John Paul II is venerated throughout Poland and places of prayer have been newly built in special gratitude to the Virgin Mary for her intercession on his behalf. All of this is evidence that the solidarity of our faith is a very public, very visible and very living reality for those who pray.
In America, the courage of the Polish people is not taught in our schools – how they stood up as both Jews and Christians together. We do not learn how they resisted not only the idealism of the Fascists but also that of the Communists. If it were taught, we would have to ask why so many people would sacrifice their lives trying to defend the defenseless. If we did ask this, we could not ignore the greatness of the Christian faith and the new solidarity that informs its prayer. It is this sacred bond of solidarity that informs the character of the Polish soul and ought to inform ours as well. Even when unbridled wickedness reigned and every noble aspiration seemed crushed, the prayer of the Polish people raised time and again in undaunted solidarity to powerful ecclesial horizons, horizons where misery finds its limits in the limitless mercy of God.
This social friendship rooted in God’s love lives in Poland today not withstanding the many challenges it continues to face. Old and tired ideological social myths continue to be overcome by the freshness of the Gospel of Christ in every generation. Indeed, wherever we went, there were scores of children and families gathered in prayer bubbling with joy. This was striking even as the empty promises of secularist propaganda assaulted the billboards and airwaves of the countryside. Whether in the most ancient or in the most modern sanctuaries, whether in the most rural or most cosmopolitan of places, there were beautiful signs that the saving work of Christ continues to draw them up to something more, to an even deeper unity in Him. For those who struggle against all forms of brutality and oppression, the unvanquished solidarity of the Polish people remains even now a witness to the world that, through faith in Christ, love wins.
In saying that love wins, we are not suggesting something sentimental but rather we propose a truth that only prayer can realize. Love wins when it is willing to pay any price and make every sacrifice when it is filled with the courage that faith provides, the bravery only prayer can access. Trials and hardship are the fertile soil in which deep prayer takes root. Such prayer is the lifeblood of love – it is what assures love’s victory.
After generations of oppression, the rebirth of Poland as a Christian nation helps us see that prayer, like the rest of the Christian life, progresses by way of the Cross. Although we are haunted by the alienating power of sin and death in very difficult situations, something deep inside urges us to love even when love seems impossible, even when we stand before the antithesis of everything we hoped for in our love. Those whose prayer takes them to this moment have already entered deep into the logic of crucified love.
Sometimes the renunciations and the hardships feel completely overbearing and we reel under the weight of burdens we cannot carry on our own. This is the story of many of the saints of Poland of our time like Saint Brother Albert, Saint Faustina Kowalska and Saint John Paul II. In their own most crucifying moments, they help us see that purpose of love rises above any individual accomplishment, even as it moves us to embrace all kinds of sacrifices and difficulties for one another. They help us see that Christ Himself is bearing this weight that otherwise would completely crush us. By their witness, we know that He bears it not only through our own frail efforts but also through the efforts of many others whose love is hidden from our sight. Because He works through us all in so many unanticipated and hidden ways, these saints help us remember that we are bound to one another out of reverence for the Lord – that we are not ever to be indifferent to one another, that we must allow one another’s plights to pierce us to the heart. Such love not only overcame fascism and communism, it rebuilt families and marriages and neighborhoods and churches. It sewed hope where it was most needed.
This power at work in the Church is the secret strength that animates Christian prayer. By the strength that flows from the Cross, such prayer penetrates ever deeper depths of unity that live in the prayer of Christ. These inexhaustible depths constantly draw the heart raised in prayer into the very heart of the Church: drawn into the heart of Christ’s Beloved Bride, the love of Christ we share compels us to love Him more and to love one another, and out of this love to pray together with even greater devotion and concern for one another’s salvation. This is a story of faith that lives in the geography and neighborhoods of Poland. It is also a story that is unfolding in our own nation – a story we can choose to enter into by faith. Here, our hope lives unvanquished – by our faith in Christ, even in the very face of evil and all kinds of irrational inhumanity, love wins.
Art for this post on a pilgrimage of faith: Photography for this post by Dr. Anthony Lilles and used with permission. All rights reserved.