This week, we’ve begun the month of Mary – May. Of the many images seen depicting Mary, my long-standing favorite is a Polish rendition, the famous “Black Madonna of Częstochowa,”(Chen-sto-hov-ah) named for the location where it has been enshrined for centuries in a famous monastery in southern Poland.
Several of my ancestors came from Poland to the United States over one hundred years ago. It was a time when Poland did not exist on the map, having been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria (until Poland was re-established as an independent country after World War I). But the identity of the Polish people remained strong during the years of partition, largely due to their language and their faith, two elements essential to preserve any culture. Because of its central location in the heart of Europe, Poland has had to face challenges from foes from all directions, sometimes each seemingly taking turns individually one after the other, at other times enemies collaborating with each other.
In the face of these pressures and challenges, the Częstochowa icon of Our Lady has been the chief treasure of the Pauline Monastery on the hill known as Jana Góra (Bright Mount) in Czestochowa since August 31, 1384, when a Duke presented it as a gift to the Pauline monks. In the second half of the fifteenth century, a Polish historian wrote that the monks at Czestochowa show a picture of Mary, the most glorious and the most venerable virgin, the queen of the world and of the Poles, which has been executed with an extraordinary skill, showing a serene expression on her face from whatever direction you look at it. Legend has it that it’s one of those pictures painted by St. Luke himself. The painting was virtually renewed in 1434, and it appears to have been modeled on a Byzantine icon dating from the 5th century.
The first reports of miracles attributed to “Mary, Queen of Poland” date from 1402. An example of the extraordinary events associated with this image of Our Lady of Czestochowa is described with reference to a robbery which occurred at the Monastery on Easter Sunday in the year 1430. This raid was carried out by a band of robbers (consisting of Czechs, Germans, Ruthenians and even Poles) who believed that the monastery possessed huge treasures and money. Not finding such, they sacrilegiously stole chalices, crosses and religious ornaments. They even stripped the icon of Our Lady of precious stones and jewels, with which it had been embellished by pious believers. They didn’t stop at that, but slashed the image with a sword and broke the panel on which the picture was painted; and one of the attackers dropped dead at this moment. Having committed this act, more disgraced with their crime than being made richer, they fled with a small number of ill-gotten gains. The resulting scars on the cheek of the Blessed Mother remain the most familiar and distinctive characteristics of this icon. Part of the darkness of the icon can be attributed to its being miraculously unscathed when they tried to set it on fire; the rest, by burning candles and incense in front of it over centuries.
The Virgin Mary is shown in the tradition of iconography as “One Who Shows the Way.” In it the Virgin directs attention away from herself, gesturing with her right hand toward Jesus as the source of salvation. In turn, Jesus extends his right hand toward the viewer in blessing while holding a book of Gospels in his left hand.
The event that best portrays Mary’s miraculous intervention under pressing circumstances was during the defense of the monastery during the Protestant Swedish attack of 1655. The direct reason for the attack was Sweden’s desire to conquer the entire southern coast of the Baltic, after already capturing its eastern and western shores. The Poles were vastly outnumbered by the Swedes. The siege lasted six weeks and ended when the attackers were not able to overcome the staunch resistance of the defenders, with their firm and sincere confidence in Our Lady. The miraculous defense of the monastery was attributed to the miraculous intervention of the Blessed Mother as the monks paraded the image along the ramparts during the height of battle. In 1764, the Polish parliament decreed Poland’s perpetual indebtedness to the Virgin, and declared her to be The Queen of Poland (her feastday is May 3rd).
In the 18th century, when Poland lost its independence and was partitioned, Our Lady of Czestochowa became the patroness of every resistance and the protectress of liberty and the national sovereignty. Many persons can testify to their reliance on help of Our Lady of Czestochowa during the devastation of the Second World War and the long, lean years of Soviet Communism.
Our late Holy Father, St. Pope John Paul II from Poland, spoke of his own devotion to the “Black Madonna” when he visited Czestochowa on June 4, 1979. “I had whispered in prayer so many times before this image…. Mother of the Church! Once again I consecrate myself to you ‘in your maternal servitude of love’: Totus tuus! I am all yours! I consecrate to you the whole Church –even to the ends of the earth! I consecrate to you all humankind; I consecrate to you Europe and all the continents…. “Mother, accept us! Mother, do not abandon us! Mother, guide us!”
Mary teaches us that in all things to look to her Son, to seek his face, if we are to find our peace. Pope Benedict XVI said we need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed clearly light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ. It is necessary for each of us to live with a spirit of self-abandonment into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God. It’s what we call discipleship.
The word “disciple” has its roots in the word disco (not a genre of music from the 70s!); it’s Latin for “I learn.” The disciple is one who learns from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. This learning is not from dusty tomes or ancient manuscripts, but from the very person of Jesus Christ, risen and alive today, through an immediate and personal relationship with Him and his Church. This relationship does not – indeed, cannot – leave a person as he or she was before. The true disciple is the one who becomes such a student of the Master that his very life conforms to the life of Christ in all things. We see such a life so clearly in the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
What can we say to reignite the fire of faith in those who have left or drifted from the Church? What can we say to our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers? What is Christ inspiring us to do to proclaim the faith anew to these lost sheep who have withdrawn from the Good Shepherd? To this end, I would like to propose a three-fold plan to strengthen our parish so that through the example of our faith, the lost sheep will no longer withdraw from the Lord but will call upon his name and be given new life.
First, we must be grateful for the faith we have received, for our encounter with the Lord. Families should strive to make their homes places where the family prays together, reads the Scriptures together, and is nourished together at Sunday Mass. Families should strive to allow their faith to influence everything they do, rather than reserving their faith only for an hour or so on Sunday.
Second, we must endeavor to understand all the more clearly the faith we profess. If a friend, family member or co-worker asks us a question about the Catholic faith, can we provide an adequate – and correct – answer? We ought to be able to do so. If we do not know the faith we profess we cannot communicate it to others.
Third, we must share our faith, not only with our family and friends, but with our co-workers and everyone we meet. As Pope Benedict reminded us, “Confessing with the lips indicates in turn that faith implies public testimony and commitment.”
This three-fold plan is the way of discipleship and through it we learn to apprentice ourselves to Jesus Christ, as did Our Lady, our heavenly intercessor. With her as our guide and model, we must devote ourselves to helping those who do not know – or who, perhaps, have forgotten – the love that Jesus has for them. May each of us endeavor to seek out the lost sheep and bring them with us to behold the face of God in Jesus Christ!