From May 21 to 30, OFM Conv. Friars from the Middle East took a spiritual journey to Poland in the footsteps of the Polish Saint on the 100th anniversary of his founding the Militia of the Immaculate.
This year the Friars of Custody of the Orient and the Holy Land held their annual spiritual exercises in Poland. The retreat had a Marian focus as part of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Militia of the Immaculate by Saint Maximilian Kolbe and six other Friars Minor Conventuals in Rome.
The retreat was organized by the Custodial Vicar, Father Martin Kmetec, in collaboration with Friar Diarusz Wiśniewski. Each participant was asked to contribute to the pilgrimage by providing one or more of the spiritual meditations and homilies.
The pilgrimage began on the evening of May 21 with our arrival at our friary in Warsaw and the joyous welcome of our Polish Friars. After visiting the historical center of the city, Father Dariusz shared a meditation on the theme of Judaism, the relationship with the Church, and Antisemitism in order to prepare the group for a visit to the museum of Polish Jews. During the visit we had the opportunity to better understand the history of Polish Jews, beginning with their arrival in the country up until Auschwitz, and everything that it signified for their religious, political, economic and family existence. In the afternoon we went to visit and pray at the Church of Divine Providence.
Our presence in Warsaw concluded with mass celebrated at the altar dedicated to the memory of the blessed martyrs Michał Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski, two Friars Minor Conventual who were killed in Peru in 1991.
In a reflection titled, Popular Marian Devotion, Father Martin explained to us how from the beginning of the church until today, Mary has had a very important role among the people of God. Whether through prayer, or in songs or structures dedicated to her, the figure of the Mother of God, our mother, has always been present in our lives. With this reflection Father Martin helped us to enter into the atmosphere of the Sanctuary of our Lady of Licheń.
In the evening, we arrived at the seminary of Łódź. There student friars from two provinces, Warsaw and Danzig, live and study together. They welcomed us with great joy and much fraternal affection. Friars from the nearby friary explained the church building’s history and then we passed a pleasant evening of fraternity together.
The next day we departed for the Sanctuary of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. We arrived in the midst of a rainstorm. Upon entering the sanctuary we had the opportunity to concelebrate the solemn first communion mass, surrounded by numerous pilgrims and many children who were receiving the body of Jesus for the first time. After the mass each of us stopped to pray before the miraculous image of our Lady, to offer her our supplications.
Afterwards, at the convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus, Friar Iosif Robu offered a meditation about Maximilian Kolbe and Missions. For Saint Maximilian, love must stand as life-giving spring at the root of every mission. For the Saint, every mission has its starting point in the hearts of each of us.
Filled with hope from the awareness that the Mother of God is always near to us, in our joys and our difficulties, we left this holy place and set out for Krakow. Here we soon discovered the city’s beautiful churches, including the Arch-cathedral of Saint Stanislaw and Saint Wenceslaus where John Paul II celebrated his first mass, on Wawel Hill next to the royal castle. Near to Krakow we also visited the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy and with it the tomb of Saint Faustina Kowalska.
Friar Anton Bulai also shared a reflection on Divine Mercy, highlighting Jesus’ desire, shared with Saint Faustina in a vision: “the first Sunday after Easter is the Feast of Mercy, but there must also be acts of mercy, and I demand the worship of My mercy through the solemn celebration of the Feast and through the veneration of the image which is painted.”
Upon leaving this sanctuary we headed towards the salt mine of Wieliczka. Here we took a guided tour of this, one of the oldest salt mines in the world. In the afternoon we arrived in Wadowice, birthplace of Pope John Paul II (Wojtyła), and visited the new museum in the former Pope’s family home. In the evening we arrived at our order’s Friary in Harmeze. Here, after praying vespers, Father Iosif Petrila shared a meditation on the life and teaching of Saint John Paul II.
The morning of May 27 we arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, a Nazi concentration camp that had produced horror and death. Here, an Italian-speaking guide awaited us. Seeing the traces of this horror and hearing the explanation of the guide, we were left speechless. We also visited the place where Saint Maximilian offered his life in exchange for the life of another man, the father of a family, and ended up dying a horrible death, starved by the SS. In the cell where he died as well as outside the cell we spent several moments in prayer. This part of our spiritual pilgrimage took us to the way of the cross of Jesus, taking into our hearts the suffering of the world.
Returning to Harmeze, in the morning we celebrated the mass of the Solemnity of the Ascension and then departed for Niepokalanów. During a stop at Częstochowa, Friar Mihăiță Herciu shared a meditation on the Immaculate Conception of Mary, explaining how Saint Maximilian offers Mary as an example for all Christians. The Immaculate shows us that we are full of the gift of the grace of God and it prepares us to be saints. We are called to a great responsibility, following her example, in order to fulfill our journey of sanctification.
In the evening we arrived at the Niepokalanów friary, founded by Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Here we visited the city of the Immaculate, seeing the great works that the saint accomplished.
On the final day Friar Piotr Szczepanski, Provincial Vicar of the Friars Minor Conventual in Warsaw, talked to us about the life of Saint Maximilian, highlighting the different aspects of the saint’s life, from his mission in Japan until his death in Auschwitz.
fr. Mihăiță Herciu