Mary, Queen of Poland

Published on September 12, 2009 by in Christian Culture

The Christendom of Europe was at a precarious point in 1683. On September 11th of that year, the Polish king, Jan Sobieski III, bolstered in his courage by God’s Spirit, led a charge of 40,000 Poles, accompanied by a small troop of German and Austrian allies, to Vienna to end the Ottoman siege. The Turks had been in control of the city’s perimeter and were preparing to breach the wall surrounding it. The Muslim invaders had weakened the city’s defensive wall through a system of tunneling beneath it and setting off explosive charges. From the east, the determination of the Polish king to defend Christendom was made available just in time by a successful lobby from Pope Innocent II to the Polish democracy of nobles. Sobieski was given his marching orders and went forth with approval from the Polish government and the prayers and hopes of the Church in Rome. This Roman Catholic-Polish alliance had the effect of dispersing the attempted Muslim invasion of Europe before it could proceed through Austria and northward. This temporal victory  was also a spiritual victory, since it allowed Christianity to remain as Europe’s prevailing religion. 

The idea that Christianity’s flame in Europe could have been extinguished in the centuries since that battle seems farfetched to those who are of Christian European descent. But this possibility must be considered in imagining a world where this assault upon western civilization was not halted. The subsequent effect this invasion would have had on the demographics of the world religions would have changed western history. As it was, Rome’s alliance with Poland has proved beneficial to the survival of the Church and to the spread of Christ’s teachings and sacramental graces in the lives of those of European descent. As unthinkable as any other outcome than that may seem now, correlatively it is equally unthinkable to imagine that a nation that so depends on the Mother of God as to officially name her as queen could then or now forget the triune God’s mediation in salvation history and thus not go forth confidently and filled with the Holy Spirit in the face of overwhelming odds.

King Sobieski had entrusted his men’s and Europe’s destiny, and Rome’s hope in him, to the confident yet somber eyes of Our Lady of Czestochowa before leading his army into battle. Sobeiski led them forth to a hill overlooking the encampment of Muslim forces where they arrived on the evening of September 11th. Then, in the predawn hours, going forth with M’s on their shields, his forces swept down and prevailed, despite being outnumbered, in some accounts, by 5 to 1. They thus preserved Christendom from Muslim slaughter and forced conversion. The Turks, 200,000 strong, turned and ran, leaving everything behind in their camp. Sobieski’s men laid the banners of the defeated Mustapha and his Muslim forces, “the scourge of humanity,” at the feet of Our Lady.{footnote}”Winning the War on Terror: Mary and the Struggle Against Satan,” Marians of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 2004,> (17 December 2007).{/footnote}

This victorious battle would be followed by later military defeats and the subsequent partitioning and domination of Poland in the centuries afterwards. Recent history finds a Poland who was dragged into the atrocities of the 20th century, during which terror and opression was inflicted upon Mary’s children by the soulless German and Soviet war machines. Throughout all the temporal defeats, her spiritual solidarity and resolve has upheld the courage of these children of Mary in the face of evil, up until now, when at long last, justice prevails politically. Norman Davies elaborates on her spiritual resolve in  “Heart of Europe, A Short History of Poland”:

In 1717…the ceremonial coronation of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa as Queen of Poland indicated the clergy’s determination to keep its hold over the faithful despite the country’s political decline….In many respects, however, the strength of the Catholic faith was sounder than the fabric of the Church…Under the blows of political disaster, where the Church faltered, the Faith took heart. One might almost believe that Polish Catholicism was preparing itself for the ordeal of the Partitions. Hard times and persecution rallied the Faith, even when the Hierarchy reeled.{footnote}Norman Davies, Heart of Europe, A Short History of Poland. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 337-338.{/footnote} 

For the ultimate expression of Polish Catholic devotion we can look to the fruition of Polish Marian piety in the lives and in the enduring spiritual gifts to the Church of her contemporary martyrs, saints, priests, and religious. The list includes St. Faustina, John Paul II  and St. Maximillian Kolbe. These sons and daughters of Poland of the twentieth century, a Poland that was the result of allegiance to Rome in the 10th century, are still influential in the life of the universal Church of today, as she studies and embraces the teaching and devotion they have left. While each of these individuals have given us a unique personal witness, they are all similar in their absolute personal dependence on the will of Christ through obedience to His Mother through the Church. A dependence summed up in the motto of John Paul II: “Totus Tuus”

This motto is also applicable to the collective soul of the Polish nation from which these saints come forth. It is of little surprise then that these saints’ and their nation’s dependence on Mary traces its roots back to the installation and adoration of Our Lady’s iconic image at Czestochowa. This icon visibly placed Mary’s  apostolic heart into the emerging Catholic Poland. This heart was later officially recognized, and Poland’s faith was solidified, with the crowning of Mary, the “Queen of Heaven” and “Queen of Apostles,” as “Queen of Poland” through an official Act of Parliament 

Still today, the most important place of pilgrimage of the Polish Catholic nation is Czestochowa and this miraculous image of Mary known as Our Lady of Czestochowa or the Black Madonna. The land on which this esteemed place of pilgrimage is located, Jasna Gora monastery, the home of the icon, is fittingly situated on high ground. The history of the city dates back to Czestoch, its Slavic founder, who is named in documents from 1220. The city named for him, Czestochowa on the Warta River, is home to the Jasna Gora, the luminous hill, mentioned for the first time in documents dating to 1388. Its name came from the Pauline monks who came to Poland from Hungary. These missionaries took the name from their home friary, “St. Laurence’s” monastery in Jasna Gora of Buda.

The Pauline Fathers are an active missionary order, officially known as the Order of St. Paul the First Hermit, their patriarch is St. Paul of Thebes. It is from his story of sustenance on bread and dates delivered by a raven, according to the tradition authored by St. Jerome, that they get the symbols on their coat of arms. Their life is modeled after the Augustinian rule.

The monks arrived by invitation of the Piast prince Ladislaus of Opole in 1382. They were given the small Church dedicated to Our Lady and the surrounding hillside. In 1384 they brought from Belz the miraculous painting of the Mother of God. This painting, tradition claims, was the work of St. Luke, who supposedly used the holy family’s table top as his canvas. This, according to modern artistic and archaeological study, must be legend since the work dates back to somewhere between the 6th and 9th century. It is determined to be a Byzantium icon of the “Hodigitria” type. This fact does not detract from the many miraculous events surrounding her veneration and pilgrimages to her.

The image itself has been a sacrificial victim and still bears the wounds of suffering inflicted upon her on April 14, 1430. It was then that a band of Hussites from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, raided the monastery, tore the painting down and flung it to the ground, breaking it into three pieces while slashing it with their swords. The attack left the scars that still remain on her face. The painting was restored and the chapel soon became a famous place of pilgrimage. The multitude of pilgrims necessitated the construction of a new larger church.{footnote}Jan Pach and Wlodzimierz Robak and Jerzy Tomzinski. Jasna Gora, Sanctuary of the Mother of God, 2nd ed., Translated by Lucyna Tate (Jasna Gora, Czestochowa: Publishing House of the Pauline Order, 2001), 11{/footnote}  






(To Poland, Most Steadfast Fortress for the Whole of Europe Against the Barbarian Peoples){footnote}Davies, God’s Playground, 125.{/footnote}

This title, ascribed to Poland in 1573, is found on a triumphal Parisian arch erected in honor of Henry Valois’s election to the Polish throne. It describes appropriately and prophetically Poland’s commitment to the defense of faith in Christ and His Church in the period before, during, and following the Reformation. This defense of the Catholic faith continued bravely throughout the political turmoil of the 20th century. In his comprehensive work on the history of Poland, “God’s Playground,” Davies explains that “antemurale,” or its Polish equivalent “przedmurze” (bulwark), is a term accepted after the fall of Constantinople in 1467 to describe Poland’s “Place in Europe” from the time of its conversion to Catholicism forward. The term “Antemurale” is in favor with many Catholic writers, and has even been adopted by the Vatican’s Institute of Polish History as the title of its journal. The opening paragraph of Davies’ chapter that shares this title describes it succinctly:

At any point between AD 1000 and 1939, quotations can be found to illustrate the conviction that Poland was, is, and always will be, the last outpost of western civilization. In the earliest centuries it was seen to be holding the line against the Prussian and Lithuanian pagans; in the modern period against Islam and the Muscovite scismatics; in the twentieth century, against militant communism. At all times, Poland’s ‘place in Europe’… was quite clear; it was the antemurale, ‘the bulwark.'{footnote}Davies, God’s Playground, 125.{/footnote} 

The following quote is attributed to Jerzy Mirewicz S.J. in an attempt to describe the suffering, yet steadfast Catholic nature of the collective Polish soul in the struggle for political freedom in her seemingly impossible circumstances:

By all reasoning the Polish people should not even exist. I can never forget a French specialist on Polish history who once told me that “even if you reconcile yourself to the fact that the Poles emerged on this vast plain of territory, unprotected by natural boundaries, surrounded by stronger and larger nations, by all historical logic they should have disappeared a long time ago.”{footnote}Alexander Tomsky, Catholic Poland. (Kent, England: Keston College, 1982), 4.{/footnote}

G.K. Chesterton revealed his admiration for this same abstract quality in his remarks after the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the “Miracle on the Vistula,” which providentially coincided with the feast of the Assumption. The post WWI peace saw the reemergence of Poland from the partitioning of its land at the end of the 18th century. During this partitioning period, despite political division, the heart of Poland remained united within the overarching unity of the Church and Catholic culture, this romantic idea is beyond the rationalization common to many authors of the era but was explained by Chesterton as follows, an explanation which made his reception akin to that of royalty upon his visit to Poland in 1927:

When the Poles defeated the Bolsheviks in the field of battle, it was the old chivalric tradition defeating everything that is modern, everything necessitarian, everything that is mechanical in method and materialistic in philosophy. It was the Marxist notion that everything is inevitable defeated by the Christian notion that nothing is inevitable-no, not even what has already happened.{footnote}Tomsky, 5.{/footnote}

The earliest known composition in the Polish language{footnote}Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland In Two Volume, Volume I, The Origins to 1795 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p.126.{/footnote} is the hymn of the Bogurodzica (Mother of God). It reveals the Marian Catholicism of a nation who’s faith in divine providence lies within the mantle of Mary’s mediational heart. It was sung before the battle of Grunwald by her knights: 

Bogu rodzica dzewica              Virgin, Mother of God,

Bogem slawena maria!             Maria, honored by God,

Utwego syna gospodzina,         Your Son’s patroness,

Matko swolena maria,              Maria, chosen Mother!

Sziszci nam, Kyrieleyson!         Assist us. Kyrie Elesion!

Just as salvation history depended on Mary’s fiat, Polish and European Christian history also has depended on the collective soul of an emerging Catholic Poland to give her fiat. This  “yes” was articulated through her obedience to God’s will through her obedience to Rome, an obedience that Mary requests from all Catholics. The people’s pious personal practices and devotion to the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist,  form the circulatory system through which Mary’s heart distributes Christ’s mercy and graces. The protective mantle of Mary unites the Polish Church  within her boundaries and in the universality of the Catholic Church. John Paul II, as Archbishop Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, offered us this description of the Polish  resolve  in a sermon given in Cracow in celebration of the Third of May, 1978, the  same year he would be elected  Pontiff:

…everything that we have lived through in the course of our history, especially in the most painful periods of partition, occupation, insurrection, struggle, and suffering, has had the effect of pumping both the historical and contemporary life of the entire nation through the heart of every Pole. Nothing which is Polish can be alien or indifferent to Him. It was the great poet Stanislaw Wyspianski who asked his listeners to gather round a little girl, to whom he said, “What can you hear beating there inside you? It’s your heart. And that heart is what Poland really is”… After all, each one of us possesses a heritage within us- a heritage to which generations and centuries of achievement and calamity, of triumph and failure, have contributed: a heritage which somehow takes deeper root and grows new tissues from every one of us. We cannot live without it. It is our soul. It is this heritage, variously labeled the Fatherland or the Nation, by which we live. As Christians, we live by this Polish heritage, this Polish millennium, this Polish Christianity of ours. Such is the law of reality…{footnote}Davies, God’s Playground, xiv-xv{/footnote}

The 1979 image of John Paul II, walking humbly  through the infamous gates of Auschwitz accompanied by a group of Polish bishops and  priests, is a portrait of a faith enduring. The picture is both a portrait of a nation’s faith enduring, in spite of the suffering and attempted extermination of its inhabitants and its culture, and a portrait of a personal faith enduring, through the difficult but blessed life of this man. This picture was taken on his walk to visit the cell of the Polish martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe, who through his actions showed the ultimate self sacrifice in imitation of Christ. Beneath John Paul II’s peaceful, prayerful and forgiving countenance is the essence of a soul that has faced the challenges of faithfully following his religious vocation within the context of the political occupations of his homeland, first as a young clandestine seminarian during WWII, and later as Bishop and Pope under the Soviet occupation.

This figure, more than any other in contemporary history, eminently represents the Polish Catholic soul. Out of the turmoil which followed the brief political respite which allowed Poland to re-emerge after World War I was born this holy son of Poland. From its heartland he came to lead the world in a universal faith and hope for freedom and social justice. By now many details of his biography have become common knowledge to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His intense Catholicism, loving demeanor, tolerance of, and active communication in authentic love with people of all faiths reflects the quality of the nation itself, for Poland has always had an authentic Christian faith with its accompanying true Catholic ecumenism. In his book, titled “The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II,” Rocco Buttiglione asserts that the words of John Paul II’s 1979 homily in Victory Square in Warsaw, regarding the importance of Christianity to Polish history and of the importance of Catholic Poland to human history, express “the distinctive character of his thinking” which captures and reflects “the specific experience of the Polish nation and culture.” {footnote}Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 2.{/footnote}

I must…ask myself why, precisely in 1978, after so many centuries of a well established tradition in this field, a son of the Polish nation, of the land of Poland, was called to the chair of St. Peter. Christ demanded…of the Apostles…that they should be his witnesses…to the end of the earth. Have we not the right to think that Poland has become nowadays the land of a particularly responsible witness?…To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man…Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man (this is) an act against man…the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation…The history of the nation deserves proper appreciation according to the contribution which it has brought to the development of man and humanity, to the intelligence, to the heart and to the conscience….Without Christ, it is not possible to understand and to appreciate the contribution of the Polish nation to the development of man and of his humanity in the past, and his contribution also in our days….Without Christ it is impossible to understand this nation, with a past so splendid and at the same time so terribly difficult….to understand the history of Poland from Stanislaw in Skalka to Maximillian Kolbe in Oswiecim, if one does not apply, to them also, that unique and fundamental criterion which bears the name of Jesus Christ.{footnote}Buttiglione, 2-4.{/footnote}   

The history of the country of Poland is a story of the Church suffering, militant and triumphant. She has emerged from out of the twentieth century as one of the most influential and predominantly Catholic countries in Europe, if not the world. An examination of her history from the baptism of Prince Mieszko I in 965 and after reveals the piety, devotion and dependence on Jesus through Mary which has allowed her to endure as a light to the Church and the world seeking freedom and truth. Throughout this period her people’s destiny has been intertwined inextricably with her faith, regardless of the outside forces which have blown her along like a ship lost at sea. Whenever all hope for her survival seems gone, the sky clears to reveal the shining star of Christ which guides her to safety carried in the loving arms of His Mother. In examining the history of the Catholic Church in Europe this country stands out as a unique and enduring witness to the kerygma and perseverance of the apostolic Church. While suffering from political domination in the temporal reality of its existence, an ideological warfare which was directed at its spiritual consciousness, the nation, while unable to successfully resist the long periods of suffering at their neighbor’s hands, nevertheless has stood spiritually through the hearts of the people. This is evidenced throughout the many periods of oppression and survival. Through faith and justified resistance she has stood as a lighthouse amidst the sea of confusion and terror which has returned again and again in the form of atheistic ideologies which threaten to extinguish the light of Christ in western civilization. These threats have been met undauntedly by the heart of the people united under the banner of Mary, and this nation, with the Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart adopted as its own, has come forth from her turbulent history carrying the light of true freedom.