A snapshot in time. That’s what this moment was; but not some faded black and white photograph or oil on canvas. No, this was real, live and in color — Rome, 1866.
An assembly of cassock-clad clerics at the Polish College was listening intently to an address by Blessed Pius IX, the Pope who only a dozen years before had declared the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He was greatly esteemed by the students for this and for what one of them would describe as his “angelic bearing, his unyielding steadfastness during hostilities, and his special kindness toward Poles.”
He was a leader who knew his audience. Pope Pius IX was well aware that he was addressing men who were no strangers to suffering or hardship. They were scholars who had known poverty, physical labor, and political upheaval — back home, their country, their loved ones, were locked in a bitter partition of the three occupying forces that held Poland under an unyielding grasp.
It was to men such as these that the Pope delivered a strong and measured exhortation that was to prove decisive and prophetic for one of them. On that first Friday in June, 1866, the Pope gave them this mandate:
“You must revive the Catholic spirit and be as bearers of torches burning in the fog.”
For the doctoral student, Father Joseph Sebastian Pelczar, it was a sacred summons, a clarion call, not unlike the trumpet that sounded daily over the square in Krakow as an echo of warning for impending danger.
Father Pelczar knew that he had to be that fire, that burning torch that would expose the darkness and lead his people into the light of God’s love and freedom. He would return to Poland consumed by the ideal,
“May my whole life burn for God’s glory” and his motto of life, “All for God alone.”
As a diocesan priest and eventually a Bishop, his fidelity to his own interior life through daily mental prayer and rosary, fervent Masses and spiritual reading, and the pilgrimages he took to feed his spirit, would keep alive and fuel that flame of divine charity by which other souls could be enlightened. Later, on one such pilgrimage to Assisi, he professed private vows as a Franciscan tertiary.
Father Pelczar went on to serve as a seminary professor and later as professor and rector of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, yet he was no academic living in some ivy tower. He was ever a shepherd and pastor of souls, acutely aware of the needs of his surroundings.
Father Pelczar supported soup kitchens and the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He was an advocate for the poor, for orphans and for education, including trade schools for the people. He set up confraternities to instill devotion in the faithful, and, we’re told, when these were no longer effective, he began others.
When Father Pelczar realized that many young women were in moral danger, coming from the country to work in Krakow as domestic help in the homes of the wealthy, he established kitchens and dormitories to receive them. In 1894, he went on, with Co-Foundress Blessed Klara Szczesna, to found in Krakow the Congregation of Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Franciscan religious devoted to the Heart of Jesus who would be as mothers to these girls, and would also serve the Church as catechists, teachers and care for the sick in their homes. He was docile to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to begin such a venture. As he wrote of it,
“May the Lord forgive my boldness, because until now the founders of religious orders have been saints, but I can be somewhat justified, because in the strange course of events, I saw God’s will.”
The Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, now an international Congregation, continue to live their charism first given them by Father Pelczar, that is, to extend the Kingdom of the Love of the Heart of Jesus everywhere.
Father Joseph Sebastian’s gifts for organization and leadership, exhibited in Seminary and at the Jagiellonian University, did not go unnoticed by Rome, and eventually he was elevated to the episcopacy, being named Auxiliary Bishop of Przemysl, Poland in 1899 and Ordinary in 1900. He was a zealous Bishop who urged his priests to go out to the hedgerows and byways to seek out the people, not waiting for the flock to come to them. Bishop Pelczar undertook three synods in his diocese, so committed was he to fulfilling most effectively the mission God had entrusted to him on behalf of his people.
He was a popular homilist and a prolific writer, who published numerous books on a variety of topics, together with his pastoral letters, sermons and addresses. His ascetical writings are still reprinted today and are considered classics in Poland.
He is hailed in Poland as ‘the saint of difficult decision making’ and invoked as such, because he struggled early in life with discernment as to whether to be an historian professor or a priest. After prayer and struggle, he came to this conclusion:
“Earthly ideals are fading away. I see the ideal of life in sacrifice, and the ideal of sacrifice in priesthood.”
His struggles for his future were not over yet, as he then needed to learn from the Lord if he should become a diocesan priest or a Jesuit. He is an example for all who are seeking to follow the plan of God in one’s life.
His love and devotion for the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Virgin Mary radiated from his own spiritual life to shine out in his exhortation to the faithful and his instructions and rule of life given to the spiritual daughters of the Congregation he founded.
On March 28, 1924, stricken with pneumonia he contracted during celebrations for his 25th Jubilee of episcopal consecration, Bishop Joseph Sebastian Pelczar died in the odor of sanctity, finally laying down the torch he had so valiantly and faithfully carried.
He was beatified in Rzeszow, Poland by St. John Paul II in 1991 and canonized in Rome by the same pontiff on May 18, 2003. His feast day is observed on January 19th.
More information on his life may be found at www.sacredheartsisters.org.
From the writings of St. Joseph Sebastian Pelczar, bishop
The motives of love of God
O what glory and what happiness, what fortune foe us, that God allows us to love Him, admits us to an intimate friendship with Him – even calling us His friends. “You are my friends, if you do what I command you.” As if this was not enough, God desires our love as He needs it for His own happiness, but it is we who need to love God for our own happiness. For that reason, He gave us a heart able to love; it is this heart He demands from us as the only pleasing sacrifice to Him. He also sent his Son to enkindle the fire of love on earth that it might burn on the altar of human hearts. Moreover, God asks for that heart: “My son, give me your heart,” and endeavors to capture this heart, revealing to him the infinite love of His Heart.
Therefore, wherever man turns, he sees the loving God; and the whole visible and invisible world cries out unceasingly in a mysterious voice:” Man, love your God.”
However, because man is too often inattentive to that voice, therefore God gave him a particular command: ”You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And who could not love You, True Love?! We should love the Lord God, because He is most worthy of our love, as the Greatest Perfection, even if there would be no reward for those who love Him. God, says St. Thomas Aquinas, as the Highest truth, is the first object for our intellect to know; as the Greatest Good, the first object of love for our heart. So then, as every essential good deserves our love, how much more the Highest Good, who is the source of all good.
We should love the Lord God, because He is the loving Creator, the most gracious Lord, the most concerned Father; rightly then, that the creatures should love their Creator, servants their Lord, children their Father.
We should love the Lord God, because He gave us His only Son, Who took human nature, became our Brother, Master, Savior, King, Father, Friend and Spouse of our souls. He also, in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit, loved us first, and with an everlasting love, as He Himself said: “I have loved you with an everlasting love”, with a most tender love, a love before which all mothers’ love vanishes; with a most generous love, a self sacrificing love, with such a great love, a love such as God Himself – unending love.
If you want to know the greatness of this love, mediate on God’s great acts performed for men, namely the three eternal monuments of love: the manger, the cross and the altar. Stand especially beneath the cross, and look towards the love Crucified. Stand before the Most Blessed Sacrament and mediate on the immolation of the hidden God, the immense sacrifice of self, the entire giving to men with love without limits. Then penetrate into the Heart of Jesus and look at His love. Indeed, no one can understand what a great flame consumes that most moving Heart. When He would be advised to die for us not once, but a thousand times, or to suffer the same for one man what He suffer for all, His love would have accepted willingly for one as for all. If necessary, the Lord, instead of three hours, would have hung on the cross until the last Day of Judgment. His love is eternal and would have accomplished it. So Jesus loved us more than were His sufferings.
O love of my God, how you were incomparably greater than you manifested Yourself externally! These inexpressible sufferings and wounds are a proof of Your great love, but do not reveal its immense greatness, because it is rather hidden, instead of revealing itself externally. It was a flame of a great fire, a drop from a great ocean of love. This love came to a summit in the Most Holy Mystery of the Altar. Who could not love this God of love?