G.K. Chesterton declared in his A Defence of Patriotism: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” By this, Chesterton meant that love for one’s country, however good and laudable, does not demand absolute obedience to one’s government, just as filial devotion to one’s family does not extend to condoning their immoral choices. Nevertheless, Chesterton, an Englishman, was himself an avowed English patriot.
Indeed, the testimony of three twentieth-century Polish saints who loved their native land demonstrates that sainthood and patriotism can go hand-in-hand.
Maria Faustina Kowalska
St. Maria Faustina Kowalska was born into an impoverished Polish family in 1905 near Łódź, a predominantly Polish city in the Russian Empire (Poland had been carved up among the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian Empires in the late eighteenth-century). At the age of twenty she entered the religious life in Warsaw, the capital of the re-established nation of Poland, which gained its independence following the conclusion of World War I.
Faustina is of course most famous for her visions of Christ, which she recorded in her diary, and which served as the inspiration for the famous image of Divine Mercy, which she persuaded Polish realist painter Eugene Kazimierowski to complete in 1934. The image is widely honored in Catholic parishes across the globe, while the accompanying Chaplet of Divine Mercy is a universally popular form of religious devotion. Faustina died before appreciation of Divine Mercy became universal, perishing from tuberculosis at the age of 33 in 1938, less than a year before Poland would be invaded and conquered by Nazi Germany.
Less known of Faustina is her passionate patriotism. She wrote in her diary: “If I am a good religious, I will be useful, not only to the Order, but to the whole Country as well.” Faustina understood her vocation to the convent not only in terms of religious devotion, but patriotic piety. She writes elsewhere: “My beloved native land, Poland, if you only knew how many sacrifices and prayers I offer to God for you! But be watchful and give glory to God, who lifts you up and singles you out in a special way. But know how to be grateful.” Faustina offered spiritual sacrifices and prayers for her beloved Poland, and even claimed that God in some way had given Poland special graces! Given her visions of Christ, who would challenge such a claim?
Indeed, Faustina writes in her diary that Jesus explicitly told her: “I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.” That is a remarkable promise from our Lord. It must have also been met with incredulity, given the horrors Poland would face in the years after Faustina’s death, as our next saint shows.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was born in Zduńska Wola, not far from Faustina’s hometown, also then a part of the Russian Empire. Kolbe’s father Julius was ethnically German, his mother ethnically Polish. Nevertheless, his father joined Józef Piłsudski’s Polish Legions in the fight for independence. Captured by Russian authorities in 1914, he was hanged as a traitor. The patriotic witness of his father affected Maximilian, who with a soldier’s heart hoped to enter into military service defending Poland. Yet complications led him to abandon these plans in favor of the religious life. He entered the Franciscan novitiate in 1910, and was ordained in 1918.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe was at the Niepokalanów monastery west of Warsaw. Because of his ethnic German heritage, the Nazi invaders welcomed him to sign the Deutsche Volksliste. Faithful to Poland, Kolbe refused, and supervised the printing of anti-Nazi material via his prolific religious publishing house. He was arrested in February 1941 and ultimately transferred to the now infamous Auschwitz.
When a prisoner escaped from the concentration camp in July of 1941, the Nazi authorities selected ten men from Kolbe’s barracks to suffer death by starvation as a punishment and deterrent. Fr. Maximilian offered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Catholic married father and captured Polish army sergeant. The Nazis starved and ultimately killed the Polish priest, finally injecting him with carbolic acid. Like Sister Faustina, Fr. Kolbe’s life and suffering is understood not only as an offering to Christ, but as one made on behalf of his nation. Kolbe would be canonized by our third and final Polish saint.
St. John Paul II
Karol Józef Wojtyła, better known as St. John Paul II, is another Pole whose life story is wrapped up in the story of Polish nationalism and foreign incursions. Wojtyła was born in 1920 in Wadowice, a town in southern Poland previously in the Astro-Hungarian Empire that had become part of the Polish Republic only two years prior. Indeed, his father was a former Austro-Hungarian non-commissioned officer and later officer in the Polish Army.
Following the Nazi invasion, Wojtyła worked as a manual labourer in a limestone quarry and for the Solvay chemical factory in order to avoid deportation to Germany. During the 1944 uprising in Krakow, he was forced to hide from Nazi soldiers ordered to round up all young Polish men. Much of the post-war story of John Paul II is well-known to Catholics — that he was Archbishop of Krakow and then elected pope in 1978, that he was the most widely traveled pope in history, that he was instrumental in combating communism in Europe, and that he wrote extensively on many topics, including philosophy, theology, and sexual ethics.
Yet St. John Paul II retained a deep affinity for his native Poland, once jokingly claiming, “I have a sweet tooth for song and music. This is my Polish sin.” His first papal trip there in 1979 inspired the Polish people and sparked the formation of the Polish Solidarity movement, which was responsible for fighting and defeating communism in Poland. Indeed, John Paul II in many ways reinvigorated a Polish patriotic movement that in time overthrew its Soviet oppressors.
G.K. Chesterton in 1927 wrote of his intention to “give some hint of why Poland has been loved by so many heroes.” In that same essay, of which he waxes eloquent of that nation’s piety and courage, he declared, “Poland is not only a nation, but the nation…. Nobody has ever forgotten Poland.” Even an Englishman could appreciate the beauty and nobility of Poland and its people (he even wrote a poem about it, calling it a “heroic house”). If Chesterton, still not a saint, could appreciate the motive for Polish patriotism, how much more so three of her greatest saints!
We Catholics need not fear patriotism. We may, following St. Faustina’s example, pray and sacrifice for our nation. Or, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, we may give up our lives for our fellow compatriots. Or, like St. John Paul II, we may even encourage social or political movements aimed at promoting the common good in the face of evil and oppression. The saints have often been patriots. If the Polish saints are any indication, to be a saint, one should also be a patriot.