Meet Our Lady of Czestochowa

Q:  I know that Pope John Paul II had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa. Please explain how this devotion came about.

Pope John Paul II visited the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa on his first trip to Poland in 1979. He said, “The call of a son of Poland to the Cathedral of St. Peter contains an evident and strong link with this holy place, with this Shrine of great hope: Totus tuus (“I am all yours”), I had whispered in prayer so many times before this Image” (June 4, 1979).

The devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa centers on the icon of our Blessed Mother. Painted on wood, the icon itself depicts Mary pointing with her right hand and holding the Infant Jesus in her left; technically, this depiction of the Blessed Mother is identified in iconography as Hodegetria. As in other icons, Jesus looks like a small man held by his Mother, an imagery that reminds the faithful that Jesus is fully mature in His divine nature. Over time, due to exposure to devotional candles, the image has darkened, and consequently, Our Lady of Czestochowa is also known as the “Black Madonna.”

As to its origins, tradition holds that St. Luke painted the icon on a wooden table top made by St. Joseph, which Mary had kept when she moved to Ephesus and lived under the care of St. John the Apostle. Remember St. Luke included in his Gospel details of the annunciation, visitation, Christmas, the presentation in the Temple and the finding in the Temple, which were not included in the other Gospels and which he must have learned from Mary herself. St. Helena is credited with finding the icon in the early 300s. Theodore Lector (c. 530) mentioned the existence of the Hodegetria icon being in a church in Constantinople before the year 450.

In 988, the icon came into possession of Princess Anna, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II and the wife of St. Vladimir of Kiev (c. 975-1015), who had converted and became the first Christian ruler of Russia. In 1382, Prince Ladislaus Opolczyk took the icon to his castle in Belz. Later, he decided to transfer the icon to his birthplace, the city of Opala. On the way there, he and his companions stopped and spent the night at Czestochowa, a city in south central Poland on the Warta River. The next day, the horses hitched to the wagon carrying the icon refused to move, which Prince Ladislaus interpreted as a miraculous sign that the icon should remain in Czestochowa. He thereupon entrusted the icon to the care of the Paulite monks (the Order of Hermits of St. Paul), who had a monastery on Jasna Gora (the hill of light) overlooking the city. In 1386, King Jagiella (a.k.a. Wladyslaw II) built a more beautiful shrine church for the monastery. The first reports of miracles surrounding veneration of the icon date to 1402. About this same time, the faithful began to call Mary, “Healer of the Sick, Mother of Mercy and Queen of Poland.” Soon, hundreds of pilgrims came to venerate the icon and to implore the prayers of our Blessed Mother.

For this reason, in 1430, Hussites (heretical followers of John Hus who denounced devotion to the Blessed Mother and any veneration of icons) attacked the shrine. One of the Hussites desecrated the icon with his sword, making three cuts on the Blessed Mother’s right cheek. After making the last cut, the Hussite collapsed and died. Actually, this incident promoted even greater devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa.

In 1655, King Charles Gustavus of Sweden invaded Poland with his armies and conquered most of the country. The Swedes were followed by the Russians and Tartars who also occupied parts of Poland. However, when an army of 2,000 Swedes attacked the monastery at Czestochowa, the Paulite monks repelled them and credited their success to the intercession of Our Lady of Czestochowa. This victory transformed the war into a fight for the faith: the Catholics against the Swedish Lutherans, the Orthodox Russians and Muslim Tartars. Trusting in the Blessed Mother’s protection, the Poles were invigorated. King Jan Casimir on May 3, 1556, declared to Our Lady of Czestochowa, “I, Jan Casimir, King of Poland, take thee as Queen and Patroness of my Kingdom. I place my people and my army under your protection.” Victory was at hand. Since then Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, has been a symbol of Polish nationalism, patriotism and religious liberty. Faith and patriotism were seen as inseparable and “For Faith and Fatherland” became their rallying cry.

On September 14, 1920, the feast of the Holy Cross, the Russian army was poised at the Vistula River, ready to invade Poland. Tradition holds that the Russians saw a vision of Our Lady of Czestochowa in the sky and retreated. This incident is known as the “Miracle at the Vistula.”

During the Nazi and Communist occupations, the government banned pilgrimages to the shrine and imposed severe penalties for any violation. Nevertheless, millions of the faithful continued to take the risk to honor Our Lady of Czestochowa.

On August 26, 1982, the feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Pope John Paul II celebrated the 600th anniversary of the arrival and veneration of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. From his chapel at Castel Gandolofo, which has an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa on the main altar, he preached a special message to his Polish compatriots, who at that time were struggling for independence from communist tyranny:

My dear compatriots! However difficult the lives of Poles may be this year, may consciousness win in you that this life is embraced by the Heart of the Mother. As she won in Maximilian Kolbe, Knight of the Immaculate, so may she win in you. May the Mother’s heart win! May the Lady of Jasna Gora win in us and through us! May she win even through our afflictions and defeats. May she ensure that we shall not desist from trying and struggling for truth and justice, for liberty and dignity in our lives. Do not Mary’s words, “Do as He (my Son) tells you,” mean this too? May power be fully manifested in weakness, according to the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles and according to the example of our compatriot, Father Maximilian Kolbe. Queen of Poland, I am near you, I remember you, I watch!

(This article is courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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