Thursday, August 18, 2016

What Karol Wojtyla Learned from the Salesians

What Karol Wojtyla Learned from the Salesians

Address for Teacher Orientation Day

Holy Cross School, Champaign, Ill.
August 16, 2016

In an article in America early this year, Jesuit historian Fr. John W. O’Malley is cited for a list of “five hooks that unify Jesuit teaching”:[1]

        1. help students examine their assumptions about life;

        2. help them understand the past (personal and larger);

        3. communicate faith that does justice, that serves others;

        4. study great literature, teaching how to put ideas into words;

        5. teach prudence by sharpening critical thinking skills.

There’s some great stuff there, as we’d expect from an order that has given the Church and society many great educators since 1540.

Other teaching congregations have their own approaches and styles, of course, e.g. the LaSalle Christian Brothers, the Irish Christian Brothers, the Marists, and countless societies of religious sisters.  I enjoyed eight grammar school years with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who were wonderful educators, catechizing us, teaching writing skills, fostering my love for reading—and of some relevance here, thru our 6th grade world history text introducing me to St. Thomas More, who became one of my favorite saints.

We Salesians, too, have our educational approach and style.  You’ve heard and experienced some aspects of that in the last three years, e.g., reason, religion, and kindness; Communion and confession; the three “white devotions” (Eucharist, Mary most holy, and the Holy Father).  Another key phrase or summary often used by Don Bosco was that we aim to make of our pupils good Christians and upright citizens.  That aligns very well with the Jesuits’ “five hooks,” but it’s broader in that it accommodates non-scholars, such as pupils in trade or agricultural schools or people of all ages learning basic life skills—as Salesian ministry does in many parts of the world.  You can imagine that would be the case, since our presence in more than 130 countries ranges from Amazonian jungles to high tech First World universities, from refugee camps in Kenya to hostels for university students.  We cover a wide range of educational needs.

I’d like to look with you this morning at how we answered the needs of and left lasting marks on two parishioners from different parts of the world, from very different contexts, who went on to distinguished careers—to understate it.

Karol Wojtyla and his widowed father moved from Wadowice to Krakow in September 1938 so that 18-year-old Karol could attend university.  They took an apartment in the Debniki neighborhood, across the Vistula River from the city center with its royal palace, cathedral, and university.  Their apartment at 10 Tyniecka Street was around the corner and about three minutes’ walk from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, served by the Salesians since 1931,[2] and since 1933 also the seat of the Salesians’ South Poland Province.  Every morning Karol attended the six o’clock Mass before going to class.  Even after entering the underground seminary program in 1942, he remained a parishioner until 1944.  Once the German occupiers were driven out, the seminarians were able to move safely into the archbishop’s residence.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Krakow

George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, Witness to History, calls St. Stanislaus “a dynamic parish in which the Salesians placed great emphasis on youth work” (p. 59).  In his autobiographical Gift and Mystery, John Paul refers to his parish as the “particular place … from [which] I received much during that period.  I believe that the presence of the Salesians played an important role in the formation of my vocation” (p. 23, italics in original).

We all know of John Paul’s outstanding devotion to the Virgin Mary, something which every Polish Catholic learns from his earliest years.  But in Gift and Mystery he notes the “special devotion to Mary Help of Christians in the parish, in conjunction with the ‘Living Rosary’” that the young men and women of the parish practiced during the Nazi occupation under the inspired leadership of a layman, Jan Tyranowski (now a “servant of God” whose cause of beatification the Salesians are promoting[3]).

Chapel of MHC at St. Stanislaus,
with image before which the future Pope prayed.
John Paul writes that “a change took place in my understanding of devotion to the Mother of God,” viz., that not only does Mary lead us to Christ but also that Jesus leads us to his Mother (p. 28).  Years later, the Salesian news service reported, “It was precisely in front of the image of Mary Help of Christians venerated [at St. Stanislaus] that young Karol came to the decision to devote himself entirely to the service of the Lord and his Church.”[4]  Cardinal Wojtyla said in 1972, “In front of this picture I prayed and I grew strong in my priestly vocation.”[5]

During the first year of the German occupation, into 1940, the Salesians—about a dozen priests and brothers—tried to continue their youth apostolate in the parish clandestinely.  But it was too dangerous.  The Nazis were highly suspicious of any sort of activity that organized people, and to reduce any likelihood of organizing had already arrested and either sent to concentration camps or summarily executed most of the army officers and intellectual leadership of the country.  At Poznan, five young leaders in the Salesian youth center were arrested in September 1940 and eventually executed for the illegal activity of teaching catechism.  (They were beatified in 1999 by John Paul among 108 Polish martyrs of the Nazi occupation.)

So the Salesians proposed to Jan Tyranowski that he quietly and secretly organize the youths of the parish with what they called “the Living Rosary.”
Tomb of Jan Tyranowski
St. Stanislaus Kostka Church
Tyranowski, 39 at the time, was an accountant by training but a tailor by trade (helping his father) and deeply spiritual—especially following the Carmelite tradition (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), to which he introduced his young disciples, including Wojtyla.  Weigel writes that this Living Rosary “consisted of groups of fifteen young men, each of which was led by a more mature youngster who received personal spiritual direction and instruction from the mystically gifted tailor.  Tyranowski met with the entire Living Rosary organization every third Sunday of the month and was also available to any member ... as needed. . . .  In weekly, hour-long meetings in his apartment, Tyranowski taught his group leaders both the fundamentals of the spiritual life and methods for systematically examining and improving their daily lives,” and he included the apostolic dimension of the Christian life, teaching them to serve others (p. 60).  By 1943 he had four such groups, and Karol Wojtyla was the leader of one of them.  The Gestapo raided Tyranowski’s apartment once during one of the meetings, but somehow the tailor convinced them there was no conspiracy going on.  Of course there was a conspiracy going on, Weigel observes, but not of the kind the Gestapo needed to worry about.  The youths were conspiring to deepen their spiritual lives, to apply the Gospel to their daily living, and to plan for a postwar Poland.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, interior
On May 23, 1941, a few months after Jan Tyranowski undertook his secret project, the Gestapo came for twelve of the Salesians, leaving in the parish, John Paul says, just one old priest and the provincial (p. 23).  By the end of 1942, ten of the Salesians had perished in Auschwitz; one, Fr. Joseph Kowalski, has already been beatified among the aforementioned 108 martyrs; the cause of the other nine priests is being studied.

Servant of God Fr. Jan Swierc, pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church
killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz in June 1941.
When religious orders hold their general chapters—worldwide legislative and electoral assemblies every six years or so—they customarily request an audience with the Holy Father at the Vatican.  So did the Salesians’ GC23 in 1990.  They were astonished when, breaking all precedent, John Paul said, No, I will come to you at your generalate![6]  It showed the unusual esteem and affection in which the Pope held his former parish priests.

Twelve years later, in 2002, he addressed GC25 (in the Vatican), reminding the chapter members of what he had known first-hand at St. Stanislaus:  The Salesians live among the young, as Don Bosco wanted.  “You are happy among them,” he said, “and they enjoy your friendly presence.  Yours are ‘houses’ [or ‘homes,’ depending on how you want to translate casa] in which they feel at ease.  Isn’t this the distinguishing feature of your apostolate in every part of the world?”[7]

And that no doubt is why he returned to St. Stanislaus Kostka two days after his ordination for one of his “first Masses,” even before going back to his native city and home parish, and on his last visit to Poland in August 2002 he came back to the church again to recall his roots and the heroic sacrifice of his Salesian mentors and Jan Tyranowski.[8]

Here are five takeaways from St. John Paul’s Salesian experience; or “five hooks,” if you liked Fr. O’Malley’s term:
Pope John Paul with youths at a Salesian gathering
Colle Don Bosco, Castelnuovo, probably in 1988
        1. Karol Wojtyla learned how to serve the young.  The Salesians were present to the young in the parish, and they modeled Christian discipleship for the young.  Youth ministry, a presence among the young, became a major feature of his priestly life, for which he was noted as a university professor.  And of course we know how he started World Youth Days and connected with the young whenever he was among them.  The young are the very reason why we are here—to serve them and to help them meet and fall in love with the Lord Jesus.  We are here to be with them, not merely to observe them, not merely to instruct them.  In the Salesian terminology of recent years, we accompany them, as Jesus accompanied Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus on Easter afternoon.

        2. Karol’s Marian devotion, already present from his earliest years, was deepened and transformed at his Salesian parish, and he apparently felt Mary directing his life.  Addressing her, he became totus tuus, “all yours.”  We have to help our young people meet Mary, pray to her, let her into their lives—and do all that ourselves; not because Mary is the end of our piety but because she and her Son are inseparable.  She shows us how to listen to Jesus and stay with him in life’s most difficult moments.

        3. Karol’s vocation was nurtured in his parish, and nurtured particularly by a spiritual guide.  One of his companions in the Living Rosary group, another priest, said that without Jan Tyranowski neither one of them would have become a priest.  Every child in our school has a vocation, and it’s part of our ministry to nurture that vocation—starting with their baptismal vocation, their call to be disciples of Jesus and to be saints.  Then we all live that out in a particular way, or over the course of our lives, maybe in more than one way (like last Friday’s saint, Jane Frances de Chantal, or Mother Seton).  Obviously, our kids aren’t going to make any definitive decisions about how they’re going to live as Christ’s men and women, but it’s part of our ministry to help them explore, in age-appropriate ways, how God might call them eventually to married or single life, to some form of consecrated life, or to the diaconate or the priesthood.

        4. Karol Wojtyla saw the heroic witness of his Salesian priests and brothers—and many others, to be sure.  The Nazis were as ruthless against the Polish intelligentsia and structures of civil life as they were against the Jews.  He saw that tyranny could be resisted and that the Church could be a rallying point for maintaining the dignity of the human person and the eternal truths of God.  He put what he learned into practice as bishop in Communist Poland, and as Pope in tearing down the Iron Curtain.  Similarly, our ministry includes the utmost respect for our children as God’s children; and for our co-workers—teachers, administrators, and staff.  It includes instilling in our students and even their parents an appreciation for truth and for a free conscience that can choose that truth and follow that truth in one’s daily life.  It includes teaching them to be sensitive to injustice and to resist it.  We don’t leave “truth, justice, and the American way” only to Superman!

        5. Karol experienced the power of lay witness and lay leadership in the example of Jan Tyranowski.  Emphatically, he insisted that the clergy don’t belong in partisan politics, neither in the developed world nor in the developing world.  But further, the civil or political sphere is where lay Christians must be active and influential, bringing their convictions about human dignity and human rights to bear on all of society.  That was part of Don Bosco’s method, e.g., in his helping youths find employment and monitoring them and their work environments, in setting up mutual aid societies, and in sending his young men out to nurse and otherwise assist the victims of the cholera epidemic that ravaged Turin in 1854 (protected by the Virgin Mary and their own commitment to avoid sin).[9]  The Christian layman and laywoman has the apostolic mission of transforming culture and society.  So we teach our kids to be attentive to the poor, the afflicted, immigrants, people of different races, religions, cultures, etc.  We teach them responsible use of social media and the mass media.  We teach the boys to respect the girls, and we teach the girls modesty.  We strive to raise them up as responsible citizens of both our country and their heavenly homeland.
Pope John Paul in Turin, 1988
May we all find in this great Salesian “old boy,” Pope Francis, something to inspire us and help us be, not just better teachers, but better educators, better evangelizers, better servants of the young.

Part II: What Jorge Bergoglio Learned from the Salesians, will follow.



    [1] Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, “Teacher, Heal Thyself,” America, Jan. 18-25, 2016, p. 24.
    [2] Salesiani di Don Bosco, Annuario 2015, vol. I (Rome, 2014), p. 483.
    [6] Documents of the 23rd General Chapter of the Society of Saint Francis de Sales (Rome, 1990), pp. 192-197, 238-241.
    [7] Documents of the 25th General Chapter of the Society of St. Francis de Sales (Rome, 2002), nn. 141-146 at n. 145.
    [8] ANS Oct. 16, 2014 and April 2, 2015.
                [9] Giovanni Battista Lemoyne, SDB, The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco, trans. Diego Borgatello, SDB, vol. 5 (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Salesiana, 1969), pp. 50-66.

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