Totus Tuus, Mary…the Mother of us all

“When the Pope John Paul II’s mother died, his father brought him to this spot, right in front of this painting and said, ‘Now, this is your mother.'”

Walking down the whitewashed halls of the 17th-century monastery an hour or so outside of Krakow, I could hear the familiar cadence of a mass, even though I couldn’t understand the words. I quietly entered the back of the baroque church with my guide, Lucas, who has been ferrying me across the Polish countryside, first to the home town of Saint Pope John II and now to the Polish pope’s favorite pilgrimage spot, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.

Even though I knew Lucas would rather be outside having a cigarette, he could see how much I wanted to join the mass and led me—through the legendary corridors of the Friars Minor Observants hung with soot-darkened paintings of the Virgin and Baby Jesus and upteen saints I could not name— into a short, brightly lit passage stuffed with crucifixes meant for procession, decorated in silk flowers and ribbons, and piles of now-useless crutches given over by pilgrims who found the strength to walk after visiting this church.

As we turned the corner and the church opened up—scenes of heaven and angels in pink, blue and yellow on the ceiling and massive, ornate altar in black marble and gold—the mass was ending. Lucas reverently made the sign of the cross and led me along the side, by cool grey marble walls with alcoves filled with sculptures and chubby cherubs to a crowded side chapel.

“This is the Lady of Kalwaria,” he said pointing to a painting of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, both wearing royal crowns of red velvet and gold, clothed in blue garments alive with golden and bejeweled flowers. ”She is responsible for many miracles.”

Kalwaria Zebrzydowska

There was not an inch of space in the chapel between the children dressed in white gowns and flowered crowns who had just received first communion, their families, tourists, and pilgrims. The faithful were on their knees in prayer on the black and white checkered floor or jostling to get closer to the painting, to get a message through, like fans at a rock concert trying to get closer to the stage. It was hot and close.

The object of affection was this painting from the 1600s that reportedly wept in 1641 and has long been one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Poland. For Saint Pope John Paul II, it was right up the street from his home town of Wadowice, and he would frequently come to this chapel and the surrounding forest to walk the miles of trails linking to small chapels.

“When the Pope’s mother died, his father brought him to this spot, right in front of this painting and said, ‘Now, this is your mother,’ said Lucas.

It is said from that day forward, Pope John Paul dedicated himself to Mary with the words that he would pronounce for a lifetime, Totus Tuus, “I belong entirely to you”

 

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Our Lady of Częstochowa

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It is said that this is a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God herself, painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table that Jesus built. It has hung in this church for more than 600 years.

August 26 is the feast day of Our Lady of Częstochowa, the Black Madonna of Poland.

For more than 600 years, her tranquil face, scarred by assaults by arrow and sword, has looked out over a pilgrim-filled church built in her honor, on a hill called Jasna Gora, not far from Krakow. She has been through battles and wars, handed off from emperors to kings and hidden away in catacombs. People have prayed for her help, walked on their knees in pilgrimage to see her, and left their crutches behind after being cured of their ailments. Hundreds of miracles have been credited to this miraculous image and Our Lady of Częstochowa’s intercession over centuries.

A contemporary rendition of Our Lady of Częstochowa by artist Janina Oleksy-Lew.
A contemporary rendition of Our Lady of Częstochowa by artist Janina Oleksy-Lew.

For Poles, she is everything. She was officially proclaimed Queen of Poland in 1656 by King Jan Kazierz, who consecrated the country to the protection of the Mother of God. She has since been revered as protectrice and a symbol of Polish nationalism and religious liberty. Most parishes in Poland have shrines dedicated to her.

There is a shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in just about every church in Poland.
There is a shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in just about every church in Poland.

But the story of this miraculous image begins long before that.

It is said that this is a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God herself. It was painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table that Jesus built when he was apprenticing to be a carpenter with Joseph.

This is just the very beginning of the 19” x 14” miraculous portrait’s life.

  • Some say it was hidden away for years after it was painted to survive the siege of Jerusalem, around AD 70.
  • Then, in 326, Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem to find the relic. She brought it back to Constantinople for her son, who built a church near his palace for it.
  • Stories are told of residents carrying the painting through the streets of Constantinople to successfully repel an attack by the Saracens.
The walls of the church at Jasna Gora are lined with rosaries, coral necklaces and mementos of prayers granted.
The walls of the church at Jasna Gora are lined with rosaries, jewelry, medals, and mementos of prayers granted.
  • Later, Emperor Izauryn ordered many holy objects to be burned in the empire. His very own wife, Irene, hid the painting in the palace and began a tradition of passing the painting down from empress to empress in the court of Constantine.
  •  Through intermarriage of Russian royalty with those of Constantinople and later with Polish royalty, the painting found its way to the Belzki Castle, where it remained for 500 years.
  •  During attack by Tartars on Prince Ladislaus’s fortress in 1392, an arrow soared through the chapel window and struck the painting in the throat.
  • The scars on her face were made by a sword during an attack by the Hussites, a Christian movement of the King of Bohemia, in 1430. (By the way, attempts were made by artists to retouch the scars, but they always reappeared.)
At Jasna Gora
At Jasna Gora

Prince Ladislaus wanted to keep the painting safe from repeated invasions. He stopped in Częstochowa on his way to his hometown, and the horses could not move the carriage from its place. Twice, he dreamed that the painting should remain on the spot, a hill called Jasna Gora, or Bright Hill. This happened on August 26, 1392, and brings us to where we are today.

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Children celebrating their first communion before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Częstochowa at Jasna Gora.

He built a chapel, a convent, and a cloister on the hill, entrusted the most pious monks to care for the painting.

More than 600 years later, the feast day of Our Lady of Częstochowa is still celebrated at Jasna Gora. As are the many miracles credited to her intercession.

Pope John Paul II held a very special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Pope John Paul II held a very special devotion to the Virgin Mary.

 


There is also a National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


This is not exhaustive or entirely accurate history of the miraculous image at Jasna Gora as many sources seem to copy and/or contradict each other.  However, this post meant to give a sense of the journey and impact of this relic and what it means to the people of Poland.

My primary source is a book of miracles attributed to Our Lady’s intercession called “The Glories of Czestochowa and Jasna Gora” by Marian Press, along with stories  on the websites Roman Catholic Saints, Holy Spirit Interactive, and others.

Mary Our Queen

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Driving home from work today, I had mind to stop in to the cathedral to chat with Mary. It’s a modern cathedral built in the 1950s, a big place made of smooth stone where you have to walk a city block to get from the front door all the way to the back, to the Mary Chapel . I thought about slipping in a side entrance so I didn’t have to walk so far, but when I pulled up to the church, all of the front doors were wide open.

These are enormous and heavy brass doors that I have never seen propped open, even before mass or during special holy days. When I approached, cool air poured out, scented with incense. Inside, it was dark except for the light filtering through the narrow, four-story stained glass windows.

And I was all alone. Not a soul was in this massive cathedral. Right after work. On a busy thoroughfare. In the middle of a major city on the East Coast. Just me.

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It made me think of a visit to Poland last spring. Every church I ducked into–no matter the day of the week or the time of day–was full to spilling over with people of all ages.  Some had scored seats, others leaned against the walls, folks came in late and other slipped out early. I stopped into enough churches mid-mass to cobble together a whole mass during my week of traveling.

Yet here I was in this massive cathedral–the place where special funerals are held for police officers and fire fighters and revered sports figures, where the archbishop leads Christmas mass to a packed house–and I was all alone with the doors wide open.

Is this what it’s like being Catholic in America? I define my very ancestry–Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, and Irish–by Catholicsm. Yet I understand now why so many churches are consolidating and closing. You must have people to have a church.

I found the Mary Chapel so quiet in this stone fortress that my ears rang. The silence stayed with me as I  traversed the length of the long and quiet church again towards the exit, towards the light spilling through the open doors and into the church.

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Before stepping back into the sunlight, Mary met me one more time in the form of a statue at the door. She had wreath of flowers on her head and a reassuring smile on her face.

 

‘Please get her a husband’

Leda Grasso tells the story of the intercession of Mary in meeting her husband. Photo © Cheryl Nemazie.
Leda Grasso tells the story of the intercession of Mary in meeting her husband. Photo © Cheryl Nemazie.

“My mother went back to Sicily when I was 20. She said ‘My daughter is 20. Please get her a husband.’ I met him while she was there. We have been together 40 years. We had three kids. Two are doctors and one is a psychologist.”
—Leda Grasso

Ash Wednesday

 

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The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Times Square, New York City. Photo (c) Cheryl Nemazie.

Don’t be surprised by smudges on foreheads today. It’s Ash Wednesday, kicking off the first of 40 days of Lent. The statue of Mary above is found in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a surprising place for two reasons: this refuge is right in the heart of New York City’s Times Square and it’s an Episcopal church. Mary…not just for Catholics!

It’s the Epiphany

presipeOn the feast of the Epiphany, I’m sharing a handmade presepi by a friend of The Mary Project. A presepi is an Italian nativity landscape, and elaborate scenes of the three kings approaching Jesus in the manger can be found in windows, basements and yards throughout the Italian American community in New York City.

10483936_10154831462495384_4924634503781624329_oJoseph Sciorra is a scholar of Italian American culture and has captured pictures of many such scenes in his book, “Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City. This one he made himself in an old television. Wow!

I’m part Italian, and I’m sharing what my nativity scene looks like below. It is passed down from my mother, who was Italian and Irish and not from New York City—but I do believe it was made in Italy!

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And speaking of Epiphany, read Wally Lamb’s “Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” for an imaginative musing on Jesus tracking down the three kings in their native lands. It’s like a Biblical Harry Potter.

A small gift

My goal with The Mary Project is to share the stories of many people–Catholic or not, religious or not, born here or there–and how they experience Mary in their lives. Each day, I’m bowled over by the power of this project and how Mary manifests in my life–and in the lives of others.

I offer this as Exhibit A:

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Last week, my neighbor and her boyfriend came to my house to carpool to a polka Christmas dance party. She loves to dance, he’s Slovenian, I’m part Polish. It was a guaranteed good time.

They had just been traveling through the Balkans and handed me a small package when they walked through the door.

“It’s just a little something,” she said. “Do you know Medjugorje?”

My face lit up. What? Of course, I know Medjugorje. It’s a place in the craggy hills of Bosnia where the Virgin Mary appears. They say the sun spins, rose petals fall from the sky, and crosses turn to gold around people’s necks. It has long been on my pilgrimage list.

“Yes, I know Medjugorje. I’ve always want to visit,” I say, as I look around my living room and wonder if they’ve noticed yet.

A white porcelain Mary statue sits on the fireplace mantle with the crumbling Polish lithograph of Mary with angels, a card from the Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre (Mary’s mother). A 3-foot tall plaster statue stands in the corner.

They’ve never been in my house before. They don’t know I collect Mary souvenirs from around the world. And I’ve never talked to them about Mary or The Mary Project.

The small paper package is printed with a blue drawing of Mary. Inside is  a small rosary bracelet, each bead depicting Mary and the Divine Mercy (I’ll get into that another day, but suffice it say that Pope Francis just announced this as a year of mercy, and just a few months ago I visited the very place  in Poland that this image was revealed to Saint Faustina.)

It was beautiful and delicate and sweet with two little crosses cinching the ties. I held the weight of it in my hand and marveled at the gift. Of all things they could have brought me from this part of the world, they brought me the thing that meant the most–and they had no idea.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception – December 8

On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception…

Fresco of Virgin Mary in Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain
Fresco of Virgin Mary in Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain

 

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. What does that mean? According to Pope Pius IX, Mary was given grace to be sinless at the instant of her conception:

“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854)

Quote: Hillary Coniglio

Hillary Coniglio at 12th annual festa of the Madonna del Tinadari, September 8, 2015
Hillary Coniglio raises her castanets in an ancient Italian worship dance at the Twelfth Annual Festa of the Madonna del Tinadari in New York. Photo © Cheryl Nemazie.

“I think [Mary] is inspirational to Italian families. She is like the matriarch archetype of the Italian mother. She watches out for everyone, and protects and guides them.”    

—Hillary Coniglio