Raised an Episcopalian, I initially knew of the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus, but not as an object of devotion. Only on becoming Catholic as an adult did I turn to prayers like the Memorare, the rosary and the litanies that focus on the titles applied to Mary through the centuries and into our own time. At a recent faith-sharing session in my Jesuit community, we used a litany prepared by Pax Christi USA for the Marian year of 1987-8. Its contemporary flavor appealed to us, with phrases like “Mother of the Liberator...Mother of the homeless...Mother of the condemned...Mother of the nonviolent.” And now in these times of global violence, her ancient title of “Mary Queen of Peace” carries special meaning too. Among those most struck by the Pax Christi litany that evening was a Polish member of our community, Pawel (Paul) Adamczyk. He had never encountered Pax Christi’s more modern approach to Mary’s titles.
Later Pawel spoke to me of the role that Mary has always held for Catholics in Poland, particularly during the time of the Communist regime, under which he grew up. “Under Communism, Mary became for us a hope-filled symbol of something more powerful than the state,” he said. In this regard, the annual Marian pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa assumed special importance. The government had long suppressed it, allowing religious observances to take place only in churches. But in the 1970’s, the pilgrimages were permitted to resume—one of the few events through which people could openly express their religious feelings and, obliquely, their opposition to Communism. As a child, Pawel himself made the six-day pilgrimage with his grandmother, sleeping in barns and village houses.
During those Communist years, he said, “the people turned to Mary and to the Catholic Church as the one place where they could feel free.” And it was only in church, he added, that they could know they were listening to the truth—in contrast to what they heard on the official radio and television broadcasts. “The broadcasts were full of untruths,” he observed, “and even in history classes in school, I had to pretend to believe what the teachers said, though I knew it wasn’t true.”
He noted that the Communists always experienced problems with the church because of its strength. “They were not able to persecute it openly. The persecution had to be covert, as when the secret police killed the activist priest Jerzy Popieluszko in 1984. With lay leaders like Lech Walesa on the other hand,” he observed, “the government could fight more directly.” During those years of the Solidarity movement, hundreds were killed in the shipyard strikes. It was then, Pawel said, when hope seemed all but dead, that Mary’s title of Queen of Poland took on special significance.
Pawel believes that the peaceful transition made in 1989 from the Communist-dominated government to a more democratic one was due to the intercession of Mary. “After a few months of talks with the opposition, the Communists ceded several places in the Polish parliament to the opposition—a year before, that would have been unimaginable, since the Polish Communists were backed by the Russian government. And yet,” he observed, “after a short time the first non-Communist government was established, with a Catholic as the prime minister.”
In terms of his personal life, Pawel spoke of being drawn to Mary “by a sense of my own insufficiency—the realization that I can’t do everything on my own.” In part, this realization had originally come from his experience of growing up under a political system “that denied me my freedom, one that made me feel that my life was not in my own hands.” Although he now lives under a freer system, in a wider sense he finds this same sense of insufficiency a salutary part of his spiritual journey. It might well be part of ours too, in our own individual journeys toward God in a world that cries out for peace.