by Lourdes Policarpio
I have had a great interest in Poland for a long time. It is the country of the much-loved Pope John Paul II and St. Faustina, apostle of Divine Mercy. It has two great shrines: the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa and the more recent Basilica of Divine Mercy. The former has fascinated me for a long time. While I have a life-size statue of Mary Help of Christians in a small prayer room in the house, at the back is a framed photo of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. She has such a sad countenance, enhanced especially by the scars on her face. Her dark features and drooping eyes all the more make her one with suffering people, not only in Poland but all over the world.
It was a long ride via tourist bus from Berlin to Czestochowa. We arrived early evening. Like many shrines of Our Lady, Czestochowa is not an easy destination. I was glad to be with a group of Filipinos on a guided tour. Our schedule was such that we only had around two to three hours to spend in the shrine the following day.
The next morning, feeling more like Our Lady’s servant or soldier-on-duty rather than a pleasure-seeking tourist, I was up early. Skipping breakfast, I was ready before 8:00 a.m. Since the assembly time for the whole group wasn’t for another 30 minutes, my husband, daughter and I decided to proceed to the Shrine on our own since it was just in front of the hotel.
To enter the sanctuary, one walks down a long, lovely lane dotted with trees. It was cold (around 8 degrees °C) since autumn was setting in. It is a gentle ascent to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, located on a 293 meter-high limestone hill called Jasna Gora (Mountain of Light or Luminous Hill). The soaring bell tower catches one’s eye; it dominates the skyline of the city. The Black Madonna is in the Chapel of the Virgin which we located easily. Entering it, I was awed. Looking at the framed photo in my prayer room, the feeling of sadness engulfs you. But at the Shrine of Our Lady in Czestochowa, the icon was in a splendid, regal setting befitting a true Queen of Poland.
There were many people in the Chapel of the Virgin but the silence was just awesome. In Lourdes, France the grotto is outdoors and one can easily get distracted. But in this small enclosure where the sacred icon was, the silence engulfs one with a sense of the sacred. I asked myself: Have I forgotten the value of silence since our Masses in the Philippines are vibrant, what with the oft-repeated dictum on “community singing”? The small chancel where the Black Madonna icon could be found can accommodate only around 30 people. Outside the chancel, there is a wide aisle and around this aisle are six side altars.
We were ahead of the tour group by thirty minutes and it made a difference in our short visit to the Shrine. There was a mass going on and the singing was in Gregorian chant. It was so solemn and sacred, with a male choir leading and the people joining in hushed undertones. With my husband and I being music-lovers, especially of sacred music, how we relished this mass!
We did not know how to get nearer the sacred icon since the few pews in front of it were occupied. At this point, as the mass ended, our tour companions started to arrive. We had a mass solely for our group in one of the chapels adjoining the Chapel of the Virgin. We were additionally blessed; in the sanctuary is a Polish priest who has stayed in the Philippines (particularly in my parish, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in BF Homes Parañaque). Fr. Simon Stefanowicz concelebrated the mass with the three Filipino priests accompanying us and to my joy, later led us via a backdoor inside the sanctuary of the Black Madonna. This episode constituted my precious moments with Our Lady.
Interrupting the silence, Fr. Simon announced there was this tour group from the Philippines. He led in praying the Hail Mary – in Tagalog! Then as the turn of our companion monsignor came, he led the Hail Mary – in Ilonggo – since he did not know the Tagalog Hail Mary. But I was so pleased because I felt I was praying for my Ilonggo family and fellow Ilonggos right before the sacred icon of Our Lady. Fr. Simon also led in the singing of Marian hymns.
As all these happened, I was at the foot of the Black Madonna, a mere two or three meters away. Gazing at her sad face, in a regal and magnificent setting nevertheless, I felt like I was gazing at her in Heaven. Looking at Mary, the Queen, and feeling a certain kind of joy, peace and serenity of spirit – I felt that this must be as close to Heaven as I can get. I mused: this is probably what all the blessed do in Heaven – gaze at the loveliness of the Lord and His Blessed Mother and partake of the holy aura and joy permeating their Spirit. The lines of Psalm 27 are quite apt:
One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek – That I dwell in His house all the days of my life, That I may ever gaze at His beauty And seek counsel in His sanctuary.
Of course, everything had to come to an end. We had a few minutes left to buy souvenirs and tour the other parts of the Sanctuary. The Shrine covers five hectares; the structures include a Basilica and Museum. Time was not and would never be enough!
By around 11 a.m. we were on our way out. Our next stop would be Krakow, with the Basilica of Jesus the Divine Mercy. I could only thank the Lord for the wonderful Polish people, a beacon of light in Eastern Europe.
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