Pilgrimage with Our Lady of Czestochowa in defense of life
Blogged by James Preece on 28th June 2012
I was going to say that I hope pro-lifers in England will support this endeavor, but I suspect it more likely that this endeavor will support pro-lifers in England.
By Fr Peter West
Our Lord compared the growth of the Kingdom of God to the growth of a small mustard seed into a large shrub. (Mark 4, 30-3-32). This is a reminder that sometimes great enterprises have very small beginnings. At this moment, a small band of pro-life missionaries are on a pilgrimage across Russia. From a worldly perspective their efforts might seem insignificant. However, seen through the eyes of faith, their journey has the potential to be of enormous significance for the building of a culture of life and the family in Russia all of Europe.
The small band left the port city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast of Russia on June 14th with a replica of the famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The revered image of our Blessed Mother, displayed on a specially designed secure trailer, will be venerated across eight time zones in Russia, and eventually will zigzag across Europe to Fatima, Portugal and, hopefully, will even come to the United States in the spring of 2013.
What would motivate a small band of believers to undertake what is being called the “From Ocean to Ocean International Campaign in Defense of Life” – to go to such extreme measures for what many will perceive as a quaint religious observance? The pilgrimage, or peregrination, of the icon, is intended as a response to nearly a century of legalized abortion in Russia, and to stop the spread of this deadly scourge to the rest of the world? Anyone who has studied Scripture or Church history will recognize the purpose of this extraordinary event. They believe that the victory of life will come about through the powerful intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, as foretold in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 11,19-12,18)
In the Old Testament, the Jews carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle (cf. Joshua 3, 3-6). Many Fathers of the Church compare Mary to the Ark of the New Covenant, such as St. Ambrose. Saint Ambrose wrote “The Ark contained the Tablets of the Law; Mary contained in her womb the heir of the Testament. The Ark bore the Law; Mary bore the Gospel. The Ark made the voice of God heard; Mary gave us the very Word of God. The Ark shone forth with the purest gold; Mary shone forth both inwardly and outwardly with the splendor of her virginity. The gold which adorned the Ark came from the interior of the earth; the gold with which Mary shone forth came from the mines of Heaven.” (Serm. xlii. 6, Int. Opp., S. Ambrosii)
Though the practice of peregrination with icons of the Blessed Mother has fallen out of favor in much of the Catholic world, its history is worth noting. Even in the West, the faithful have over the centuries venerated the images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and called on her intercession in times of great distress.
In 1571, when the Bishop of Mexico heard that Europe was threatened with an invasion from the Turkish Navy, he sent a replica of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Pope Pius V. The Pope gave the image to Admiral Andrea Doria, who carried it into battle on one of the lead ships at Lepanto. On October 7, 1571, Christian forces defeated the much larger Turkish Navy and saved Europe from invasion.
In 1812, Russian forces carried the icon of “The Reigning Mother of God” into battle as they drove Napoleon and his invading army out of Russia. Just over a century later, on March 1, 1917 a pious Russian widow named Eudocia received a revelation from the Blessed Virgin Mary to look for the icon, which had been lost for many years. The next day, at the same moment that Tsar Nicholas of Russia abdicated his throne, 3:00 PM on March 2, the icon was found, having been hidden in a basement in the village of Kolomenskoye, just outside Moscow.
Many people began to venerate the icon and miraculous healings began to occur, even as what would become known as the October Revolution was launched against the ruling Tsars of Russia. Eudocia, after another vision, said the Mother of God told her that if the icon was marched around the Kremlin seven times it would not fall. But it was taken around only once, before gunfire was heard. The Bolsheviks captured the Kremlin, marking the onset of Russia’s century of darkness.
These and other stories are not often heard in the West, as icons are particularly venerated in the East. An icon, as opposed to paintings, sculptures or other artistic depictions of persons is considered to be almost a living presence of the person who is venerated.
The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa has a fascinating history of its own. Tradition holds that St. Luke the Evangelist himself “wrote” the icon of what has now become known as “Our Lady of Czestochowa” on a cypress table in the home of the Holy Family. The Icon was damaged by anti-Catholic, Hussite raiders in 1430 who slashed it and attempted to burn her, so much so that today she is referred to as the “Black Madonna.” In a sense, she is a symbol of Poland herself, scarred but persevering in faith.
Our Lady has interceded for the Polish people many times in her history. Just one modern example: From May 1 -7, 1979 many people in Poland held what became known as “The Siege of Jericho:” at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa they prayed continuous rosaries for the intention that the Communist Polish government would relax its restrictions on the visit of Pope John Paul II to his native land. On May 7, the Polish government unexpectedly relented and dropped the major obstacles that were preventing the Pope’s visit. We know now the fire that now-Blessed Pope John Paul lit with his bold proclamation of the Gospel “behind enemy lines,” and how he large a role he played in the most remarkable peaceful revolution of the century, eventually even bringing down Communism in Poland and eventually the Soviet Union.
These and similar historic events testify to the all too-often forgotten power of prayer—particularly in asking for the intercession of the Blessed Mother to deliver the faithful from problems that seem too overwhelming for any practical human solution. And this is precisely the situation in which Russia again finds herself today.
In 1920, Russia was the first country to legalize abortion for any reason. Josef Stalin again outlawed abortion in 1936, not because he respected human life, but he saw that it was weakening his nation, decimating the population of Russia along with war, the various purges and the starvation of millions. Shortly after his death in 1954, abortion was again legalized, and the number of babies lost again skyrocketed, peaking in 1964 with 5.6 million abortions performed. Abortion remains the primary means of birth control in Russia, although the rate is falling (still at a very high rate of just under 40% of all pregnancies ending in abortion in 2010).
In 1917, Our Lady of Fatima predicted that Russia would spread her errors throughout the world. Although several volumes are filled with the depth and breadth of these errors, the greatest is undoubtedly the state endorsement of the killing of children in the womb.
But now again, Russia knows she has a problem. Her population continues to decline at an alarming rate. The total fertility rate of Russian women hit a historic low in 1999 of 1.16. By 2010, it had risen slightly to 1.59. Even President Vladmir Putin, who does not oppose abortion on moral grounds, has encouraged Russian families to have more children by offering economic incentives. However, his policies are having little effect.
Against this backdrop of demographic collapse, widespread abortion and an apparent inability for Russia and other dying European countries to marshal a return to openness to life, a faithful few are looking for more dramatic, and more traditional, solutions. Pope John Paul’s monumental encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which he called “central to the whole Magisterium of my Pontificate”, closes with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary for victory over the culture of death.
So the faithful again turn to Our Lady under her title of Our Lady of Czestochowa, who is venerated both in the East and the West. In January 2012, along with pro-life leaders from 18 other nations, I travelled to the Shrine of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland to take part in a planning session for this project. Together we joined the Archbishop of Cracow in a special Mass on January 28th to make a special act of entrustment to the cause of the defense of life and family to Our Lady of Czestochowa and pray for the success of the From Ocean to Ocean International Campaign in Defense of Life.
Even before the official start of the campaign, the icon was brought from Moscow to four cities Kazakhstan where local media covered the event along the way. People of all ages came to adore the sacred icon. Coordinators of the pilgrimage, Lech and Ewa Kowalewski of Human Life International (HLI) Poland, reported that the faces of Orthodox priests and laymen beamed with joy.
The icon arrived in Vladivostok on June 11th and was venerated in several churches including main Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Good size crowds have accompanied the Blessed Virgin asking for her prayers and have also attended pro-life conferences which will be part of the pilgrim mission all along the way.
A prayer before the icon was offered by Archpriest Aleksandr Talko, the head of the Department of Church Charities and Social Services of the Vladivostok Eparchy. Father Aleksandr said “For all of the days of the stay of the Czestochowa icon in Vladivostok, there will be prayers before the miraculous icon requesting the Mother of God to strengthen family ties." Church leaders are also praying for a reduction of the problem of alcoholism in Russia. When people lack faith and hope, they often turn to alcohol which harms their own life and often leads to the dissolution of their family.
This also is no small feat – Russian Orthodox leaders are working together with Roman Catholics to coordinate the historic pilgrimage through Russia. Because of delicate relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, the icon will, at least in Russia, visit only to Russian Orthodox churches. We pray that our shared devotion to the Blessed Mother may be an occasion for the building of mutual respect, and collaboration in other such efforts for the promotion of faith, life and the family in the future.
Please pray with us that the Blessed Virgin Mary will use this extraordinary event to inspire the people of Russia and all of Europe to return to faith in God and devotion to her. We pray that God will bless the efforts of this tiny band of missionaries and that Our Blessed Mother will awaken the people in every place she visits, to be open to life and a respect marriage and family life.
Find out more and follow the pilgrimage here.
The Icon will be in Great Britain between the 5th and the 16th of November, I will let you know more about the itinerary as it becomes available.
I suspect things are not quite set in stone at this stage so if there are any Bishops reading, now may be your last opportunity to get involved.