Marian Priests to the End
They could hear the crunch of the snow under the soldiers' feet as a bonfire in the yard outside flickered, casting eerie shadows through the church windows. The orange glow of the midnight fire illuminated the newly consecrated Host being elevated in the hands of Fr. George Kaszyra.
The soldiers' angry words being shouted in German contrasted harshly with the peaceful words of the Eucharistic Prayer inside the parish church in Rosica, Belarus.
Most of the people huddled in the church didn't understand what the Nazi soldiers were saying, but they knew that when the morning light crept through the frosted windows, it would probably be their last dawn before seeing heaven's light.
Worry and anxiety darkened the face of nearly every person being held in the church. They looked to Fr. George for hope, for courage, for consolation.
The light of the bonfire outside was a constant reminder of their fate and that of the other half of their Catholic community. Their friend and pastor, Fr. Anthony Leszczewicz, along with dozens of other believers, had been burned to death the previous morning in a building slated for destruction. They expected to be next.
The people's faith in God was inspired by the heroic example of their priests. Fathers Anthony and George had been detained by the Nazis, but were told they could go free and avoid the same fate as the flock they had been faithfully pastoring.
However, both priests — members of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception — decided to stay with their people to the end. They spent their final days hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, and baptizing converts to Catholicism.
The following morning, Fr. George, pale from exhaustion, asked for prayers as he was led out of the church. Then he and around 30 people who'd been held in the church were loaded onto a sleigh and driven to an old wooden house. After the detainees had been locked inside, the German soldiers tossed grenades into the building and opened fire. It was then set aflame.
— Based on eyewitness accounts at Rosica, Belarus
The two Marian Martyrs in the above account were among more than 1,500 laypeople and dozens of religious in Belarus killed by the Nazis in February of 1943. The Germans were rounding up all who resisted their occupation of the land formerly held by the Soviet Union. Many others were sent to Nazi work camps in Poland.
Fathers George and Anthony were honored for their faith and their courage on June 13, 1999, in Warsaw, Poland, as Pope John Paul II beatified them among a group of 108 World War II martyrs — diocesan priests, religious, nuns, and laypeople.
These men bear witness to the victory of Christ over death, the pope said to the crowd of more than one million people who gathered for the event.
"Though we see in [our] history, the painful signs of the action of evil, we are certain that in the end, evil will not prevail over the fate of man and the world; it cannot win," he said.
"Today we are celebrating the victory of those who, in our century, gave their lives for Christ ... in order to possess life forever in His glory," he continued. "If we rejoice today for the beatification of 108 Martyrs — clergy and laypeople — we do so above all because they bear witness to the victory of Christ, the gift which restores hope."
For the hundreds of Marians gathered in Warsaw's Marshal Pilsudski Square (the former Victory Square) for the beatification, it was a day to reflect on their own call to share in the triumph of Christ.
The Martyrs' heroic stand for Christ is a reminder of what all religious are called to — whether or not they are called to martyrdom, said Fr. Adam Boniecki, MIC, a former Superior General of the Congregation.
"The elevation of these Martyrs to the altar has become a sort of continuation of the Holy Father's challenging appeal [to love and serve the poor] and a reminder of our vocation," Fr. Boniecki explained.
Both Bl. Anthony and Bl. George lived out their vocation and imitated Christ in their decision to remain with their people to death, said Fr. Joseph Roesch, MIC, who now serves at the Marians' vicar general in Rome.
"That which you have received as a gift, you're called to give as a gift to others," Fr. Roesch said after the beatification ceremony. "And we've already received so many gifts. We're called, then, to give them back for the building up of the kingdom. Jesus did this perfectly and completely on the cross.
"Both Anthony and George embodied that. They lived that Marian charism, staying with their flock and not running away. That inspires us to persevere to the end," said Fr. Roesch.
This article was originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of the Marian Helpers Bulletin.