A Spirituality for the Present Pandemic

By Chris Sparks
These last six months have been difficult on a historic scale. A global pandemic like nothing since the Spanish flu of 1918 has tested the healthcare systems of the nations, caused a global economic downturn the likes of which we haven’t seen in living memory, and rendered the future more dramatically unpredictable than even the most pessimistic among us ever expected.

We didn’t expect this scenario for the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But really, perhaps we’re uniquely prepared for it.

After all, the Congregation emerged in a time and place full of tumult and strife. Throughout the lifetime of Marian Founder St. Stanislaus Papczynski (1631-1701), his homeland, Poland, was scourged by wars, plagued by repeated epidemics, and burdened with 
unimaginable trials. Indeed, those trials helped form the founding calls of the Order.

When St. Stanislaus was in his 20s, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was suffering Swedish invasions that have since been called the “Deluge.” One of the crucial battles was fought at the great monastery of Jasna Gora (the “Luminous Mount”), where the ancient icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is kept. This battle has been cited by historians as a turning point in the defense of Poland.

In the wake of the battle, the king of Poland, John Casimir Vasa, proclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary the Queen of Poland on April 1, 1656. 

The great victory at Jasna Gora and the entrustment of Poland to Mary’s queenship helped inspire St. Stanislaus in the act that founded the Marian Fathers in 1670: his oblatio, or total gift of self, to Mary, especially in defense of her title “the Immaculate Conception.”

But Poland’s battles didn’t merely help guide and reinforce St. Stanislaus’ devotion to Mary. Poland’s trials also inspired his 
devotion to the Holy Souls. He served for a time as a chaplain to the Polish army and saw that many people were dying without access to the Sacraments. The ongoing violence and often unexpected loss of life led St. Stanislaus to include praying for the dying and for the Holy Souls in Purgatory among the very reasons for the existence of the Congregation.

This spiritual work of mercy was only made all the more pressing by the repeated epidemics that swept through Poland in St. Stanislaus’ lifetime, especially in the wake of war. Indeed, in his youth, St. Stanislaus fell seriously ill twice from epidemic disease.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The political turmoil of the 1600s, especially in the Wars of Religion, the rise of absolutism in other parts of Europe, the tremendous shifts in wealth and power caused by the Age of Discovery, and the fact that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was parked right in the middle of Europe all meant that St. Stanislaus lived and founded his Congregation amidst one of the greatest eras of upheaval in world history. 

But the sufferings and trials of the Congregation didn’t end there. With the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century came Russian oppression and a slow decline of the Congregation of Marian Fathers until, in the early 1900s, only one Marian was left, Fr. Vincent Sekowski.

Divine Providence, however, had more work for the Congregation to do.

Under seemingly impossible circumstances, the Congregation was renovated by Blessed George Matulaitis (1871-1927), who faced a number of incredible challenges, including those of clandestinely living a faithful religious life while also suffering from tuberculosis of the bone and being entrusted with the bishopric of Vilnius in the aftermath of WWI.

The Congregation then faced the trials of the Great Depression; World War II (producing two Marian Martyrs); the Cold War and Soviet totalitarian control of much of Europe, including Poland and Lithuania; and the turmoil within the Church following Vatican II. Blessed Michael Sopocko, St. Faustina’s confessor, entrusted a Marian priest, Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC, with the Divine Mercy message and devotion in the 1940s. Then, following a temporary ban on spreading Divine Mercy due to faulty translations, the Marians were freed to once again spread Divine Mercy by St. Paul VI in 1978. Two papal conclaves and one very short pontificate later, John Paul I was succeeded by the Polish Pope, St. John Paul II. He would beatify St. Stanislaus, Blessed George, and St. Faustina, the latter of whom he also canonized in 2000 as the first saint of the third millennium. The Polish Pope would also help firmly establish Divine Mercy in the life of the Church, declaring the Second Sunday of Easter would henceforth be celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.

The Marian Fathers have served Christ and His Church faithfully in the midst of impossible trials. The Congregation has survived historical moments that have been the death of other organizations, preserved by Divine Providence and the loving maternal care of their titular patroness, the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Spreading the Divine Mercy message and devotion, they serve the Church where the need is greatest in parishes and missions. Praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, they also lead others to pray for the dying and for the dead, especially those who’ve died without access to the Sacraments.

In these times of limited access to the Sacraments across the world, of pandemic disease, political upheaval, international intrigue, and uncertainty, the Marian charism is more relevant than ever. Those who live it out — both Marian Fathers and Marian Helpers — have an inestimable wealth to share with the world.

Chief among our treasures is trust in Divine Providence and in the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have reasons for our faith. The very existence of the Congregation to this day, against all odds, against every natural expectation, is proof that God is sovereign over history, and that His purposes will win out over every evil, every suffering.

The Marian Congregation was forged in fire, has been tested by time, and is sustained by God’s grace. The charism of the Founder is also perfectly suited to the seemingly infinite trials and challenges of our present age. In this Jubilee of the 350th anniversary of the Congregation’s founding, let us recommit to the spiritual mission of the Marian Fathers, knowing that Jesus, the Divine Mercy, and Mary Immaculate will see us through any storm.

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