One of the biggest misconceptions we can have about prayer is that we have to control it. We think it all depends on what we say and how we communicate. While it is true that our words are important in prayer and that we are called to be ready to pray, the truth about prayer is that it is about what God wants for us and how he communicates his love to us.
We may think of prayer as telling God what we need. Asking God for ourselves and for others is certainly a beautiful part of the prayer that Jesus himself recommended when he warned us: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Mt 7:7). In our prayer of supplication, our hearts must be ready to receive what God wants to give us from heaven according to His will. Certainly, we pray for our needs and those of others. We often ask the saints to pray for us too.
As Catholics, we believe that “…so great a cloud of witnesses surrounds us…” (Heb 12:1). We know that these witnesses are the saints who “have preceded us into the kingdom” whose “intercession is their highest service to the plan of God.” We can and must ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2683).
God always sends us help in the right way and from the right person to show his love and care for us. It seems to me that we think that we choose the saint who intercedes for us. This can often be true. But I am convinced that many times, according to God’s plan, a saint can choose us. I recently had this experience.
More than a year ago I read the story of a Salesian priest who deeply touched my heart. As I read his story, he just seemed to jump off the page and say, “I’m here for you!” Every time I prayed to him, I felt a strong attraction to him and a sense of his presence. His name is Blessed Joseph Kowalski and he was only a priest for a short time in Krakow, Poland. A very devout young man, he entered the Society of Saint Francis de Sales in 1927. He was known for his immense spirit of prayer, his devotion to the Blessed Mother and his desire for holiness. He was a brilliant student. Ordained a priest in 1938, he was appointed secretary to the provincial of his community and took care of the young people of the parish of Saint Stanislas Kostka in Debnicki, a district of Krakow.
On May 23, 1941, Fr. Kowalski was arrested along with 11 other Salesians because the Nazi occupiers feared the influence they had on the young people they served. He was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he spent a year of hard labor and mistreatment (Jews survived Auschwitz three months and Catholic priests six months). During his time at Auschwitz, he became famous for his joy, his courage in providing forbidden spiritual care, and the great charity he had for his fellow inmates. He absolves the sins of the dying, strengthens the discouraged, spiritually comforts the poor condemned to death, and secretly brings Holy Communion to the inmates. He even managed to organize secret masses in the barracks, lead the prayer and help whatever he could.
On June 2, 1942, he was chosen with a few other prisoner priests to be transferred to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany where there were more chances of survival. As he was showered and groomed in preparation for his transfer, a guard saw that he had his hand closed around an object. The guard asked what it was and hit his hand with a whip. A rosary fell on the ground. The guard shouted to the Father. Kowalski, “Step on it!” He didn’t move. He refused to disrespect the rosary. Accordingly, there was to be no trip to Dachau for him. Prof. Kowalski was separated from the transferees and sent to the Special Discipline Unit where his treatment would be particularly harsh.
On July 3, at the end of the working day, his companions in captivity took Fr. Kowalski to the block. He had been beaten and abused mercilessly over the past month and needed help walking. He knew his end was near. Three of his five roommates had been executed. One of his comrades said that Fr. Kowalski was immersed in prayer. He asked his comrade to pray with him for “all these men who are killing us”. He gave a piece of bread he had to another saying, “You eat it, I won’t need it.” He left voluntarily until his death.
In the early hours of July 4, sadistic guards were throwing prisoners off an embankment to hasten their deaths. If they survived, they were mocked and placed in a barrel which served as a kennel and made to bark like dogs for the amusement of their executioners. Soup was poured on the floor and the prisoners were forced to lick it off the ground. Then they drowned in a nearby cesspool.
Finally the cry came, “Where is that Catholic priest? He can bless them on their journey to eternity. Other guards, laughing loudly, beat Fr. Kowalski in the mud for their amusement. Driven by the beatings, he was brought in still covered in sticky mud and excrement, naked except for the tattered striped pants he held in one hand. They mocked him, beat him, put him on a barrel and ordered him to give “according to the Catholic rite, the last blessing for their journey to paradise”.
One of p. Kowalski’s brother priests were crouched on the ground, witnesses to this scene. He testified: “The father. Kowalski knelt on the barrel, made the sign of the cross and began to recite loudly, as if inspired, slowly, the Our Father, the Ave Maria, “We fly to your patronage” and the Ave Holy Queen. The eternal words of truth contained in the Our Father deeply impressed the prisoners who from day to day, from hour to hour, expected in this place a sudden death, like that of those of the kennel who came out of this vale of tears. …” young student who put aside the priest friend of Fr. Kowalski whispered: “The world has never heard such a prayer. On the morning of July 4, Brother Kowalski drowned in the sewers of the camp.
Pope Saint John Paul II who, when he was a student at the University of Krakow, had known the father. Kowalski, beatified him along with 107 other Polish victims of Nazi persecution on June 13, 1999. Blessed Joseph Kowalski is known as the Martyr of the Rosary.
I believe Blessed Joseph Kowalski has chosen me as one of those for whom he is interceding. He introduced himself to me and offered me his friendship. I had two confirmations.
As I was planning my trip to Poland to visit my priest friend in Krakow last May, he asked me by email, “What do you want to do when you come?” Special requests? I replied, “I just want to see you and, if possible, visit Our Mother in her sanctuary in Czestochowa.” The day after my arrival in Krakow, we celebrated an early morning mass and as we sat down for breakfast, I said to my friend: “There is a place I want to go and it is not far from here. St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Debnicki because Fr. Joseph Kowalski served there and young Karol Wotyla (Pope Saint John Paul II) and his father attended mass there. My friend replied, “Oh, it’s amazing you say that, we’re going there for lunch today to celebrate the name day of some priests in our deanery.” “Wow!” I thought, “Father. Kowalski is not long in taking me to his old parish! That day we had a good lunch in the Salesian house and then I prayed before the image of Blessed Joseph Kowalski in the parish church where he himself had offered Mass. Which gift !
After returning from Krakow, I received a phone call from a friend from Columbus who lived in Pittsburgh. She is originally from Krakow. She told me that she and her husband were coming to Pittsburgh for a day with her parents who are visiting from Poland. She asked me if I would be available to meet her parents. I said I’d be happy to do it. During their visit, his mother asked me about my recent trip to Poland and asked me if I liked Krakow. I told him that I liked Krakow and had been there several times. She wanted to know what memorable moments I had during my visit. I told him that the whole trip was special and then shared, “A particularly beautiful experience for me was visiting St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Debnicki, because of the association with the father. Kowalski and Karol Wotyla.’ She looked at me, smiled and said, “This is our home parish and I go to daily Mass there.” I burst out laughing and exclaimed, “OK, Father. Kowlaski, I understand. You always have your eyes on me.
One could say that these are just coincidences. I simply say: “In the Providence of God, there are no coincidences. It’s great to have friends in high places! I don’t know why Blessed Joseph Kowalski chose me. Maybe because he knows I need all the help I can get! I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I do: he inspires me and I feel his presence with me. Thank God! A friend of yours is a friend of mine. We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.
Bishop William J. Waltersheid
Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh
Photo credit: Schutzstaffeln – Salesiani family archives, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zef_Kowalski_%28priest%29#/media/File:J%C3%B3zef_Kowalski_(1).jpg