Early in the days of this blog we visited St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Rochester, NY–a beautiful work of art in what was once the Polish neighborhood of the city. The church itself is fantastic, and its history rich, and within the last few years became home to a pretty special piece that holds a history all of its own. Kathleen Urbanic is a historian for the church as well as a member. Furthermore, she’s a published author who has written Shoulder to Shoulder, the story of Polish Americans in Rochester, NY 1890-2000. We knew there was no better person to tell the story of the relic at St. Stan’s of Pope John Paul II. Many, many thanks to Kathy for sharing her knowledge here with us, and for being our very first guest author on the blog!
Visitors to St. Stanislaus Kostka Church are often drawn to a shrine in the north transept honoring Our Lady of Czestochowa – Poland’s Black Madonna – and Blessed Pope John Paul II. In this 104-year-old structure whose beautiful interior has changed little over the decades, the shrine is a new and compelling spiritual oasis.
Created in 2008, the shrine features an icon of the Black Madonna written in Poland by renowned icon artist Anna Torwirt. (Icons are said to be “written” because they offer a window into the spiritual realm and can only be created in an attitude of prayer. Like carefully constructed poetry, they are written from the heart.) Beside the icon is a portrait of Pope John Paul II painted by artist Cameron Smith of North Carolina. The Holy Father’s eyes meet the gaze of visitors to the shrine and he leads them with a gentle gesture to the Blessed Mother.
Resting on the altar, in the very center of the shrine, is an extraordinary item: a relic of Pope John Paul given to the parish by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow and the late Holy Father’s close friend. The relic is a small piece of cloth from one of Pope John Paul’s cassocks, stained with a drop of blood taken from a vial of blood that was drawn from the pope in the hospital during his last illness. It is encased in a reliquary in the form of a cross.
The veneration of saints’ relics is an ancient custom in the Roman Catholic Church, dating from the reverence shown at the graves of early Christian martyrs. Sometimes misunderstood or regarded as superstition, relic veneration is intended to remind the faithful of the holiness of the saints and the ways in which they cooperated in God’s work on earth. The relic itself is not worshipped, nor is the saint. Its purpose is to draw the mind and heart to closer to God. Veneration of relics is a tradition not only in Christianity but also in some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism.
The relic of Pope John Paul in St. Stanislaus Church is remarkable because it contains a drop of his blood – a very real reminder of his life on earth and a sign of his spiritual presence to those who ask him to intercede for their needs today. For parishioners at St. Stanislaus — the spiritual heart of Rochester’s Polish community — the relic signifies the close, personal relationship many feel with this beloved Polish Pope who helped changed the course of history in their homeland.
The relic is designated “first-class” by the Church, meaning that it is drawn directly from the person of Pope John Paul. (Second and third-class relics, in contrast, are items simply touched to the remains of a saint or to another relic.) Few churches in the United States – or even around the world – have been given the privilege of housing a first-class relic of Pope John Paul. Cardinal Dziwisz, who was the pope’s personal secretary for almost 40 years, sent the relic in 2011, responding to a request made by the parish for a remembrance that could be placed at the shrine.
A book on a stand beside the shrine gives testimony to the faith of those who visit. Prayer intentions – some written in English, some in Polish, a few in other languages – present poignant evidence of the troubles people face in their lives and the hopeful hearts they bring with them to this place.
June 2, 2013
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com