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Priest and Martyr

On Sunday morning, 13 June, in Warsaw's Jozef Pilsudski Square, the Holy Father celebrated a solemn Mass at which he beatified 108 Polish Martyrs from Second World War. Among them a Salesian Priest, Joseph Kowalski, 31 years of age.

Joseph Kowalski was a pupil in the Salesian house of Oswiecim. In the beautiful church dedicated to Mary Help of Christians, Joseph found Our Lady welcoming him. He felt his devotion to her grow and it was at her feet that he laid his letter requesting to be admitted into the Salesian Congregation, before handling it to the superior.

From that early stage he was looked upon as a promising saintly religious. His private note-books are full of exuberant outpours of love towards Jesus and Mary. He repeatedly renewed in writing his desire to be a saint "as my Father Don Bosco was."

His love for youth, his dedication to the priestly ministry and fervour in preaching the word of God, were clear signs of a gifted soul. "Mary, my mother," he wrote, "I must be a saint; this is my call, my destiny."

What happened later is clear proof that these were not empty words. On May 23, 1941, eve of the feast of Mary Help of Christians, Fr. Joseph Kowalski and eleven other Salesians were brutally arrested by the SS, and taken to the infamous Auschwitz (German for Oswiecim) camp. He was given the number 17950. Just one month before, another saint, Maximillian Kolbe, was branded with number 16670 in the same camp. From there Fr. Kowalski could see the spire of his Salesian Church. The sight was company to him. It gave his courage. He could smuggle out comforting words to his parents. "Do not worry about me. I feel God's help at every step I take. Whatever happens to me is the work of God's Providence, I am convinced of that."

During the year he spent in the camp he worked tireless. Absolutions given to the dying; confession heard on the sly; Masses celebrated as heroic priests celebrate during persecution: at the risk of one's own life. Communion taken to the sick and rosaries in whispers whenever possible.

The Kapos were laughing at him; "There's no God in the Lager," they jeered. But Fr. Joseph knew that it was not true, and never gave up. What happened to him was related under oath by an eye witness, another priest, Konrad Sweda, who testified for the cause of beatification of Fr. Kowalski.

There were 60 of them, priest and friars, standing naked in the bath-hall of the camp. The officer, Palitzsch, comes in and shouts: "Attention!" He walks among them inspecting and notices that Fr. Kowalski has something in his hand. "What's that?" he barks. Fr. Kowalski does not answer. The officer strikes him on the hand with his whip. The hand opens and a rosary falls to the ground. "Stamp on that!" yells the officer. Fr. Kowalski, at attention, looks straight ahead without moving. The officer realizes that his authority is at stake before the whole camp. He orders the priest taken out and sent to the "hard labour company".

From that moment anything is used to humiliate the Priest, break his resistance and discredit him. Fr. Kowalski lives to the letter what he had written in one of his notes years before: "To suffer and be humiliated for your sake, my God. Conscious of what I am feeling, and ready to accept all consequences, I want to follow your sweet call, Jesus, and be faithful to it till the end, till I die."

It happened on April 3, 1942. During a lull in the grueling routine, when the guards too felt tired and allowed a brief respite from work. The guards did not resist the temptation to make fun of Kowalski: "Priest, souls are escaping you. They need a passport to go up there. Come on, give them a sermon. They made him climb on a barrel, ordered all the other prisoners to lay face down on the ground. Kowalski did not preach a sermon but slowly with an undisturbed even voice, he intoned the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the antiphon Under Your Patronage, and the Hail Holy Queen. The witness who related the episode said: "With great caution, and knowing the risk, I twisted my head to have a glimpse around. That we prisoners were impressed, I knew."

"But when I looked I saw the guards and officers too, silent and solemn. The order to get up came and the spell was broken."

On the evening of July 3, Kowalski and another companion were sleeping in the empty barrack. All the others had already been taken away, not to return.

Father Joseph said: "Let's pray for all the people who are killing us." Just then Mitas, the guard, shouted: "Comrade Kowalski, out." Father Joseph understood, got down from the cot, gave his portion of bread to his companion saying; "It's yours if I don't come back."

Fr. Kowalski did not come back. He was tortured but did not die under torture.

As a last insult to his priesthood, he was thrown still alive into the main sewer. The body was recovered on the following day, July 4, in a state beyond description. That body so brutally disfigured, one day will shine in glory, reunited to Fr. Joseph Kowalski heroic soul.

Pope John Paul, on one occasion, speaking with some Salesians about his youth, when he frequented the Salesian Parish at Oswiecim, said that he had felt his priestly vocation there in that Parish, and that he had known Fr. Kowalski too and could still remember him.

Now it was his turn to proclaim him Blessed before the whole world.

Among the 108 Polish martyrs declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II, in Warsaw, on June 13, beside the Salesian Priest Joseph Kowalski (31 years) killed in the infamous death camp of Auschwitz, there were also five university students, of the Salesian Youth Center at Poznan. They were Edward Kazmierski, (23) Francis Kesy, (22); Jaroqniew Wojciechowski, (20) Czeslaw Jozwiak, (23) Edward Klinik, (20). They were decapitated at Dresden on August 24, 1942.

Five young men full of life and dreams, ready to savour all the good and beautiful that life can offer. They were arrested by the Nazis because they were young Catholics, faithful to their religious duties and active in helping others, especially those in danger. And all good people were in danger in those terrible moments.

Thrown into prison, declared guilty and condemned, they never lost their optimism, hoping in liberation. Five friends of mind together, they continued to say their prayers and the rosary together as at the Oratory. They were cause of surprise and comfort to all the other prisoners who nicknamed them, "The Jolly Five". Their joy was stemming from their inner love of Christ.

When the death sentence was read to them, they did not hesitate to look at the sentence as at their way to 'liberation' the true, final liberation, not the one in which, for some time, they had hoped. Wrote one of them: "What happiness to leave this world and be united to Christ". And another after receiving Communion: "How can I not be happy when I am strengthened by the Body of Christ."

Six new martyrs bound by the sparkle of a luminous youth: five freshly out of their teens, and one, the priest, just on the threshold of adulthood.

How true sound the words of the Pope who, in his Bulla introducing the Holy Year, exclaims: "In the abundance of grace of the imminent Holy Year, we shall, with greater reason, raise our hymn of thanksgiving to the Father singing ... "the white robed army who shed their blood for Christ, all sing your praise." It is the army of those "who have washed their stole white in the blood of the Lamb."

"The Church, everywhere in the world will have to stay firmly anchored to their witness and defend jealously their memory. May the Church, strengthened by the example of these champions of all age, language and nationality cross confidently the threshold of the new millennium."

"May the admiration for their martyrdom produce in the hearts of the faithful the desire to follow their example, with God's grace, if and where required." TOP