A facebook friend, Father Dennis Brown, posted about the Pratulin martyrs who suffered during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I yesterday. I had never heard for them so I looked up their story and then found this homily preached by St. John Paul II during a pastoral visit to Poland in 1999. On this last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is also the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I'm sharing portions of that homily:
At this moment, memories stir in me of earlier meetings with the Church of Siedlce, especially the commemoration of the millennium of the Baptism of Poland in 1996, and the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Diocese, at which I was able to celebrate the Eucharist at Koden of the Sapieha, at the feet of Our Lady Queen of Podlasia. I joyfully come among you today and give thanks to Divine Providence that I have been given the chance to venerate the relics of the Martyrs of Podlasia. In them, the words of Saint Paul which we heard in today’s liturgy were fulfilled in a special way: “neither death, nor life...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
2. “Holy Father, keep them in your name, those whom you have given me, that they may be one as we are one” (Jn 17:11).
Christ spoke these words on the day before his Passion and Death. In a certain sense, they are his last will and testament. For two thousand years, the Church has moved through history with this testament, with this prayer for unity. Yet there are times in history when this prayer has a special relevance, and we are living in one of those times now. The first millennium of the Church’s history was marked essentially by unity, but from the beginning of the second millennium there have been divisions, first in the East and then later in the West. For almost ten centuries, Christianity has been divided.
This reality has marked and continues to mark the Church which for a thousand years has carried out its mission on Polish soil. In the time of the First Republic, the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian regions were a place where Eastern and Western traditions lived side by side. Slowly, however, there emerged the effects of the division which, as is well known, split Rome and Byzantium in the middle of the eleventh century. Yet gradually the understanding of the need to rebuild unity matured, especially after the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century. The year 1596 saw the historic event known as the Union of Brest. From that time, in the territories of the First Republic, and especially in the Eastern territories, the number of Dioceses and parishes of the Greek-Catholic Church increased. Although preserving the Eastern tradition in the liturgy, in discipline and in language, these Christians remained in union with the Apostolic See.
The Diocese of Siedlce, where we are today, and especially the area of Pratulin, is the place that bears particular witness to that historic process. It was here the confessors of Christ belonging to the Greek-Catholic Church, Blessed Wincenty Lewoniuk and his twelve companions, were martyred.
Three years ago, at their Beatification in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, I said that “they witnessed to an unshakeable fidelity to the Lord of the vineyard. They did not disappoint him, but staying united to Christ as branches to the vine they brought forth the desired fruits of conversion and holiness. They persevered, even at the cost of the supreme sacrifice. As faithful 'servants' of the Lord, trusting in his grace, they bore witness to their membership of the Catholic Church in fidelity to their Eastern tradition. With a gesture so generous, the martyrs of Pratulin defended not only the holy place of worship in front of which they were slaughtered but also the Church of Christ entrusted to the Apostle Peter, of which they felt themselves to be living stones” (6 October 1996).
The Martyrs of Pratulin defended the Church, which is the vineyard of the Lord. They remained faithful to the Church to the very end and they did not yield to the pressures of the world of their time, which for that precise reason hated them. In their life and in their death, Christ’s request in the Priestly Prayer has been fulfilled: “I have given them your word; and the world has hated them . . . I do not pray that you take them from the world, but that you keep them from the evil one . . . Consecrate them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:14-15, 17-19). They bore witness to their fidelity to Christ in his holy Church. In the world in which they lived they sought courageously to defeat, by means of truth and goodness, the evil that was spreading ever more widely, and lovingly they strove to calm the hatred that was raging. Like Christ, who offered himself in sacrifice for them, to consecrate them in the truth – so did they offer their lives for the sake of faithfulness to Christ’s truth and defence of the Church’s unity. These simple people, fathers of families, chose at the critical moment to suffer death rather than yield to pressure in a way untrue to their conscience. “How sweet it is to die for the faith” – these were their last words.
We thank them for their witness which should become the heritage of the entire Church in Poland for the third millennium which is now so near. They made their great contribution to the building of unity. Through the generous sacrifice of their lives, they kept full faith with the cry of Jesus to his Father: “keep them in your name, those whom you have given me, that they may be one as we are one”. By their death they confirmed the commitment to Christ of the Catholic Church of Eastern tradition. The same spirit sustained the countless faithful of the Byzantine-Ukrainian Rite, Bishops, priests and lay people, who during forty-five years of persecution remained faithful to Christ, preserving their identity as a Church. In this witness, fidelity to Christ is interwoven with fidelity to the Church and becomes a service of unity.
Read the rest here. Recounting these details of past atrocities is almost like a process of truth and reconciliation--we have to face the past, repent or apologize for it, and forgive one another.