By Michał Ochnik CMF
We are Claretian missionaries from Poland. Mateusz Cyganik, as a newly ordained presbyter, has been working since this year in vocation ministry in our province and I help him as far as my practices as a deacon allow me. It seems that vocation work is a difficult task, because today Europe is experiencing a vocation crisis, which is also visible in Poland. However, there are many places and initiatives that favor vocational recognition. I believe that one of the forms of piety that help a lot to discern God’s will are pilgrimages.
Pilgrimages are a very popular form of piety all over the world and in Poland. They consist in traveling to some sacred place, shrine or particularly important basilica using various means of transportation. The most traditional way of making a pilgrimage is on foot, although there are also pilgrimages on bicycles, roller skates and many others. In our country, the place to which most pilgrimages are made is Częstochowa. There is a monastery of Pauline Fathers, which is called Jasna Góra. This basilica has a special significance in the hearts of Poles because of the miraculous image of the Mother of God. Many people have obtained many miracles, healings, and conversions before this image of Mary. So, it is no wonder that this place is so popular.
During the summer vacations, pilgrimages depart from practically all major cities in Poland. Although they last a few days or possibly a dozen, preparations for these events begin a year in advance, because it happens that the number of participants reaches several thousand, which makes it necessary to divide them into groups.
Claretian missionaries are present mostly in two major pilgrimages, the one to Łódź and the one to Wrocław, and in both cases they lead the group. These two pilgrimages are close to my heart and can tell a lot about the experience of God in relation to them.
In Wrocław, the pilgrimage began forty years ago. It was initiated by the charismatic priest Stanislaw Orzechowski and the Claretians participated in it practically from the beginning. In the first years the number of participants reached several thousand. The group led from Wrocław is under the patronage of St. Lawrence and is linked to academic pastoral care, but older people and young people also participate. The majority, however, are students. During the nine-day journey to Jasna Góra people have the opportunity to get to know each other, converse and experience a retreat on the way. The conditions of the pilgrimage are difficult, as people sleep in tents and the average length of the journey is about 30 km per day, but nevertheless there is no shortage of people who want to participate.
I participated in this pilgrimage for the first time when I was 15 years old. Above all, it was a time of conversion for me, of contact with God. There I discovered that people, despite difficulties and tiredness, can pray and talk to Jesus as a friend. It was also the first time I got to know the Claretian missionaries better. I was able to see their witness of fraternity and pastoral service, which I liked very much. Undoubtedly, the participation in this pilgrimage encouraged me to assume my spiritual life in a more conscious way and to discern my vocation. Delighted with the pilgrimage, I tried to participate every year.
The pilgrimage from Łódź has a different character. It is much older. In 2022 it will be the ninety-seventh pilgrimage from this city. Being closer to Częstochowa, the pilgrimage lasts only four days, but it is very intense. Pilgrims spend two more days already in Jasna Góra, participating in prayers and lectures specially prepared on the occasion of the indulgent feast.
I participated in this pilgrimage during my initial formation, already as a Claretian missionary. Although it is short, it is very tiring. I am very happy that it is a pilgrimage in which a group from our parish of Łódź is going.
I think that for the young people who go on pilgrimage these retreats on the road are an opportunity to get to know God better. Above all, it is an extraordinary witness of faith. At a time when everyone is going fast and fast, on a pilgrimage you can calm down and slow down a bit. Our presence as priests or missionaries in formation is also very important because people can get to know us in completely different conditions and see what we are like on a day-to-day basis. I think it is a very valuable experience when there is so much need for dialogue and for building mutual relationships.
This pastoral activity is important for young people. It is common for young people to make decisions on pilgrimages that affect their whole life, such as getting married or entering religious life. This is not only my opinion, but also that of other confreres. Practically all the members of our formation house in Poland have participated in some pilgrimage and this experience, among others, has influenced the decision to join. As students we try to actively participate in the pilgrimages all the time, helping, singing, playing the guitar, or just talking and being present, and above all praying.
Unfortunately, in the last two years, due to the pandemic, participation in the pilgrimage has been limited. Hopefully in the coming months the participation of more people will be possible.
February 22, 2022.