“An icon is the visual image of the invisible, given to us so that our understanding may be filled with sweetness,” wrote St. John of Damascus in his eighth-century defense of the veneration of icons.
Invisible understandings came when the Black Madonna of Częstochowa pilgrim icon came to our little St. Peter Eastern Catholic Mission in Ukiah, Calif., this summer. St. Peter is a mission parish of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Chicago and is the only Eastern Catholic church in northern California between San Francisco and Springfield, Ore.
According to Tradition, the original icon was “written” (painted) by St. Luke the Evangelist on a tabletop from the home of the Holy Family.
A sign of unity, Our Lady of Częstochowa is one of the few icons venerated by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The original icon has been housed for six centuries at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland.
In 2012, a faithful replica of the icon began her global journey in defense of life.
Before leaving Poland on her “Ocean to Ocean Campaign,” the pilgrim icon was touched to the original and blessed by the archbishop of Czestochowa. Since then, she has crossed Asia, Europe and the U.S., traveling a distance equivalent to three times around the globe at the equator.
Word went out by email and phone to Roman Catholics in Ukiah and nearby Willits, as well as to the Eastern-Catholic monks at Mount Tabor Monastery in Redwood Valley, that a special honor and a blessed event was about to happen here. An estimated 80 people assembled.
As the large icon was wheeled into our church at about 6pm on July 25, we all burst into joyful song.
Praying the beautiful Eastern-Akathist hymn to the Mother of God, we stood and fervently sang, “To you, our Queen, leader in battle and defender, we, your people, delivered from all peril, offer hymns of victory and thanksgiving,” and “Since you possess invincible power, set us free from every calamity.”
Whenever we sing this hymn, the ancient rhythms of the song always echo in my heart like the drumbeat of a steadfast army of love marching onward.
In his homily, St. Peter’s pastor, Father David Anderson, pointed out that although we experience prayers at a particular place and time, in reality, all of our prayers are “one great prayer of the Church, of the Mother of God to her Son and of the Son to the Father for the coming of the kingdom of God. So let us give thanks that we have been given the grace to be assembled in spirit before Our Lady with fellow believers from all over the world.”
Escorting the icon on her global pilgrimage is Father Peter West, who works with Human Life International, the world’s largest Catholic pro-life educational apostolate.
The purpose of the icon’s “Ocean to Ocean Campaign,” Father West said, “is to enlist Our Lady’s intercession in the global fight against a culture of death, which seeks to declare entire groups of human beings — the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others — to be ‘un-useful’ and, therefore, outside the boundaries of legal protection.”
Her intercession has been long-held: Since the first century of the Church, Christians have fled to the Mother of God for protection and refuge.
This battle for life under Our Lady’s banner has already borne visible fruit. In Russia, where the average woman is said to have had eight abortions during her lifetime, Father West said, “Women were coming up to the icon, spontaneously confessing past abortions and being healed.”
Across America, Christians have processed through streets with the icon, singing hymns, praying the Rosary and standing before abortion businesses, the priest added. One day in Germantown, Md., “three women changed their minds, deciding not to go through with planned abortions,” Father West said. “We know of at least 11 lives saved so far through the intercession of Our Lady in the icon, and at least two abortion mills have shut down — one in Cleveland and another in Corpus Christi, Texas.”
The idea for the pilgrimage originated within the Russian-Orthodox pro-life movement. “In Russia,” said Father West, “there is a strong tradition of taking the icon into battle.”
In 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia and had gone as far as Moscow, Russian priests carried the icon of Our Lady of Kazan before them as they drove Napoleon out of their land. Russian-Orthodox Christians, who celebrate Our Lady of Czestochowa’s feast on March 19, call her “Invincible Victory.”
She is also, of course, called the Black Madonna, and theories abound about why she is dark-colored. “Some say candles burning over the years darkened the image. Others say she was damaged by fire,” Father West said. “Still others say she naturally has dark skin or this is simply a style of iconography.”
The icon received the characteristic slash marks on her face in 1430, when she was struck by Hussite swords. Followers of Jan Hus (a renegade Czech priest), the Hussites opposed the veneration both of sacred images and the Blessed Virgin Mary. At first, they tried to steal the precious image, but the horses pulling the wagon out of town wouldn’t move. So in their rage, they threw the Marian icon to the ground, broke it into three pieces and struck it with a sword.
“Attempts have been made over the years to repair her scars, but always, seemingly miraculously, they fail,” Father West said. “So it seems that Our Lady wants us to know she’s suffering, and, therefore, she can identify with suffering people.”
After the service, everyone had an opportunity to venerate the icon in the traditional Eastern-Catholic manner reserved for the holiest of images or relics: two prostrations, a kiss and a third prostration. Most people present also took a holy card provided by the sponsor and touched it to the icon.
Father Anderson later observed that as the Church gathers before the icon of the Mother of God, “the most essential truth of the Church is revealed: It is [in] the life of the Church that the healing for the separateness, fragmentation, isolation and loneliness of people [is found].”
He, therefore, concluded, “Let us flee to her protection as the Woman who is the bearer and giver of life, the crusher of evil, the one clothed with the sun. She will protect us, as she always has and always will, until her Son brings this age to its conclusion.”
Sue Ellen Browder writes from Ukiah, California.
Other Black Madonna Destinations
Other parishes scheduled to receive visits from the Black Madonna include:
Sept. 27-28: Shrine of St. Anne in Arvada, Colo.
Oct. 4-5: St. Joseph’s Polish Catholic Church in Denver
Oct. 8: Comeau Catholic Campus Center in Hays, Kan.
Oct. 9: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita, Kan.
Late October: Kansas, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M. (dates and sites to be announced)
After ending her U.S. tour on Nov. 1 at Our Lady of Częstochowa Church in Phoenix, the icon will then travel on to Mexico, South America and possibly to Australia and other destinations. There may still be time to schedule a date for visits to parishes in Kansas and New Mexico. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.