Father Wieslaw Lenartowicz is a parish priest in Radom, a Polish city known in the United States for its gun factory, which used to produce the famous VIS pistol, sought after by collectors.
“Vis” is Latin for strength. Could that explain Father Lenartowicz’s temperament? He is an active Knights of Columbus member and motorcycle enthusiast, always looking for new charity and pastoral projects.
During the EWTN coverage of World Youth Day in Krakow, I looked down from the television risers at the “Field of Mercy” and saw Father Lenartowicz below, taking a nap, surrounded by pilgrims from around the world gathering for the evening Mass with Pope Francis. When he woke up, we had a chat. He was really tired, he explained, because he had just arrived from Rome on foot — he had walked the 1,100 miles to Krakow.
Via Misericordia — the “Merciful Way” — is his newest project: to blaze a trail to a new pilgrimage route from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Krakow.
I had to find out more, so I met with Father Lenartowicz and some of his Knights of Columbus friends and pilgrimage companions in his parish a couple of months after World Youth Day.
“This year,” Father Lenartowicz explained, was “very rich in jubilees. The whole thing started with my own jubilee: my 50th birthday and 25 years of priesthood. So I thought I would make a pilgrimage. I would start with the usual pilgrimage to Czestochowa, and as the pilgrims go back to Radom, I would continue on to Krakow. And Marek, one of my parishioners, says, ‘Why go it alone? This year is also the 10th anniversary of the Knights of Columbus in Poland, so the knights should go with you.’”
“But if we’re to go as a group, we should not celebrate my birthday,” the priest replied. “We should dig deeper. It is, after all, the Year of Mercy and the anniversary of the Knights and 1,050th anniversary of Christianity in Poland — and then there is all the work we have to do with World Youth Day.”
“So everyone was saying, ‘Let’s do it before World Youth Day, and let’s start in Rome; after all, the Pope is inviting everyone to Krakow, not to Rome,’” he recalled.
“The foundation of the Church is in Rome, but the heart is Krakow. The great saints of Krakow made their pilgrimages to Rome, following this historic route: Via Slavorum, the ‘Way of the Slavs,’” he added. “The first stage would follow the ‘Way of St. Francis’ (from Rome to Assisi), which joins the ‘Way of St. Anthony’ to Padua, Venice and beyond, just to the foothills of the Alps.”
He continued to detail the route: “Through the mountains, we head to the Marian Shrine of Mariazell in Austria; there are several pilgrimage routes there, including St. Emma’s. Then we go from Mariazell to Vienna, following the well-marked Via Sacra.”
Coming next: “Olomouc in the Czech Republic, where St. John Sarkander was martyred. Then we headed to Auschwitz, Wadowice, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and the Divine Mercy Shrine in the Lagiewniki area of Krakow. This could be called the ‘Papal Way.’”
“We did not simply take the shortest route between Rome and Lagiewniki, but followed shrines and walked through some 50 doors of mercy,” the priest emphasized.
Each day, the pilgrims walked for 19 to 28 miles, praying the “Pompeii Novena” — more than two hours a day of praying the Rosary, carrying with them the intentions of parishioners and Knights of Columbus members.
As Marek Podlewski from Council 14004 recalled, “The first week to 10 days was difficult; of course, the blisters had to appear, but they went away after about 10 days, and our bodies got used to it after that. After a month and a half on the road, you realize how many unnecessary things you own — clothes, everything.”
“Another important experience is that of humility towards others. As we walk together for a long time, with our different ways of seeing things, we learn mutual tolerance,” he continued. “It is a beautiful experience: that every man is an individual, whose way of life, behavior and worldview should be respected. We have managed to achieve that, and that was fantastic.”
The pilgrims felt the support of friends back home: More than 2,000 people were in touch with them through Facebook, assuring them of their prayers.
Said one note: “Greetings from Radom, from all the knights from Council 14004 and others. We are rooting for you and remember you in daily prayers. … My daughter said: ‘Dad, this pilgrimage is fantastic. We have to go.’ ‘Maybe next year?’ I answered. We wish you perseverance.”
And one of Father Lenartowicz’s parishioners fasted throughout the duration of the pilgrimage.
“Most of the time, people we met could not understand what we were doing,” Father Lenartowicz recalled, “why we insisted on walking. It was typical that, when we were asking for directions, people would tell us where the nearest bus stop is: ‘Your destination is very far; it makes no sense to walk there.’”
“Now, looking back at the distance that we covered in about 45 days, 19-28 miles a day, spending the nights at parishes or in a tent, we would recommend that those who decide to follow Via Misericordia should split the route into four stages, in order to slow down and take in the sights and sites,” he said.
“First stage: Rome to Florence, following in the footsteps of St. Francis; then the second one in the footsteps of St. Anthony, to reach the Alps (this part can be also easily done on a bicycle); the third stage, from northern Italy through Mariazell to Vienna; and the final 380 miles from Vienna to Krakow. Or you could do the short version (like the last 100 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela) just within Poland in about five days, starting in Auschwitz to see the museum on the site of the concentration camp — there we experience the evil that man can perpetrate. Then we walk to Wadowice, where the Pope [John Paul II] was born, who was raised without a mother; so he had to share the experience of the modern world’s common problem of an incomplete family, but was told by his father that Our Lady was his mother. Then the pilgrimage site of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, of which John Paul was so fond, and then to Krakow to discover that city’s saints — Faustina, John Paul II, Albert Chmielowski and Bishop Stanislaus the Martyr — and arrive in Lagiewniki just in time for the Divine Mercy Chaplet.”
He emphasized the importance of prayer throughout the journey: “We really would like this to be a spiritual pilgrimage. You do not have to walk the 1,000 miles. It is enough to go out and walk and pray. It is not about breaking any records.”
Iwo Bender co-anchored
World Youth Day 2016 coverage for EWTN.
He is an EWTN regional marketing manager
in East-Central Europe.