John Paul II had been a hero of mine for many years. I read George Weigel’s biography Witness to Hope and its sequel The End and the Beginning and marveled at the dramatic events of his life that drew him ever closer to Christ, through his devotion to Mary.

While completing a graduate degree at the Pope John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C., I also read the Holy Father’s vast trove of theological and philosophical works, including the “theology of the body” and encyclicals like the Gospel of Life.

So, when I heard that Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh would lead a pilgrimage to Poland to visit all the holy places associated with the life of the late Pope, I decided to join the trip, which was sponsored by Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Our Lady of Czestochowa

On July 3, my fellow traveler Marianne Fleury and I met up with the rest of the pilgrims in time to travel to the Monastery of Jasna Góra in Czestochowa, one of the largest Catholic pilgrimage centers in the world. It is the home of the “Black Madonna,” the miraculous icon that, according to tradition, was painted by St. Luke on a tabletop constructed by Jesus.

Tradition suggests that the icon’s journey to its present home was as tumultuous as the Poles’ own history. St. Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was believed to have discovered the Black Madonna and brought it to Constantinople. It would not arrive in Poland until 1382, entrusted to the Pauline monks who have protected it to this day at their monastery built in Czestochowa to house the Virgin.

In 1430, the Black Madonna was attacked by schismatic Hussites: The Virgin’s face was slashed with a sword, and the icon was desecrated. The monks cleaned and repainted the icon, but left the slashes on the Madonna’s face.

In the 17th century, a miracle attributed to the icon’s intercession led King John Casimir to designate the Black Madonna the “Queen of Poland.” Czestochowa was embraced as the “spiritual capital” of the nation. Over hundreds of years, the miracles continued, as many believe the Virgin interceded to aid Poland’s ongoing struggle to protect the integrity of its borders and defend its culture and language.

In the 20th century, two years after the Russian Revolution and with the Red Army poised to invade Warsaw, the people implored the Virgin to protect the city. Soon after, many say, she appeared in the clouds above Warsaw on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Red Army was defeated in a series of engagements called the “Miracle at the Vistula,” a reference to the winding river that snakes through the country.

After the close of the Second World War, a reported 1.5 million people traveled to the shrine to mark Poland’s rededication to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The ceremonies followed the liberation of Poland from the brutal Nazi regime, but the people would then endure almost a half century of Soviet occupation. During the ensuing decades, Poles repeatedly beseeched the Black Madonna to aid their struggle to survive and ultimately defeat communist totalitarianism.

Karol Wojtyla was born just months before the invasion of the Red Army in 1920. During his youth and adulthood, he was a frequent pilgrim to Czestochowa. As Pope, he visited the shrine four times. World Youth Day was celebrated there in 1991.

Chapel of the Black Madonna

As our group approached the shrine, we noticed a tall bell tower soaring above the baroque Pauline monastery. But we soon witnessed something even more striking: the constant flow of pilgrims of all ages — Boy Scout troops, families, foreign groups, young couples and many women religious and priests.

Entering the Chapel of the Black Madonna, we joined the throng of pilgrims drawn toward the icon, enshrined in a magnificent ebony-and-silver altar.

The Virgin is robed with a jewel-encrusted cloak. Her Infant Child is attired in a tunic. He holds a Bible, while his right hand is raised in blessing. The Virgin’s intense gaze seemed to follow our movement about the crowded chapel.

Shimmering gold and silver “votive offerings,” resembling small hearts, decorate much of the altar. Crutches and other evidence of miraculous healings hang on the chapel walls.

During the celebration of Mass in the chapel, pilgrims continue to venerate the icon, some moving toward the altar on their knees. One small group appeared to include a grandmother, mother and granddaughter. Glimpsing their determined progress, I received my first taste of another kind of miracle: the astonishing, unshakable faith of the Polish people and their firm efforts to pass this treasure on to the next generation.

After a beautiful Mass celebrated by Bishop Zubik, we were met by our guide, Pauline Father Simon Stefanowicz, a monk at the Jasna Gora monastery, who clearly relished the opportunity to introduce us to the shrine and its rich history. He described the miraculous victory credited to the Black Madonna, when the monks resisted a siege by thousands of Swedish soldiers in 1655.

Yet, it was tough to stay focused on Father Simon’s history lesson, as we took in the spectacle that swirled around us, grappling with the scope and power of the Black Madonna’s significance and the shrine’s role as a center of cultural, spiritual and political resistance. We stopped to examine contemporary murals depicting the Stations of the Cross that include images of Blessed John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe — the priest who gave up his life to save the life of a fellow prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp — and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, the martyred chaplain of the Polish Solidarity movement. Each man is there on the path to Golgotha, giving witness to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

At the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II in 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger underscored the sacrificial nature of the priesthood — and, most especially, of the office of the Roman pontiff. “By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the paschal mystery; he goes toward the cross and the Resurrection. The Lord says this in these words: ‘When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go’ (John 21:18),” stated Cardinal Ratzinger in his homily.

Walking through the labyrinthine corridors of the Jasna Gora monastery, our pilgrimage group pondered the inspiring nature of the Polish people’s faith. In Czestochowa, the Passion is not a historical anecdote — it is acknowledged as an ongoing reality.

This was the spiritual foundation that prepared Karol Wojtyla to fill the shoes of St. Peter. Was his birthplace mere coincidence?

Stay tuned for upcoming installments in this series.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.