Mary Is the Queen of Poland

SAINTS & ART: The origins of the Blessed Mother’s title as “Mary, Queen of Poland” — a feast celebrated May 3 — reach back to 1656.

The Black Madonna of  Czestochowa
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa (photo: Public Domain)

May is a month Catholics have traditionally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catholics have traditionally marked it by taking part in devotions to Our Lady. 

For many, that means saying the Rosary daily. If you start on May 1, you can pray a “Novena of Rosaries,” a Catholic devotion of six novenas of Rosaries — 27 days in petition for a particular grace and 27 days in thanksgiving for it — a traditional custom. The 54 days would end June 23. The habit of praying the Rosary might even stay with you and, if you want to read a good spiritual book on the Rosary, see here.

For others, May means participating in “May crownings,” a devotion making a comeback in some parishes, which encouraged communal Marian devotion, especially among young women.

The universal Church observes two Marian feasts in May: the optional memorial of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13, and the feast of the Visitation on May 31. 

Polish spirituality is in many ways permeated by a Marian element. St. John Paul II took as his papal motto Totus tuus, “completely yours,” which comes from St. Louis de Montfort’s own commitment to Our Lady on the model of her absolute submission to God’s will. Many Polish Catholics typically gather in their parish church or at roadside shrines, especially on May evenings, to say the Rosary.

This month, we’ll examine some places of Marian devotion in Poland that you might want to visit if and when you go to that country.

The origins of the Blessed Mother’s title as “Mary, Queen of Poland” — a feast celebrated May 3 — reach back to 1656. On April 1 of that year, King John II Casimir Vasa declared, under solemn oath, that he chose Mary as Queen of Poland and sought her protection. He made that vow at the Cathedral of L’viv, then Łwów, a city in Poland and today a city in Ukraine under Russian attack. 

Poland was then under attack from Sweden, as it had been from Russia. Sweden was a major European power in the 17th century and invaded Poland in 1655. Russia in 1648 had been stirring up trouble in Ukraine to expand its imperial grasp. (Plus ça change…)

Besides religious and political differences, an additional factor complicating the picture was that the Vasa kings of Poland — including John II Casimir Vasa – were relatives of the Swedish monarchy with claims to that country’s throne. John II Casimir also had a curious history behind him: in 1643, he entered the Jesuits as a novice, only to leave two years later. Then in 1646, the Pope created him a cardinal — a layman — but he gave up that dignity two years later. He was elected King of Poland in 1648, to abdicate 20 years later. (Polish kings in the 17th and 18th centuries were elected by the country’s nobility, not succeeded by blood lines.)

Sweden had launched an invasion of Poland (often called the “Deluge,” a term especially popularized by the 19th-century Romantic author, Adam Mickiewicz). Warsaw and Kraków had fallen. The Swedes lay siege to the Pauline Monastery at Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, but it was there that the monks and nobility posed a 40-day resistance that eventual defeated the Swedes. Poland would not be Protestantized.

The break in the Swedish advance at Częstochowa and subsequent defeats led to a treaty ending the war, although not on the best terms for Poland. Still, that turning point was recognized as providential, leading to King John II Casimir’s vow proclaiming Mary as Queen of Poland in 1656.

That commitment would be renewed by the Polish bishops in 1920, approximately three weeks before the just reborn Polish state defeated Bolshevik Russian forces at the outskirts of Warsaw — on the Marian feast of Aug. 15 — which kept Europe from falling to communism for at least 20 more years.

In preparation for the 1966 Millennium of Polish Catholicism, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland, led the Polish Episcopate in 1956 in the renewal of King John II Casimir’s vows on their 300th anniversary. Poland’s then-communist rulers obviously wanted no part of that observance.

To this day, the monastery of Jasna Góra is the premier Marian shrine in Poland. Each year, Poles observe a walking pilgrimage to that shrine, something like the more famous Camino de Santiago in Spain. Starting on different days in late July/early August (depending on distance), many Poles join that walking pilgrimage from where they live to converge on Częstochowa on Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption. (A four day walking pilgrimage occurs every August from Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Great Meadows, New Jersey, to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a 60-mile trek. Great Meadows became its origin because the pilgrimage was the initiative of the late Rev. Ignatius Kuziemski, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul. For information, see here.)

And every evening at 9pm in many Polish homes, the “Apel Jasnagórski” (the Jasna Góra Appeal) is sung, a prayer that goes:

Mary, Queen of Poland,
Mary, Queen of Poland,
Mary, Queen of Poland,
I am with you; I remember.
I am with you; I remember.
I keep watch.

May 3 became the feast of Mary, Queen of Poland. It is also remembered in Polish history as the date of the Constitution of the Third of May 1791. Along with the American Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Constitution of the Third of May was among the world’s first democratic constitutions. It was also the cause of Poland’s final partitions by authoritarian Russia, Austria, and Prussia, wiping that country off Europe’s maps from 1795 until 1918.

The image of Our Lady of Częstochowa is an icon that has been in the possession of the monastery in that city since the 14th century. Tradition claims it was originally painted by St. Luke and discovered by Helen in Jerusalem in 326, brought back to Constantinople. Tradition also holds that the slashes on Our Lady’s face come from Hussites who attempted to plunder the monastery in 1430. 

As a result of the miraculous defense of Jasna Góra, the icon has been crowned, at first by Polish nobility and then by papal decree. The first Pope to offer crowns for the icon was Clement XI in 1717, the last to bless crowns was Francis, to mark the tercentenary of the original crowing, in 2017. 

(One of the last Polish parishes in the United States to be founded — as opposed to closed — is Our Lady Queen of Poland/St. Maximilian Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, the personal parish for Polish Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington. For information, see here.)

Next week, we’ll discuss the shrine of Poland’s Marian apparition: Our Lady of Giertrzwałd.