St. Andrew Bobola, the Polish Saint to Be Invoked in the Russia-Ukraine War

The patron saint of Poland, to whom Pius XI attributed the ‘palm of martyrdom,’ gave up his life for the unity of faith between Catholics and Orthodox and reportedly has appeared several times in his hometown in recent years.

Procession at the shrine of Strachocina and a statue and altar featuring Saint Andrew Bobola.
Procession at the shrine of Strachocina and a statue and altar featuring Saint Andrew Bobola. (photo: Courtesy photos / Father Niznik/Solene Tadie)

The name of Andrew Bobola is relatively unknown in the West. However, this Jesuit priest and martyr from Poland, canonized in 1938, figures prominently in the glorious pantheon of Catholic saints and could play an important intercessory role in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine — and subsequently between Christian Churches. 

 For the third centenary of his martyrdom in 1957, Pope Pius XII dedicated to the saint the encyclical Invicti Athletae, calling “all sons of the Catholic Church” to be nourished by his example and to follow in his “holy footsteps” while in more and more places, “the Christian faith either languishes in inert weakness, or is practically extinguished.”

 St. Andrew Bobola is particularly remembered for the cruelty of the death inflicted on him by the Cossacks (a predominantly Slavic Orthodox Christian people originating in the steppes of Ukraine and Russia) for professing the unity of the Christian faith on a territory of Eastern Poland that was then the scene of a war that engaged with the spheres of influence between Rome and Moscow. 

 A brilliant and very influential Catholic preacher in the region, St. Andrew represented a threat to the Cossack forces opposed to the rapprochement between Orthodox and Catholics. Captured near Janów (now Ivanava, Belarus) on May 16th, 1657, he was first “beaten with rods, struck with blows, dragged by a rope behind a horse on a painful and blood-stained path,” as Pius XI recalled in his homily for Andrew Bobola’s canonization, in 1938. After mockingly placing on his head a crown of twigs, his executioners stripped off his skin, cut off his ears, nose, lips and tongue, and finally plunged a weapon into his heart. 

 The fortitude with which he underwent such unspeakable tortures made Pius XI say that “he won for himself the palm of martyrdom” and that, thanks to his great sacrifice, he “will obtain by his petitions the unity of East and West.”


 From ‘Troublemaker’ to ‘Soul Hunter’

Bobola’s fiery and colorful personality, as well as his restless youth, contribute to making him a model of sanctity all the more accessible to the common man, as Father Józef Niżnik, custodian of the Sanctuary of St. Andrew Bobola in Strachocina, the saint’s native village, in southeastern Poland, explained in an interview with the Register. 

 Born in 1591 to a noble family, Andrew Bobola entered the Society of Jesus in Vilnius in 1611 and was ordained a priest on March 12, 1622, at the end of a sinuous path. 

 “In school with the Jesuits, he was making trouble because of his very difficult character and temper,” Father Niżnik said. “The only reason why he was not expelled is that the order didn’t want to mess with his powerful family, which was very close to the Jesuits.” 

 Advised repeatedly by the society to leave, Bobola had to make radical changes to fully conform his mind to the priestly vocation he wished to embrace. Determined to temper his impetuosity in order to grow in holiness, he placed himself in the hands of Our Lady, to whom he renewed his full and complete dedication.

 “Our Lady pointed him to the adoration of the Holy Sacrament; she took him to her Son. He used to go to adoration every night and started to change,” Father Niżnik continued. “Everyone noticed this human transformation. He stopped being explosive and prompt to conflict and grew in divine wisdom.” 

 His first goal as a priest was to work as closely as possible to the people, in a divided Christendom, that was artificially kept in peace by a status quo between Catholics and Orthodox — a status quo that Father Bobola didn’t accept. Thus, he took the habit of visiting also the homes of the Orthodox, preaching the Gospel and generating a great number of conversions. This step commanded by his love for God quickly earned him the nickname of “soul hunter” in the region, along with the wrath of both communities at once, for breaking the established order. 

 “The saint was very controversial when he left this earth,” Father Niżnik said, explaining that very few people understood his deep intentions back then. 


 First Apparitions and Miracles 

 St. Andrew consequently was quickly forgotten by his peers after his death; 45 years later, however, while the Great Northern War was raging, he appeared to Marcin Godebski, rector of the Jesuit College of Pinsk (currently in Belarus), who was seeking heavenly protection from the advancing Swedish troops. Claiming his sanctity, Bobola told the priest to find his body and to use it as a relic. 

 With the help of his parishioners, some of whom were older and remembered the name of the martyr, Godepski found his coffin in the basement of the church, with his incorrupt body inside. The Swedes never entered the city, and miracles started to occur in his name. His fame started spread among the Poles. 

 In 1819, as Poland was under partition, split between three empires — Russia, the Hapsburg Monarchy and Prussia — Bobola appeared again to Dominican priest Alojzy Korzeniewski, while the Russians were threatening to close his monastery because of his patriotic views. According to the custodian of the Strachocina Sanctuary, St. Andrew formulated several prophecies during this apparition. The first was that Poland would be back on the map at the end of this long territorial strife, which ended with the conclusion of the First World War in 1918. He then prophesized that he would become patron saint of Poland one day — which happened in 2002 — and later the country’s primary patron saint. “The third prophecy is the only one not yet fulfilled, but Bobola promised that Poland would truly blossom when this happens,” Father Niżnik said. 

 The Christian fervor surrounding the martyr reached new heights with the Bolshevik threat, on the verge of the 1920s. The Polish bishops united in their demand to Pope Benedict XV for his canonization, and novenas were organized in all the parishes of Warsaw,  Poland’s capital, to ask for his protection, attracting unprecedented numbers of faithful. The 1920 Battle of Warsaw, also known as the “Miracle of the Vistula” that resulted in the overwhelming defeat of the Red Army, was attributed by many Poles to his intercession. 


 Apparitions in Strachocina 

 At the dawn of the new millennium in 2002, the Bishops’ Conference of Poland made St. Andrew Bobola one of the two secondary patron saints of Poland (along with St. Stanisław Kostka), dedicated to the special cause of unity and peace. They also gave St. Andrew Bobola Church in Warsaw — where his body has been venerated since 1938 — the title of national shrine a few years later, in 2007.

 But it would seem that the saint’s plans for his homeland did not end there, as evidenced by Father Niżnik, who recounts having personally witnessed several apparitions of St. Andrew between 1987 and 2020, during which the saint reportedly made specific requests.  

 The parish priest of Strachocina since 1983, Father Niżnik had initially no idea that St. Andrew had any connection with his village. Indeed, the saint never wrote where he was born and baptized. Moreover, in 1624, the Tatars who invaded the region attacked the parish, robbed the local church and burnt the vicarage with the registers and all official documents inside. 

 “St. Andrew appeared to me on May 16, 1987, and asked that people start venerate him in Strachocina,” Father Niżnik told the Register. “I was astounded by what I saw, but several other people in the village had similar apparitions, so I decided to tell my bishop [Ignacy Tokarczuk] who initially welcomed the news with perplexity but chose to bring it to the Society of Jesus in Warsaw.” 

 The Jesuits then pulled out of their archives a 1936 biography by one of their confreres, Father Jan Popłatek, who asserted that the martyr’s birthplace was Strachocina, after finding documents stating that the village was owned by St. Andrew’s parents. 

 The cult of St. Andrew in Strachocina quickly developed by the end of the 1980s, and the Church in Poland eventually recognized the village as the center of the saint’s veneration. Mass is celebrated to his intention every 16th of the month in the city’s church, attracting each time hundreds of pilgrims from across the country and beyond. The 16th of May — the saint’s feast day — gives rise to larger festivities, preceded by novenas. 

 “Countless people from all ages come here to confess and receive Communion. Many graces are obtained by the faithful, whether it be a healing, the arrival of a child. ... St. Andrew is taking people to Jesus,” Father Niżnik commented with pride and enthusiasm, revealing that Polish President Andrzej Duda himself came to the shrine four times to pray since he was first elected in 2015. 


 Prophetic Voice for the Times to Come

According to Father Niżnik, St. Andrew also insisted in his various apparitions on the need to make him the primary patron saint of Poland and the Virgin Mary its Queen, in order to protect the country from future cataclysms. This request sparked, in 2020, the construction of a new chapel dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Poland in Strachocina, a few minutes away from St. Andrew Church.  

 “We tend to think that heaven is quiet. No, heaven still speaks!” Father Niżnik continued. “And it listens, too. When people pray to Bobola, he turns to Our Lady and says: ‘You’re the Queen; help them.’”

 For him, the fact that this great martyr appeared repeatedly and became a patron saint of Poland at the turn of the 21st century is no accident and augurs a particularly challenging century for the Christians of this entire region of the world. And his feeling was recently reinforced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which came on top of all the difficulties linked to the decline of the faith in the West. “In the middle of the storm, we must look at him to stick to the truth and find out how to cope with the suffering of persecution, keeping in mind that Our Lord will reward us plentifully, just like he did with Bobola, and he will never forget us.”

 The tone of such a statement is reminiscent of Pope John Paul II’s words during an Angelus in 1988, in which he described St. Andrew as “a prophetic sign” for the times to come, capable of allowing reconciliation between East and West, between all Christians: “If we realize that after the discovery of his intact relics, all believers, Catholic and Orthodox, gathered around his body as a sign given by God and venerated him, then we can also see in it an announcement of the encounter of Christians from the West and the East, an announcement of the mature fruit of Christian unity. ... God has allowed St. Andrew to become a sign, not only of things past, but also of those that await us and for which we are preparing; a sign of what has divided and still divides, even to the point of martyrdom, but also of what will unite.”

 In these troubled times, when for the first time since the Second World War, war has come to the gates of Europe, St. Andrew is for many Christians a privileged intercessor for the cause of peace. With this in mind, as the saint’s feast day approaches on May 16, initiatives for prayers and novenas are multiplying in parishes across the country.