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Honoring Mary is
Part of Our Consciousness

by Mark Kohan
Polish American Journal, May 2006.

As Poles and Polish Americans, our love and respect for the Blessed Mother is as much a part of our history as it is of our faith. An icon of Poland for centuries, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa defines a Pole as clearly as the white eagle or Polish flag.

The country’s most beloved hymns are devoted to Mary. “Bogurodzica” (“Mother of God”) is the oldest song with Polish words and the second oldest example of the written Polish language. This hymn, originated most probably in the 13th century, while its earliest extant sources date back to the 15th century. “As one of the earliest written documents of the Polish language, ‘Bogurodzica’ has a firm place in Polish cultural history—it has been discussed as an instance of the most archaic form of the Polish language, the first preserved document of Polish poetry, and an example of medieval, religious ‘high art’ music,” said Maja Trochimczyk of the University of Southern California’s Music Department.

At John Paul II’s trip to his homeland in 1979, he spoke before the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa at the monastery at Jasna Gora. In Gniezno, he talked of Poles relationship with “Bogurodzica.”

“‘Bogurodzica’ is a religious hymn, a simple prayer for personal happiness on earth and for a blessed life in heaven. Despite its religious focus, this chant, through the centuries of its existence,became a symbol of issues often only loosely associated with its spiritual meaning,” said Trochimczyk

In his address to fellow Poles in Gniezno, Poland, in June 1979, Pope John Paul II (who, incidentally, placed the letter “M” on his papal crest in honor of Mary) made reference to the hymn and its message, underlining the role of Mary’s patronage in Poland’s culture and faith, and in his own life as well:

“Polish culture from the beginning has worn very clear Christian marks. It is no accident that the first testament bearing witness to culture is ‘Bogurodzica’ ... Polish culture continually flows in a wide current of inspiration having its roots in the Gospel.

 “These words are spoken to you by a man, who from the beginning, owes his spiritual formation to Polish culture, literature, music, art, theater—Polish history, Polish Christian traditions, schools, and universities ... I wish above all to repay the debt which I incurred from this superb spiritual heritage that began with ‘Bogurodzica.’”

Honoring Mary is part of our Polish consciousness. For centuries, Poles have turned to the Virgin in prayer and song for protection from enemies.

The trumpet call “Hejnal Mariacki” (“Hymn to our Lady”)—is played daily from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow. This signal, known and dear to every Pole, resounds all over the city’s Old Town historical district. The song dates back to the Middle Ages when it announced the opening and the closing of the city gates. It was also played to alarm citizens of fires or approaching enemy forces. The call always ends abruptly to commemorate a bugler shot through his throat by a Tatar archer in 1241.

The lyrics of “Boze Cos Polske” (“God Save Poland”), which became Poland’s national hymn in 1830, were changed to the prayer “Serdeczna Matko” (“Beloved Mother”), when singing of the anthem was outlawed by Poland’s occupying powers.

And in 1920, when Russian forces were assembling on the banks of the Wisla in preparation for an attack on Warsaw, an image of Mary was seen in the clouds. “Cud na Wisla” (“The Miracle on the Wisla”) is a story known by every Pole.

During the early 1980s, when the Solidarity trade union was taking a stand against Poland’s imposed communist government, Our Lady was called upon again. Solidarity leader and later Polish President Lech Walesa wore an image of the Black Madonna on his lapel, a practice he still continues to this day.

Feastdays devoted to Mary are days of solemnity in Poland and still widely observed by Americans of Polish descent. Among them are Annunciation of the BVM (March 25); Our Lady Queen of Poland (May 3, also Poland’s Constitution Day); Assumption of the BVM (August 15); Our Lady of Czestochowa, patroness of Poland (August 26); and Immaculate Conception (December 8).

At Jasna Gora, home of the Black Madonna painting, the monastery sees its largest crowds on these days, and on the Feast of the Birth of Our Lady (September 8); and Feast of the Name (September 12).

Poland is known for its roadside shrines. It is estimated that more than half have images of the Virgin. Often decorated with streamers, ribbons, and fresh flowers, these shrines are placed at dangerous intersections, where prayers ask for safe passage.

This month, as Poles, we observe Mary’s role in our faith and culture. This is also the month that as Americans, we observe the tradition of Mother’s Day. While the American holiday does not carry the religious zeal observed on the Feast of Our Lady Queen of Poland, we as Polish Americans know better. To love our mothers is to love the Mother, and that is just one way to repay each for all they have given us.

Related story: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

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