"Holy Polish Bishop" Sanctified in Siberia

St. Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński Canonized Sunday

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By Carmen Elena Villa

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 12, 2009 (Zenit.org).- One of the Church’s newest saints, Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński, is remembered as a priest, bishop and exile, who was passionate for the religious and moral rebirth of his homeland.
The former Archbishop of Warsaw, Poland, and founder of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary was canonized Sunday by Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square.

The postulator of his cause, Sister Teresa Antonieta Fracek, a member of the community founded by the saint, spoke with ZENIT about his holy life.
Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński was born in 1822 in a moment when the Kingdom of Poland had lost its sovereignty and independence. It no longer existed on the map of Europe.

The Russian government did everything possible to reduce the Church’s constitutional freedom to the minimum. It wanted to suspend the authority of every religious order and the existing groups could not accept any new members, Sister Fracek said.
The patriotic Catholic family to whom St. Zygmunt was born lived in a territory of the former Polish state that had come under Russian rule in 1795. Today it is part of Ukraine.
When he was 11, St. Zygmunt’s father died. A few years later, in 1838, his mother was arrested by the Russian authorities and deported to Siberia for her patriotic activity working for the improvement of social and economic conditions of farmers.

The call
St. Zygmunt was a dreamer as a youth, said Sister Fracek, a lover of Romanticist literature and of the idea of sacrifice for one’s country. As he matured in these ideals, he saw that he was being called to dedicate his life to the service of God, rather than just his country.
In a letter written in 1841, the saint stated: «I am convinced that by keeping my heart uncontaminated, living in faith and in fraternal love towards my neighbor, I will not go off the path. These are my only treasures and they are priceless.»

In 1851, the saint entered the diocesan seminary of Zytomierz, and he was ordained a priest in 1855.
The postulator explained that his spirituality is marked by «his love for the Church, his love for the Madonna, the joyous acceptance of this will of God, his serenity in suffering, his simplicity and above all his love for poverty and the poor.»

Inspired by these sentiments, in 1857 St. Zygmunt founded the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary in St. Petersburg, Russia.
He expressed the desire for his spiritual daughters to dedicate themselves to spreading God’s Word with concern for the country’s moral renewal and growth.
In this way, Sister Fracek affirmed, they were supposed to address themselves to every type of poverty, but above all to the instruction of the young, whom he considered the only hope of the Polish people.

She noted that because of the repressive measures of the time, the religious character of the institute had to be hidden. The first sisters presented themselves to the eyes of the world as volunteers who helped children.

In 1862, Pope Pius IX named St. Zygmunt archbishop of Warsaw, and four months later all the Catholic churches were closed due to increased hostility between the Polish and the Russians.
Sister Fracek said: «With [the saint’s] help many were saved from desperation and misery. He felt that dedicating himself to social work on behalf of workers, the rural populations, the poor, was a duty of justice.»
In the year he became archbishop, St. Zygmunt re-consecrated the cathedral, which had been profaned by the Russian army. He then reopened all the churches in the diocese with a solemn celebration of 40 hours of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Despite the government’s opposition, Zygmunt did not hide his great zeal for the formation of the faithful. His postulator explained: «To give impetus to theological studies he reformed the programs of teaching at the Ecclesiastical Academy of Warsaw, in the diocesan seminaries; he cared for the spiritual and intellectual level of the clergy of Warsaw.»
The sisters of the community that he had founded came to that diocese, and took charge of an orphanage and a school.
St. Zygmunt spoke out against the violence in his nation, and thus, only 16 months after becoming archbishop, he was exiled to Jaroslavl, in Siberia, where he spent 20 years.
Sister Fracek reported: «Despite the rigorous police control, Archbishop Feliński embraced with his heart the needs of the Catholics of Jaroslavl, the exiles, especially the priests deported to Siberia, undertaking many works of mercy.»
He founded a parish to which the faithful of various nationalities came. They called him the «holy Polish bishop.»

Free at last
Through the mediation of the Holy See, the archbishop was freed in 1883, but was not permitted to return to Warsaw. Pope Leo XIII transferred him to the titular see of Tarsus.
He spent the last 12 years of his life in semi-exile in the district of Borschiv, western Ukraine, among Ukrainian and Polish peasants.
The saint founded a school, the first in the area. He also opened an orphanage, built a church for and a convent for the Sisters of the Family of Mary. In his free time he prepared for publication works he had written while in exile in Siberia.
St. Zygmunt died in Krakow on September 17, 1895. At that time Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia, and Krakow was in the Austrian part. In 1920, his remains were moved to Warsaw, where they can be venerated in the Cathedral of St. John.

The congregation founded by the saint has some 1,300 professed sisters who work together with novices and postulants in 143 communities dedicated to education, hospital work, service in soup kitchens and social assistance houses for children, the elderly and the handicapped.
In the beatification ceremony of St. Zygmunt, which was celebrated by John Paul II in 2002 in Krakow, Poland, the Pope said: «This is necessary today too, when different forces, often guided by a false ideology of freedom, try to appropriate this terrain.

«When the noisy propaganda of liberalism, of freedom without truth and responsibility, intensify even in our country, the pastors of the Church cannot cease to proclaim the one infallible philosophy of the freedom and truth of the cross of Christ.»

In the canonization Mass Sunday, Benedict XVI affirmed the saint’s «dedication to God and to men, full of trust and of love» as a «shining example for all the Church.»

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