Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) – During a trip to Kraków, Poland, scouting in preparation for World Youth Day 2016, Father Kenneth Borowiak, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Lincoln, was surprised and delighted to acquire a first-class relic of Pope Saint John Paul II for the altar stone of the parish’s yet-to-be-built church.
“It was not within our plans to get relics of Saint John Paul II,” Father Borowiak asserted. “It was absolutely providential.”
Father Borowiak had made the trip during the last week of July with his assistant pastor, Father Eric Clark, diocesan youth ministry director Jeff Schinstock, and Father Jamie Hottovy, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Orleans, St. Michael in Oxford and St. Joseph in Alma.
After Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Kraków had to cancel their scheduled meeting due to a pastoral obligation, the foursome decided to ask permission to tour the Archdiocese of Kraków’s chancery courtyard and chapel. A secretary welcomed them in English and graciously agreed to show them around.
“We took the stairs to the second level, and there was an area right at the top of the landing… with a number of cots set up, dormitory-fashion,” Father Borowiak recalled.
The secretary told them that it had been used by St. John Paul II and other seminarians who were hiding from Nazis during the last months of World War II. St. John Paul II and a handful of other seminarians slept there on cots in dormitory fashion during that time. Cardinal Adam Sapieha, archbishop of Kraków at the time, brought St. John Paul II and others into his residence because the Nazis were killing seminarians wherever they found them. It was here that Cardinal Sapieha clandestinely prepared the seminarians for ordination.
Then the Lincoln Diocese group went into the chapel where the saint had been ordained to the priesthood in 1946, and where he had spent a great deal of time writing and praying when he was archbishop of Kraków (1964-1978).
“Off to the side of the altar, there was a reliquary with a small vial of Saint John Paul II’s blood,” Father Borowiak said.
Inspired, he spontaneously said to the secretary, “Sometime in the future, we’re going to build a brand-new church in Lincoln. It would be wonderful if we could get a first-class relic for the altar stone.”
Plans for building St. Michael Church are in a highly preliminary stage, with only architectural sketches made and fundraising still in progress. In fact, there had been no discussion at all about which relics would be sought for the altar stone. Father Borowiak’s only intention was to start what he imagined would be a significant process to bring the relic of a well-known and much beloved saint to Lincoln.
“There are many, many Catholics who can say that they are John Paul Catholics,” he said. “They grew up in the generation when he was the successor of Saint Peter and much of their outlook on the world, their relationships with the Church, and their personal response to religion are owed to his example.”
The secretary told the four that two women religious, whose order took care of the apostolic household in Rome during St. John Paul’s reign as pope, were going through his personal belongings and papers there in the Krakow chancery office. The secretary went into an adjoining office, talked to the two Sisters and then returned.
The kind secretary asked Father Borowiak to write out a request to Cardinal Dziwisz. He did so, and left it with her, along with a parish business card and his celebret card (a priest’s identification card that states he is in good standing with the Church).
The next day, the three priests and youth minister traveled to Częstochowa to see the famous Black Madonna icon. When they returned in the afternoon, they went to the chancery office, and Father Borowiak and Father Clark were ushered upstairs where the two women religious were working.
After securing a translator and exchanging pleasantries, the elder of the two sisters disappeared into another room for a moment, Father Borowiak recounted. When she returned, she was carrying a small, hinged box, about 4 inches wide. Inside was a blood-stained swatch of fabric taken from the cassock St. John Paul II was wearing when an assassin shot him in May 1981.
“She gave that first-class relic to me and also a letter of authenticity, signed by Cardinal Dziwisz,” Father Borowiak marveled. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think that within 24 hours, without any introduction, we could walk into the chancery office of the Archdiocese of Kraków and make a request, and that they would just give us a first-class relic.”
Elated, Father Borowiak and Father Clark asked the elderly sister to pose for a photo with them, but she respectfully declined.
“She said, ‘I am simply a servant of God and I am trying to do the best I can for Him… and then I will fade into the woodwork.’” Father Borowiak related. “I learned so much at that moment.”
A display for the reliquary, the certificate of authenticity, and some photographs is being prepared at St. Michael School so that people can see and venerate the relic until the church is built, projected to be at least some five to seven years from now. Masses for the parish of 775 families are celebrated in a temporary chapel in St. Michael School, which opened in 2011 and serves 252 students in grades K-8.
Father Borowiak believes the relic could have a significant impact on the parish.
“I am hoping that it will deepen religious fervor and spur people on to greater religious devotion,” he said. “To think we have a first-class relic of one of the most recent saints in the history of the Catholic Church, who probably had as much of an impact on contemporary Catholics as anyone… who is being called St. John Paul the Great… will be a continuation of that legacy that is now part of St. Michael Parish.”
He concluded, “Through his intercession, may he watch over all our families, and intercede in the continued planning and construction of our church.”