Poland’s countryside is lush and beautiful in the spring. Its gentle, rolling hills are covered in green, and the trees and gardens are bursting with buds and colourful flowers. Just 35 kilometres southwest of the city of Kraków, a small town called Kalwaria Zebrzydowska lies nestled in a valley at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. Although it is quaint and picturesque, its name – like many Polish words – is completely unpronounceable. Despite that, it is a place that is completely unforgettable. For perched on the mountain slopes overlooking the town is one of the most visited pilgrimage places in all of Poland: the Sanctuary in Kalwaria [Calvary].
I visited Kalwaria in May of this year, and it’s on my bucket list of places to which I want to return. Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999, the Sanctuary is a complex of buildings that cover six square kilometres of land. It includes the 17th century baroque basilica, “Our Lady of the Angels,” a Franciscan (OFM) monastery (also established in 1600), and a group of churches and chapels – 42 in total – that are dotted throughout the surrounding hilly woodlands. It is a place of pilgrimage, of recollection, and peace.
Devotion to the Passion of Christ
Because it was difficult for pilgrims to visit Jerusalem in the 17th century since it was under Turkish rule, the shrine was built to resemble its topography and holy places.1 For example, the Chapel of Golgotha was built on the model of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the locations of the chapels along the Avenues of Jesus Christ (an enlarged Way of the Cross) were based on the overall proportions of the Via Dolorosa (the way of Christ to Calvary).2 For this reason, Kalwaria is often called the “Polish Jerusalem.” It’s meant to help pilgrims draw closer in spirit to the Passion and Death of Jesus. Every year, huge numbers of pilgrims flock to the shrine during Holy Week to participate in special Passion Celebrations and a re-enactment of the Passion drama.
Devotion to Mary
But Kalwaria is also a place of Marian devotion. There is a special ‘Marian Way’ – the “Avenues of the Mother of God” – where pilgrims meditate on the Sorrows, Dormition, and Assumption of Mary. The shrine is also home to the miraculous image of the Weeping Madonna – “Our Lady of Kalwaria” – a painting so intimate and breathtakingly beautiful that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it! The faces of Jesus and Mary are turned towards each other. Their cheeks touch as Jesus nestles closely in her embrace, gazing up at her with a look of trust and love. Mary holds Him tenderly, close to her breast, as she bends her head protectively – as though listening to something He is whispering in her ear. It is a private moment between Mother and Son, captured on canvas by an artist with a gifted and sensitive hand.
Sadly, we know nothing of the artist who painted it. Stanisław Paszkowski, a Polish nobleman, gave the painting to the Bernardine3 fathers in 1641. He had noticed that drops of blood had begun to flow from Mary’s eyes and took this as a sign that he should donate the painting to a holy place.
Veneration of the “Weeping Madonna” spread quickly, and since that time many miracles have been attributed to her intercession. A multitude of votive offerings of thanksgiving – small metal plaques depicting different parts of the human body – grace the side walls of the chapel. They are silent witnesses to the many graces and blessings that have been showered on those who have come before Our Blessed Mother to entrust her with their needs. She is a powerful intercessor, taking our cares into her Immaculate Heart as though they were her own.
Pope Saint John Paul II
Kalwaria made a profound impression on me, but I’m not alone in feeling that way. In fact, it was one of Pope Saint John Paul II’s favourite places to visit. Wadowice – his hometown – is only 13 kilometres away. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather worked at Kalwaria as guides for pilgrims, and his father first brought him here as a young child. After the death of his mother when he was just 8 years old, his father brought him before the image of Our Lady of Kalwaria, saying, “Your earthly mother is gone now. From now on, she is your mother.”
The young Karol was to return here again and again, and the shrine had a significant influence on his spiritual formation. He had a great devotion to both the Passion of Jesus and to Mary. “In an address that he gave in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska during his pilgrimage to Poland as pope in 1979, he said: ‘Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: the sanctuary of the Mother of God and its stations. I visited them many times, beginning in the years of my boyhood and youth. I visited them as a priest. I visited the Kalwarian sanctuary particularly often as Archbishop and Cardinal of Kraków … I knew that I had to come here more often, first of all because there were more and more such matters, and secondly because—strangely enough—they usually resolved themselves after my visit to the stations. … The mystery of the Mother’s union with her Son and of the Son with his Mother is seen [here]. … Whenever I came here, I always had the realization, that I was plunging into this reservoir of faith, hope, and charity, which were brought to these hills, to this sanctuary, by whole generations of God’s People from this region from which I myself originate.’ ”4
In St. John Paul II’s homily during Mass at Kalwaria in 2002 – what was to be his final visit – he said, “This place wondrously helps the heart and mind to gain deeper insight into the mystery of that bond which united the suffering Saviour and his co-suffering Mother. At the centre of this mystery of love everyone who comes here rediscovers himself, his life, his daily existence, his weakness and, at the same time, the power of faith and hope: that power which springs up from the assurance that the Mother does not abandon her children at times of trouble, but leads them to her Son and entrusts them to His mercy.”5
It is perhaps fitting, then, that we close this reflection – as he did his homily – with the words of his motto, Totus Tuus – “all yours.” We give ourselves completely to you, Mary.
– Sharon van der Sloot
Pope St. John Paul II’s Prayer at Kalwaria
“Lady of graces, look upon this people which for centuries has remained faithful to you and to your Son. Look upon this nation, which has always placed its hope in your maternal love. Turn your eyes of mercy towards us, obtain what your children most need. Open the hearts of the prosperous to the needs of the poor and the suffering. Enable the unemployed to find an employer. Help those who are poverty-stricken to find a home. Grant families the love which makes it possible to surmount all difficulties. Show young people a way and a horizon for the future. Cover children with the mantle of your protection, lest they be scandalized. Confirm religious communities with the grace of faith, hope and love. Grant that priests may follow in the footsteps of your Son by offering their lives each day for the sheep. Obtain for Bishops the light of the Holy Spirit, so that they may guide this Church to the gates of your Son’s Kingdom by a single, straight path. Most Holy mother, Our Lady of Calvary, obtain also for me strength in body and spirit, that I may carry out to the end the mission given me by the Risen Lord. To you I give back all the fruits of my life and my ministry; to you I entrust the future of the Church; to you I offer my nation; in you do I trust and once more to you I declare: Totus Tuus, Maria! Totus Tuus. Amen.” – Pope Saint John Paul II6
1 The first European passion sanctuaries – called “Calvaries” – were first built in the 15th century. This was not only due to an increase in piety at the end of the Middle Ages, but also due to difficulties encountered by pilgrims wishing to visit Jerusalem, which was under Turkish rule at that time. Cf. Mikolaj Rudyk, OFM, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, a passion-marian sanctuary guide (Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Poland: Calvarianum, 2007), 5.
2 The scale of the Way of the Cross at Kalwaria is much larger than the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Its paths extend for more than eight kilometres, while the Via Dolorosa is only 500 metres. In addition to the Stations of the Cross, there is also a Marian Way of the Compassion of the Mother of God that commemorates events in the life of Mary, especially her Sorrows, her Dormition, and her Assumption. Each of the 42 churches along the way are different and represent a site in Jerusalem or in Christian tradition, e.g. Virgin Mary’s Cottage, Herod’s Place. The hills and streams have also been given names such as Zion, Golgotha, and Mount of Olives.
3 The Franciscan fathers are referred to as “Bernardines” in Poland. The painting of Our Lady of Kalwaria is supposedly a copy of the image of Our Lady of Myslenice, painted by an unknown Italian artist in the 16th century.
4 Fr. Dennis Koliński, SJC, “The Spirituality of Saint John Paul II,” goodbooks; available from
http://www.goodbooksmedia.com/3/post/2014/09/the-spirituality-of-saint-john-paul-ii.html; Internet; accessed 21 June 2015.
5 “Homily of the Holy Father John Paul II, Kalwaria, 19 August 2002,” Vatican website; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20020819_kalwaria.html; Internet; accessed 21 June 2015.