The year 2018 celebrated – the 80th anniversary of the canonization of a great saint and one of the principal patrons of Poland – St. Andrew Bobola. The magnificent testimony of unshakable faith that he gave in the face of his exceptionally cruel death, moves the hearts of all people of good will to this day.
Andrew Bobola was born in 1591 to a Polish noble family that had stayed faithful to Catholicism and generously provided for the Church and charities. In 1611, Andrew joined the Society of Jesus in Wilno (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania). Two years later, he took his monastic vows and moved to the Wilno Academic College. Having finished his philosophical and theological studies, he was ordained a priest in 1622. His first post was in Nieśwież, where his pastoral duties involved preaching and hearing confessions. While serving as rector of the local church, he made efforts to persuade the Polish king to formally declare Our Lady as Queen of Poland. This came to pass on April 1, 1656, in Lwów when King John Casimir and the senators took solemn vows. He declared Our Lady the Queen of the Polish Crown and entrusted the people of the realm to her care. The author of the texts of the Lwów vows was none other than Fr. Bobola.
The commission opened the coffin, raised the relics and smashed them against the floor. To the surprise of those present, the body of Fr. Bobola did not fall apart!
From 1624, Fr. Bobola served at St. Casimir’s Church in Wilno. He provided pastoral care to prisoners and residents of poorhouses, and founded a branch of the Sodality of Our Lady. Most of his missionary work concentrated on the area between Pińsk and Janów Poleski. Travelling on foot, he would visit towns and villages, stop by mud huts, preach, teach the basic tenets of faith and dispense sacraments. He was especially fond of celebrating Mass and distributing Holy Communion but was also known for his outstanding oratory skills and the gift of winning over human hearts. Profound love for God and fellow men were his other characteristics. By a great effort of will, he succeeded in bridling his short-tempered personality that had given him much trouble in the early years of his religious life. During an epidemic that struck Wilno in 1628, Fr. Bobola provided material and spiritual aid to the needy at the risk of his own life. With great zeal, he devoted himself to missionary and educational work in Polissya, earning for himself the nickname of “Apostle of Polissya”. It was owing to these personal virtues and the thorough knowledge of the writings of the Greek Church Fathers, that Fr. Bobola scored victories over Orthodox clergy. In fact, many members of the Orthodox Church were reconciled by him with the Catholic Church. This brought him the nicknames of “soul-catcher” and “Apostle of the Pińsk Area”. A man of deep prayer, given to asceticism and willing self-sacrifice, Fr. Bobola, when on his missionary travels, would many a time live on bread and water alone. Great humility, patience, self-control and obedience were other traits that stood out in the priest.
In the 17th century, the Cossacks waged war on the so-called Union of Brest and Jesuits. They hunted them as dangerous activists harming the Orthodox Church. One such “pest” was Fr. Andrew Bobola, who had won over many among the Orthodox to Catholicism, despite the fact that the Orthodox were in the clear majority in that area. The successes of Fr. Bobola only exacerbated the hatred the Orthodox felt for the Jesuits.
“I am a Catholic priest, I was born in this faith and in this faith I wish to die. My faith is true and leads to salvation. […] If you embrace my faith, you shall come to know true God and shall save your souls” (St. Father Andrew Bobola)
On May 16, 1657, a band of Cossacks descended on Janów Poleski and massacred Catholics, Uniates and Jews alike. Fr. Bobola, aged 66 then, was captured by the Cossacks right behind the village of Peredyło. His coachman managed to flee shortly earlier but the priest did not take this opportunity. He stayed where he was and commended himself to God. He knew what awaited him. On this spring afternoon, many peasants who worked in the fields witnessed what happened. “I am a Catholic priest,” Andrew told the Cossacks, “I was born in this faith and in this faith I wish to die. My faith is true and leads to salvation. You should show contrition and repent, because otherwise you will not be saved due to your fallacies. If you embrace my faith, you shall come to know true God and shall save your souls.”
All at once the attempt to ‘convert’ Fr. Bobola to the Orthodox faith started. However, the Cossacks’ persuasions and threats proved to be to no avail. Next, Fr. Bobola was tied to a fence and cruelly whipped and beaten. He lost several teeth then. Afterwards, his hands were tied and fastened to horses, and he was dragged to Janów Poleski. When the Jesuit fainted or fell, his tormentors would lash his back and prick him with sabres or lances. Half-naked, with several deep wounds and numerous whip marks, Fr. Andrew was finally handed over to Cossack elders stationed in Janów Poleski. He was welcomed with a slash with a sabre to his head. He would have certainly died of it, had he not pushed it aside it with his hand, causing its mutilation. Then, further torture of the priest was ordered and carried out in an animal slaughterhouse in the town’s marketplace. Fr. Bobola was shoved inside it and thrown on the butcher’s block. First, his head was pressed with a wreath of soaked oak branches, next, the Cossacks, in trying to persuade him to renounce Catholicism and convert to the Orthodox faith, scorched his body with fire. In all this Father Andrew proved indomitable and he kept calling out of holy names of God, which pushed his tormentors to ever greater cruelty. They stuck splinters under his nails and mutilated his legs, hands and head with knives in the most painful way. His skin was torn off his chest and three fingers were cut off.