Beautiful men of God
Thinking about the Servants of God Michal Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski I recollect the recently awarded film 'Of Gods and Men' - the French monks murdered in Algeria in 1996. The film does not focus on the murder and its motives but speaks about their daily lives, prayers, relationships and choices that led to the situation that the lives of non-ideal brothers 'fell to the ground, died and yielded much fruit.' We also have Polish men of God. On 9 August 1991 in the mission in Pariacoto (Peru) two Franciscans were murdered: one was only 31 and the other was 33 years old.
In the family of beautiful man
I met Dorotka on one of the oasis camps. I was from Krakow and she was from Lekawica near Zywiec. We met half way, in Chocznia near Wadowice. A tiny girl, having the delicate beauty of Anne of Green Gables, had the inner depth characteristic of someone who experienced something important. During a walk we began talking. It turned out that I dreamt about missions and she had an uncle who died in the missions…
When after my studies I went to Peru as a volunteer Dorotka gave me a thick book about the local situation and a picture of smiling Franciscans. I put the picture inside my Bible. I felt better under the care of those who grew in that land, to the end.
I was lucky to visit a close relative of one of my 'guardians.' Although they live in the same house in Lekawica their address has changed. Now it is a street named after Fr Michal. They often count time 'before' and 'after' 9 August 1991. You can feel that Fr Michal is with them. He has his room filled with books, albums, and letters. The house where normal matters happen smells of lunch and the hosts are happy when some guest hovers about the kitchen, looks into the pots or helps himself to cucumbers straight from the jar… The house is filled with children born to Michal's nephews. They remind me of their uncle who used to come with candies in his pockets (good candies that were hard to buy during the communist times). When he appeared at the threshold the children's faces were radiant and they immediately ran to play with their best companion. The uncle liked taking them on the bike and to have more fun he put one of them on the bicycle frame and the other on the carrier.
His passion was to take pictures. When he sent them in his letters from Peru each picture had its number and description. Thanks to that a chronicle has been written. The pictures most frequently showed children, young people, fellow brothers, nuns - the Servants of the Heart of Jesus, Michal on a horse or with a donkey, Michal in the fields. In one of his first letters he wrote, 'I must tell you that I like the place. I feel at home. The view of these mountains is as if it was destined to me from my birth. I did not feel the distance that separates us at all, and when I pray I feel so close to you…'
In Michal's living room there is a painting given to him by one of the Franciscans. The painting depicts a missionary surrounded by children. While painting the artist as if compiled various photos. That's why the face on the painting is not the one from the missions but from a photo of the identity card. The friar is portrayed without a beard as he was remembered before he left. In the last photos, despite smiles, funny mimes, the observer being aware of the later facts, can discern the burden of threatening events from the face of the young missionary. But he wrote a little about those hard matters. Therefore, his dearest ones must have been very surprised to learn that Michal, full of life, surrounded by children and sparkling, who was to come home for his first holiday after two years in the missions…
Saints are normal
I look at the missionary photos of Fr Michal and Fr Zbigniew, e.g., at breakfast or in the corner of the kitchen or with the local people. I read the descriptions on the back of the photos; I look over the letters. I am struck by one thing - normality. And at the same time - fullness of life. 'Man fully alive is the glory of God' are the genial words of St Irenaeus. I feel that sanctity is not something distant but something very common and ordinary.
'The full personality of Fr Michal can be summarised in three words: simplicity, children and family,' recollects Fr Jaroslaw Wysoczanski, the parish priest from Pariacoto, one of the three men sent to this missions to found a community there. This one placed in the book 'Znak milosci w Peru' [The Sign of Love in Peru] gives such a testimony about Fr Michal who was the last one to join the community. 'You could feel his presence at once. He loved this place. He expressed his adherence and love in quiet work. He decorated our religious rooms with flowerpots and flowers […]; he also changed the nets in the windows that were to protect us from nasty mosquitoes. And one can list numerous little deeds that made him like Theresa of Lisieux […], her personality was extremely dear to him.'
He won children's hearts. He celebrated the Eucharist for them, organised meetings, went to the cinema with them. He could make over 200 kids keep quiet! Playing the guitar he drew young people to himself. He thought how to reach them. He had the evangeliser's soul. 'He walked as a priest, he was fond of teaching how to sing, teaching the catechism and when some people wanted to speak about agriculture he sent them to engineers,' Fr Jarek relates. He remembers his fellow brother speaking with joy on some Sunday, 'I love the catechism for families.' It was towards the end of the retreats for members of family catechesis in Pariacoto. This charisma must have been born in him earlier. The theme of the Master's thesis of Michal Tomaszek was, 'Contemporary threats of the family role of women and its defence in the speeches and writings of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.'
The same fellow brother testifies, 'As for personal prayer I noticed some secretiveness of Michal. We had a small monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and he exposed it for adoration. Many a time I saw burnt candles that testified that someone worshipped the Lord at this place for a long time. Although children felt that Fr Michal had excellent contacts with them he must have irritated some adults. He was radical. He dedicated his life to Christ and wanted to live according to the Gospel. 'I am just the way I am and want to be like that' he wrote. In May 1991, he shared in his letter to Janusz Kruzycki, 'Where you are now you are not for the purpose to understand this world but to fulfil God's will for you. One must be simply at one's own place.' He wrote on the back of the picture on the occasion of his first Mass, 'MICHAEL, i.e. Who is like God.' His family ordered to engrave these words on his symbolic grave in Lekawica. It was enough.
People spoke about Fr Zbigniew, 'He was the voice of the village.' In one of his photos he bent towards a farmer who whispered something to his ear; absorbed and centred on his interlocutor. He was born in Zawada near Tarnow where he finished the Mechanical College and worked as a technician for a year. In the seminary he revealed his hobby of history and interest in ecology. In the missions he cared for the sick, received patients and visited them in their homes, he treated their wounds. In his free time he liked wandering in the mountains alone. The pretext was to seek for another source of water for the village. 'We almost always lack drinking water throughout the year. Besides the water basins were contaminated very much. The number of sicknesses increased, especially children got sick,' explains Fr Jaroslaw Wysoczanski, admitting that the village people admired the endurance of his confrere. He also remembers Fr Zbigniew's diligence and technical intuition. 'He liked working. He worked in almost all the constructions we made. Zbigniew was an 'engineer' and at the same time a worker, working together with all other people. After his daily long and hard work he used to get immersed in reading books.'
In the missions
The missionaries shared social anxieties and poverty with the inhabitants of the villages in the Andes. They must have been aware of the political-social threats before their departure but they were sure that they had God's blessing for their missions, 'All things here, quiet on the surface, remind us of a boiling pea soup. Fortunately, God is guarding everything and we are here to proclaim his word,' wrote Fr Zbigniew in December 1989 in his letter to one of the seminarians.
Fr Michal soothed his family in his way, 'Oh, I heard that in Poland a lot is spoken about terrorism in Peru; it is true but the terrorists do not attack priests and so we are living as if they did not exist.' In his next letter he described the local little dog that accompanied the missionaries in the church, 'The dog usually sleeps but when it smells another dog or something interesting - a false man (I do not know what it means, another faith or other intentions) it barks loudly and then its voice is most important and so we must be silent since we cannot hear anything […] Sometimes our little dog goes to the middle of the church to piss near the pew but it was intelligent of him not to piss near the altar.' The reality in Peru, especially alcoholism of the highlanders and superficiality of their faith, many a time made young missionaries sad. However, they knew it was exactly their field of ministry. After having returned from one of the feast days, full with alcohol, Fr Michal asked himself, 'What am I here for?' But immediately he added, 'Lord God is my help and he knows what he is doing; he is Almighty.' 'After Mass, a procession with the cross of Lord Jesus suffering with a small group of people, the rest gathered in groups and looked at the procession and laughed at them. I looked at Lord Jesus, his face full of blood, and I thought, "Your suffering is right… But do they know what they are doing?" After the procession I did not know what to do. I kept looking (irritated very much but I looked peaceful and "satisfied" but when I saw a mother giving her three-year old child a bottle of beer to drink. I silently went to pack my things; they brought me something to eat, brought the horses and I returned to Pariacoto.' Michal ended this description with a request to his relatives to pray for him, 'We count on your help.' The same situation happened at Christmas. 'People did not even come to Mass because they had to recover from the drinking bout of the previous day. People do not simply know what Christmas is. They do not know what Sunday is; they work like on any other weekday. But we have come here for that reason, too. There are many things to do…'
The friars called the chapel the heart of their community. There they dedicated themselves to Lord God, 'One can say that our active pastoral ministry has not quenched the spirit of prayer […] that we put at the first place […]. It cost us a lot to understand that we are first of all Franciscans and then missionaries, pastoral workers, activists… One cannot imagine a life of a little brother without being immersed in the Lord,' writes Fr Jaroslaw in the book 'Znak milosci w Peru.'
The last day
The words of Sr. Marlene Trelles, a Peruvian nun from the Congregation of the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, written in September 1991, '[…] It seems it was some dream. I have been again impressed by Michal and Zbigniew, their faithfulness to God and people, the consequence of what they preached. They stayed there till the end. One cannot improvise it; it is a gift. I met Zbigniew a few days before his martyrdom. I asked him whether they received any threats. He smiled and did not answer straight. He only stated, "We cannot leave people. You never know but if they kill us, please bury us here." I saw Michal a month before. He lived as if nothing happened. He was immersed in God. Both of them, people of God, lived in the hope that their hour did not come yet. But it came because of God.'
It was Friday, 9 August 1991. That day there was the news that some terrorists came to Pariacoto. Fr Jaroslaw was on holiday in Poland and then the other brothers were to go to Poland. After the adoration had finished the fathers began celebrating the Most Sacred Sacrifice in the parish church. Fr Zbigniew presided over the Mass and delivered a homily. He spoke about faithfulness and trust. He was watchful and looked towards the doors of the church. Fr Michal often looked up and put his hands around the head. The liturgy was celebrated in a normal way. After the Mass had ended believers ran home fearfully but the young people did not know what to do. They were to meet the missionaries as they did every Friday. Some of them stayed. Fr Zbigniew was treating the wound of a sick girl. One of the nuns decided to return to the village with a small group of young people. When she opened the doors she saw a group of armed veiled terrorists. They asked about the priests. They tied the priests' hands. Before killing them they justified their verdict, 'Distributing food the Franciscans lulled the revolutionary awareness; they preached religion that is 'opium for people.' An armed man shouted that proclaiming peace nothing was gained and that all things could be gained thanks to fight; violence was the only way to triumph!' The assassins from the group 'Shining Path' left a piece of cardboard with the inscription, 'This way the lackeys of imperialism die' on the back of Fr Zbigniew.
The death of the missionaries was painful. It was painful for the inhabitants of Pariacoto, the more that some of them felt co-guilty. Threatened people, with inferiority complexes, unsure of tomorrow, asked themselves, 'How did it happen that those two Poles went to death? How did it happen that they left their homes, families, country, culture to meet Christ in our suffering face?' The local people collected the soil with the martyrs' blood and 'buried' it in the grave on which they put a cross with the name of the brothers and the words, 'peace and good.'
On 13 August 1991, John Paul II (who came to beatify the Franciscan tertiary Aniela Salawa) met Fr Jaroslaw Wysoczanski in Krakow and he also met the families of both martyrs, and he prayed for them. The brothers' beatification process on the diocesan level was completed in 2002.
The Elementary School in Zawada decided to have as its patron its former pupil and since 2004 the school has organised street marathons 'Memorial of Fr Zbigniew Strzalkowski.' The Gymnasium in Piensk was named after Fr Michal Tomaszek. The parishioners remembered him minister in his first parish. When he was leaving to the missions, the local children were standing along the road and throwing flowers onto the car he was in. Moreover, the team of disabled scouts 'Non-blazed Trail' ( www.dzieciserc.org) in Radziechow near Zywiec have on their t-shirts a visible inscription 'Children of Fr. Michal Tomaszek' - 'He was involved in the ministry of disabled children during his years spent in the seminary,' they explained with pride. The scouts' unit of over 100 members wanted to deserve his patron's name. Before they asked the Franciscans they had decided to organise Paralympic Games, races in wheelchairs, patriotic contests, pilgrimages, campfires and camps. Some of these initiatives have become national. 'Weak' children do great deeds. They say it would be hard to do them without Fr Michal.
I used the following materials: J. R. Bar, J. Wysoczanski, Znak milosci w Peru, Krakow, 2000; Z. Gogola, Dzialalnosc misyjna Braci Mniejszych Konwentualnych w Peru, Krakow, 2003; J. Wysoczanski, Zbigniew Strzalkowski, Michal Tomaszek - misjonarze meczennicy, gazeta.pl, 2006; meczennicy.franciszkanie.pl; francescani.net