Wojtyla’s engineer friend Ciesielski comes one step closer to beatification
Jerzy Ciesielski with his wife Danuta and Karol Wojtyla
Francis has recognised the heroic virtues of Polish layman and father, Jerzy Ciesielski, who was guided by the chaplain of Krakow University who later became the first Polish Pope
milanA few days ago Pope Francis signed the decree recognising the heroic virtues of Jerzy Ciesielski, who is now a step closer to sainthood just as his great friend and teacher, Karol Wojtyla
, whom he never lived to see as Pope. In the homily he said at Ciesielski’s funeral (he died tragically whilst on an Egyptian cruise in 1970) John Paul II confided that he felt the same sadness Jesus had felt in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Wojtyla taught and guided a group of university students in Krakow who would soon become mothers and fathers. One of them was engineering student, Jerzy Ciesielski. The time spent with these young people influenced Wojtyla in certain fundamental areas of his pontificate.
Jerzy Ciesielski was born in Krakow in 1929, 9 years after Wojtyla. This age difference meant that Ciesielski met Wojtyla when the former was studying at the Polytechnic University of Krakow and the latter was till a young chaplain. Ciesielski spent much of his university life attending meetings at the Basilica of St. Florian’s Church and in the Środowisko, the circle of students that met regularly with Fr. Karol. Ciesielski, who had been a scout as a youngster, shared two great passions with Wojtyla: the mountains and canoeing. It was in the Srodowisko group that he met his wife Danuta whom he married in 1957. Wojtyla was celebrant at their wedding.
“Fr. Karol came with us on trips, to concerts, to the theatre and the cinema - Mrs. Danuta explained a while back, recalling the atmosphere of that group -. We talked during excursions, around the fire and at organised meetings which took place in our homes. We had long one-to-one conversations with him about relationship problems and married life. Tot his day I have no idea how he found the time.”
Some of the issues they talked about were very serious. “One day, Wojtyla said after Ciesielski’s death, Jerzy said lay people were also called to become saints. We talked about marriage as the sacramental path towards the fulfilment of life as a couple; and about work as an essential part of a person’s vocation. And this was before the Second Vatican Council took place.”
In the meantime, Ciesielski had become a professor at the same Polytechnic where he had studied; his family had grown in size; first Maria and Katarzyna were born, then Piotr. By that time, Karol had been created cardinal and was now Archbishop of Krakow. But the bond between him and the Srodowisko families remained the same as ever. In 1968 Ciesieski went to talk to the cardinal about a new experience he had had: he had got to know the Chiara Lubich Focolari movement.
With his friend Wojtyla’s blessing, the layman Ciesielski personally promoted the opening of the first Mariapolis centre in a Poland which was still under the firm grip of communism.
But there was another experience Ciesielski was about to begin: he was offered the opportunity to teach young African engineers for a semester at the University of Khartoum. He gladly accepted, overcome by that spirit of unity among peoples which was typical of the Focolari movement he was inspired by.But this was precisely when tragedy struck.
In the autumn of 1970, Ciesieski’s family went to visit him and being a lover of rivers, he decided to take his children on a boat ride on the Nile on 7 October. The boat capsized and only his wife Danuta and their elder daughter survived. Danuta had stayed behind at the hotel and the elder daughter was on the deck managed to save herself. Jerzy, however, was in one of the cabins with his younger children who were sleeping and didn’t make it.
Ciesielski’s beatification process began in 1985 and now Francis has recognised his heroic virtues just a few months ahead of John Paul II’s canonization next 27 April.