Puri (AsiaNews) – Thousands of Christians and Hindus gathered yesterday to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Fr Marian Żelazek, a Polish missionary who chose to live in Odisha (Orissa) and dedicated his life to the poor, the marginalised, lepers, children and tribal people.
Mgr John Barwa, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, stressed that in 56 years of compassionate mission, Fr Żelazek conveyed “an important message to the world, namely that any society can progress only when every individual – whether sick or healthy, rich or poor, educated or uneducated – is cared for.”
The commemoration took place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Puri, where the priest spent the last years of his life and where he passed away on 20 April 2006, surrounded by the affection of friends among the poor and people with leprosy.
Mgr Barwa led the liturgical service in the presence of more than 2,500 people, both Christians and Hindus, 45 priests, and 20 nuns.
Several political and Church leaders were also present, including Poland’s ambassador to India, Adam Burakowski, and Fr Robert Kisala, vice superior of the Society of the Divine Word.
At the end of the celebrations, the archbishop announced the start of Fr Marian’s process of canonisation.
Everyone called Fr Marian “Bapa”, father. He was respected by everyone, whatever their religion or class.
“Through his efforts and work, the beloved Bapa continues to inspire everyone,” said Fr Baptist D’Souza, executive director of the Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre in Puri, which the missionary founded. “He lives in the hearts of the people he loved. His legacy lives on.”
The missionary was born on 30 January 1918 in Palędzie, a village near the city of Poznań (now Poland, then Germany). He was the seventh child of Stanisław and Stanislawa who had 16 in total, two of whom were adopted, and three who died in childhood.
With Europe in the grip of an economic crisis, his parents were forced to sell their property in the village and move to the city. Despite the difficulties, they raised their children instilling in them the desire to live their faith in God and love for the Church.
In 1932 he entered the Gymnasium of the Society of the Divine Word in Górna Grupa. On 8 September 1937, he entered the Verbite seminary in Chludowo, near Poznań. One of the seminary’s teachers, Fr Ludwik Mzyk was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw in June 1999.
With the outbreak of World War Two, Poland was overrun by Germany. The occupiers did not look favourably to religious houses. Marian and other students were asked to choose between leaving the novitiate or enlisting.
Faced with their refusal, Germany’s secret police, the Gestapo took 26 “obstinate” seminarians on 20 May 1940 to the Dachau concentration camp, one of the many places where Hitler executed his “final solution” for Jews, opponents, liberals, sick people, the disabled, gypsies, religious.
Fr Marian remained in camp for five years, until it was liberated by American soldiers on 29 April 1945. Out of 26 seminarians interned, only 12 survived. The other 14, aged 20 and 22, die in the first year and a half due to inhumane living conditions.
For the future priest, those years of hardship were a time of learning for his future missionary life in India. From the abyss of human depravity in Dachau, Fr Marian came out a man of God, and a future father figure for the poor and people living with leprosy.
The experience in a forced labor camp, the humiliations he endured along with his companions, failed to destroy his indomitable spirit of hope.
The more he watched the brutal destruction of life in Dachau, the stronger his determination to live to help others grew.
From the experience in the camp, Fr Żelazek drew the strength to stay alive as well as the apostolic spirit needed to help those who struggle and suffer to live with dignity.