The patron of Poland, Lithuania and young people

March 4 marks the celebration across the Catholic world of the feast of Saint Casimir (in Polish Kazimierz). Here in Chicago, the many Polish immigrants have heavily influenced the religious culture of this archdiocese. In fact, one of my students, himself born in Poland, brought our class a selection of fruit filled pastries a few weeks back, traditionally enjoyed as a treat before Lent in the Polish communities here on what they refer to as Paczki Day. I had to admit to him that though my stepmother is Polish, I was more familiar with the French-inspired Mardi Gras celebrations elsewhere, such as in New Orleans, and the Carnevale in Venice and Brazil.

Churches and religious organizations in the area also mark the heritage left to the city by Polish Catholics. Saint John Cantius, Saint Stanislaus Kostka, Saint Hyacinth, Saint Josaphat, Saint Ladislaus and Saint Hedwig parishes are among many monuments to the layers of Polish immigrants who came to the city, as are the charitable works and institutions of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Sometimes the neighborhoods themselves took on the names of the local church as the center of cultural and social life for the emigres, as with the Jackowo (Saint Jacka) and Wacławowo (Saint Wacława) areas in the Avondale section of the city. By 1950, more Poles lived in Chicago than in Krakow, and one out of every 12 Illinois citizens today is of Polish descent.

Casimir himself was born to nobility in the 1400s and rebelled against the trappings of aristocratic life to focus instead on God and the poor. At a time when family loyalty and influence meant a great deal, his decision to offer himself to prayer and sacrifice was radical and threatening to many even of his own bloodline and household. His piety was renowned, as he famously prayed outside the chapel in the harsh Eastern European winters and so often sang the “Omni die dic Mariae,” that it is often called the Hymn of Saint Casimir, though he didn’t compose it. Its lyrics remind us to “Daily, daily sing to Mary” who alone is “Fairest work of all creation, Mother of creation’s King.”

Because he died at the age of 24, Casimir is not only the patron saint of Poland and Lithuania, but also of young people.

Such local expressions of devotion prove that a monolithic vision of a pyramidal Catholicism does not accurately reflect the faith as both handed on (fides quae creditur) and lived in particular subjective experiences of specific times, places and narratives (fides qua creditur). These intertwining realities give latitude to regional and popular expressions of our commitment to Christ and the Gospel as found in the very contours of our individual and collective lives, including one’s ethnic and social background. They also serve as reminders that we are one church across various divisions, that unity does not mean uniformity, and that while respecting popular expressions is vital to a healthy church, no ghettoization which posits one group of people over and against another can be seen as divinely ordained.

Since Saint Casimir shares his feast day this year with the annual Ecumenical World Day of Prayer, where Christians of every background (especially women) join together to reject isolation, estrangement, and ignorance of others’ burdens, let us seek the intercession of Saint Casimir to warm our hearts to prayer and action that can unite believers in a shared dedication to remaking our world in light of Christ’s infinitely profound and conciliatory love.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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