St. Raphael Kalinowski, OCD


The canonization of saints has often been deferred out of political prudence. Popes would naturally hesitate to canonize a martyr, for example, while the ruler who executed him was still in power. A tyrant might well consider such an action an invitation to intensify his persecution.

There were certainly some true saints and martyrs among those Christians imprisoned or done to death in our own century by Soviet Russia. No doubt a number of them will be canonized in due time. Meanwhile, however, Pope John Paul II, on November 17, 1991, proclaimed as a saint a man who, in an earlier generation, suffered in the same way for his people enslaved by the Tsarist Russia, and then dedicated his life to the spiritual revival of both Lithuanians and Slavs. He was the Carmelite friar, St. Raphael Kalinowski.

Joseph Kalinowski was the son of a prominent professor of mathematics, Andrew Kalinowski, and Josepha Poionska Kalinowski. He was born on September 1, 1835, in Vilna, Russian Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). Having received his earliest education at home, at nine he entered the local College of the Nobility, where his father taught, graduating at 17 with a gold medal to his credit. Raised in devout Catholicism, Joseph even at that point felt called to the priesthood. On his father’s advice, however, he chose to go to a university first.

Finding a university was no easy task for a young Pole in those days. When Russia took over Poland and Lithuania in 1795, she had closed all independent Polish universities, so the only universities available were Russian. Young Joseph picked the Institute of Agronomy in Hory Horki, Russia, where he studied zoology, chemistry, agriculture and apiculture (raising bees). But gifted as he was like his father in mathematics, he soon switched to the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg.

When he graduated in 1857 as a lieutenant in the Russian Engineering Corps, he was sent to supervise the designing and building of a railway line between Kursk, Kiev and Odessa. This pioneering effort took him into lonely country, but he profited spiritually by the very solitude of his surroundings.

Work on the railroad project was postponed in 1860. Lieut. Joseph was reassigned to the fortress at Brest-Litovsk. In 1862 he was promoted to captain on the general staff. His three years at the fortress were disturbing, however. He felt the heavy hand of Russia, especially toward Poles and the Catholic Church in Poland. Nevertheless, he started a Catholic Sunday School, teaching there himself, and he limited his own expenditures so as to be able to assist the poor of the area.

In 1863, the Poles rose against their Russian oppressors. Kalinowski was in a difficult position. He knew the revolt was doomed to failure, but he approved its purpose, and he believed that if he joined the rising he might be able to limit somehow the damage that would certainly occur. He therefore resigned from the Russian army, cast his lot with the insurgents, and was named their minister of war for the Vilna region, on the understanding that he would not have to pronounce a death sentence on anybody. During the next ten months of the rebellion, he spent his time doing what he could to save lives.

The Russians were watching him, however, and on March 25, 1864, they arrested him. Three months later they condemned him to death, but since he was well-known and popular, and might even be called a martyr if executed, they commuted his sentence to ten years of hard labor. On June 29, 1864, he set out on the nine-month trek on foot to Siberia, one of a long line of exiles bound for what he described as "a vast cemetery for tens of thousands of victims. "

Joseph was in Siberia for nine years. These were days of profound religious change for him. He became a spiritual leader, looked up to by all the fellow prisoners for strength and consolation. Becoming good friends with a priest whose parish was all Siberia, with him he prepared the children of the prisoners for their first Communion. Meanwhile he was himself preparing for what he now realized was his vocation, to enter a monastery.

On his release in 1873, he first went home, and then sought to carry out his resolution to become a religious. But since he was forbidden to settle in Lithuania, and since most Polish monasteries had been suppressed, he went to Paris. After serving as a tutor for three years, he finally went to join the Carmelites at Graz in Austria. Having made his novitiate there and received the religious name Raphael of St. Joseph, he did his theological studies in Hungary. Then he went to Czama, the only Carmelite house then in Poland, and was ordained a priest on January 15,1882.

On a firm foundation of constant prayer and self-denial, he embraced an apostolate designed to liberate his oppressed fellow-citizens spiritually while they struggled for political and religious liberation.

He thus became a strong influence in the revival of the Polish Carmelites. Among his apostolic programs, he laid great stress on the sacrament of penance. In fact, he spent so much time hearing confessions that he came to be called a “martyr of the confessional.” Eastern-rite Christians were numerous in his homeland. Father Raphael was not only attentive to the Ukrainian Catholics but also, in an ecumenical spirit, to the local Orthodox.

Father Raphael died on November 15, 1907, at Wadowice, Poland. The news of his death spread rapidly, and thousands came to honor a man they already considered a saint.

Pope John Paul II, himself a native of Wadowice, confirmed this devotion. In 1983 he beatified, and in 1991 he canonized this incarnation of Polish patriotism and Catholicism.

Today Soviet Russia has fallen, as Tsarist Russia fell. There are better prospects than ever before that both Lithuania and Poland will be able to achieve their ancient dream, a solid and permanent freedom. Pope John Paul II rightly saw in this canonization a symbolization of the sort of independence he would like to see realized in eastern Europe – one based on a Christian respect for the rights of every person, every conscience and every nation.

Attending the canonization rite were delegations from the Carmelite Order, from Russia, Byelorussa, Ukraine, and especially from Poland and Lithuania, with their cardinals and bishops. And in the places of honor knelt Lech Walesa, president of liberated Poland, and Vytautas Landsbergis, president of the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic.

Proud to do honor to this new saint who was both Pole and Lithuanian, and who reached out towards the Eastern Churches as well, they must have responded warmly when the pope cried out: “Rejoice, O Mother Poland … Rejoice, O Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of all peoples!”

--Father Robert F. McNamara