.- As he does each day — wearing a sport coat and tie — the ramrod-straight, six-foot-one-and-a-half Ken Wichorek stepped out of his tiny white Geo Metro on a mid-January morning and headed straight for Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage.
The 81-year-old parishioner arrives early for the daily noontime Mass to lead the rosary aloud beforehand for grandmothers, work-at-home moms and business people who also arrive early. This rosary is a string of prayers Wichorek has prayed for almost eight decades.
That’s thousands and thousands of Apostles’ Creeds, Our Fathers, Hail Marys, Glory Bes and meditations on the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ — from his divine conception, to his institution of the Eucharist, to his painful steps to Calvary, to his resurrection from the dead.
“The rosary is the life of Christ,” Wichorek said of the prayer that has shaped his long walk with God.
‘A lot to be learned’
After all these years and all those prayers said over and over again, Wichorek remains enthusiastic about the Marian devotion.
“There’s a lot to be learned from the rosary if a person stops to think about it,” he said in a recent interview with the Catholic Anchor.
So the retired civil engineer has written a book to help others mine its riches. “Meditations on the Mysteries of the Rosary” was published in 2012, and is available at St. Paul Corner Bookstore and Gift Shop, on the cathedral’s campus.
Especially as the penitential season of Lent approaches, Wichorek hopes others will pick up their rosary beads and spiritually join the steadfast woman who accompanied her Divine Son through his salvific Passion and who shared his suffering more deeply than any mother could.
“Mary leads us to Christ,” Wichorek observed.
‘A believer from the very beginning’
Wichorek’s walk with Christ seems to have the steady cadence of the rosary he prays.
“I was a believer from the very beginning,” said the now white-haired Wichorek.
The more he studied and researched — and he has read the Bible cover to cover several times — he found nothing to dissuade him from the Catholic Church.
“I’ve always had faith,” he noted, and “I’ve always had a devotion to our Lady.”
“It just happened naturally,” he explained. “If you love Jesus you’re bound to love the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
His first memories of the rosary go back to his Polish-American parish in Cleveland, Ohio, where on Wednesday and Friday evenings parishioners prayed together as World War II raged abroad. Wichorek continued the practice at Purdue University where daily he joined other students at the Newman Center to say the rosary. As a soldier at Camp Pickett, Va., during the Korean War, and later in Germany — where he met his wife and fellow Catholic, Rita – Wichorek continued his prayers.
“As far back as I can remember he’s always had a very deep, strong faith,” explained Wichorek’s daughter Mary Kinder, 47, who is close to her father and who attends Holy Family with her own family. While she was in high school with her dad still working for the Alaska District Corps of Engineers, the two would go to Mass together in the early mornings. And across the years she joined her parents’ pilgrimages to Rome and the shrine to the Blessed Virgin at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
“I just thought everybody grew up that way,” she recalled.
And since 1991 Kinder has watched her dad spend a prayerful retirement. In addition to leading the rosary and attending Mass every day at the cathedral, Wichorek serves as a parish sacristan, lector and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
Kinder said that her dad’s strong faith and endurance in the rosary have proved fruitful for her and her three brothers. All are practicing Catholics.
“I’ve been spiritually spoiled,” Kinder added smiling. “I have a deep love and a deep appreciation of my faith. It’s like the greatest gift I could have ever received.”
A?guide to Christ
While the rosary isn’t the only prayer Wichorek prays, it is a priority.
“I couldn’t separate it from my faith,” he said.
That’s because Mary is the picture of what it is to be Christ-like, which is especially important during Lent, Wichorek explained. During the 40-day penitential season leading up to Easter, “we are asked to kind of straighten out our life and become better Catholics,” Wichorek noted, and he believes there is no better guide than Mary.
“She more closely imitated Christ than any other human being in the history of the world,” he said. “Besides being the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, Mary participated in the sufferings of Jesus during his Passion.”
In fact, the depth of her compassion – which means “to suffer with” as Pope Benedict XVI has noted – goes to her soul.
“Mary feels it in her soul because Mary was conceived without original sin,” Wichorek said. Like Eve before the Fall, he explained, Mary’s mind, body and soul are “connected completely.”
The Protestant question
Wichorek knows that not all Christians are at ease with a prayer that recalls the Mother of God — despite references to Mary in the Gospels and the long Christian tradition of asking her intercession. It boils down to a different understanding of God and the saints, Wichorek believes. Protestant Christians think God is far off in heaven, and the saints — like Mary — are static, ancient characters that go no further than the pages of a Bible, he said.
But “God is here now” in the Eucharist, Wichorek observed, and Mary continues to make herself known and advocate for humanity.
“Mary has been with us for centuries,” he said. Accounts of Marian apparitions at sites like LaSalette and Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal – have inspired conversions and healing the sick in body and soul, he noted.
“She’s been very active in helping people and trying to bring them back to Jesus,” Wichorek said.
“When you say the rosary, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Wichorek said. “We’re trying to help people be converted to Jesus.”
Meditations on the mysteries
And that’s what Wichorek hopes to facilitate with his new book, “Meditations on the Mysteries of the Rosary.” It consists of 15 meditations — one for each mystery of the rosary — to reflect on while praying.
Wichorek hopes the book will help others cultivate virtues that correspond to the mysteries. For instance, in the Annunciation Mary’s humility is central.
“She’s asked to receive the Messiah, and she says, ‘Yes’ without asking a bunch of questions,” Wichorek said. The same is true of Saint Joseph, he added. “They don’t question, ‘Why did God do this? Why didn’t God at least have a place at the inn for us?’ They show unquestioned faith in and obedience to God. This is something that we can look at, and it should help inspire us to be the same — to be like Mary in our humility, to be like Mary in our unquestioned acceptance of what God gives us in our life.”
Spiritually walking alongside Jesus and Mary can be challenging, but Wichorek offers encouragement. In his meditation for the fourth Sorrowful Mystery – the Carrying of the Cross – he writes, “(God) wants us to keep trying. Keep praying. Keep up hope. Go to confession and the Eucharist. Pray daily. You will be triumphant in the end.”
Posted with permission from Catholic Anchor, official publication of the Archdicese of Anchorage, Alaska.