Before leaving on a pilgrimage to Poland earlier this month, Father Michael Niemczak wanted to solicit prayer intentions to bring with him. The U.S. priest with Polish roots was heading overseas to attend the Sept. 10 beatification of the Ulma family, the first time an entire family has been advanced toward sainthood together.
So Niemczak created a simple Google form where anyone, anywhere, could submit a prayer intention to bring with him to Poland. He ended up getting more than he bargained for.
Niemczak, a priest of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and coordinator of propaedeutic formation at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, is a relative of the Ulma family; his great-grandfather, Jan Niemczak, was a cousin to Wiktoria Ulma, the matriarch.
The Nazis brutally executed the devoutly Catholic family of Wiktoria; her husband, Józef; and their seven children in 1944 for hiding eight Jews in their home outside the village of Markowa in southeast Poland. The family’s beatification Mass was attended by some 30,000 people in the family’s village of Markowa in southeastern Poland. Beatification in the Catholic Church is one step before canonization, when a person recognized for special holiness is officially declared to be a saint.
The priest said it was clear to see that all of Poland was excited. Even before he arrived in Markowa, Niemczak saw large signs advertising the beatification in big cities like Krakow.
An entire country seemed to be celebrating, he said, “all because one family chose to live out their Christian life, in what I’m sure for them felt like an ordinary way.”
Niemczak said he was worried that he wouldn’t have time to pray each intention he received individually. But God provided a solution.
Early on the morning of the beatification Mass — about 5 a.m. — Niemczak took a bus ride with fellow pilgrims to the Mass site. His choice to take the early bus resulted in the priest gaining several hours to himself to “offer up every single intention before the altar.”
Many of the prayer intentions, he said, pertained to Catholics asking that loved ones return to a practice of the faith. Niemczak said he also prayed fervently for the seminarians he teaches back home.
Among the nine Ulma family members killed was Józef and Wiktoria’s seventh child, who was not given a name before the Nazi killings. The Vatican has confirmed that Wiktoria went into premature labor when she was killed and the baby was born at the time of her death. The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints clarified Sept. 5 that the child was a newborn, adding that it received a “baptism of blood” and was therefore included among the martyrs.
Niemczak said it was moving to him that the feast day chosen for the family, July 7, is the day of Józef and Wiktoria’s wedding anniversary, the “birthday of the family.” The Ulmas’ beatification is a “great witness to the unity of a family … that a family is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Niemczak previously told CNA that while discerning the priesthood as a young man, the stories he heard about the Ulmas “set the tone” for the kind of faith he wanted to live, and he found himself desiring to live out his priestly vocation “as heroically as they lived out” their vocation as parents.
“It’s easy to read these stories and think of the figures in them as very distant in time and space … To think, oh man, they must have been like some superhuman people. I couldn’t possibly do that. But then when you hear that it’s your family members, there’s something striking in that,” Niemczak said.
“To realize every family has saints in it, every family has sinners in it, every heart is capable of great holiness and great wickedness. And so it just was a very arresting thought to think, oh wow, within just a couple of generations, there were these saintly figures so close to my family tree.”
Niemczak’s trip included stops at holy sites in Krakow, Our Lady of Częstochowa Shrine, the Divine Mercy Shrine, and several days spent staying with family in addition to the beatification Mass. He also visited the grave of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Polish priest martyred by communists in 1984. He said it was powerful for him to celebrate these figures — Popiełuszko and the Ulmas — who “stood up to oppressive regimes, strengthened by the Catholic faith and their love for others.”
“Greater inspiration to live out my vocation,” he said.
Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.
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