Love of life, family are at the heart of the Ulmas’ beatification

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A beatification image of the Ulma family is seen in a Sept. 10, 2023, photo in Markowa, Poland, at the beatification Mass. Józef and Wiktoria Ulma with their seven children were beatified as martyrs. They helped a Jewish family during World War II in their home, were denounced and killed by German Nazis on March 24, 1944. (OSV News photo/Polish Bishops Conference)

KRAKOW, Poland (OSV News) — Servant Sisters of Debica were busy the night before the beatification of the Ulma family.

They put 1,500 flowers into bouquets. The smell of lilies spread around the tent at the back of the outdoor altar.

“Lilies are a symbol of innocence of the Ulma children. We are so happy that we can serve here at this beatification and help out,” Sister Agnieszka Krauz said on behalf of the sisters, lining up for a picture in front of their concluded work on the impressive bouquets.

Unnamed Baby Ulma

It is precisely the protection of innocent life and power of the family that spoke volumes during the beatification of the Ulma family — a family that was expecting their seventh child.

“In the martyrdom of the new Blessed, a particularly evocative role is played by the tiny child that Wiktoria carried in her womb, coming into the world during the painful moments of her mother’s slaughter,” Cardinal Marcello Semeraro said in his beatification homily Sept. 10 in Markowa, Poland.

“Although it did not yet have a name, today we call it Blessed,” he continued.

“This beatification has a more timely message than ever: Although it never uttered a word, today this little innocent child, who together with the angels and saints in paradise sang praises to God in the Trinity, here on earth cries out to the modern world to accept, love and protect life from the moment of conception until natural death, especially the lives of the vulnerable and marginalized,” the prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints said.

“This innocent voice of his wants to shake the conscience of a society where abortion, euthanasia and contempt for life, seen as a burden rather than a gift, are rampant,” he emphasized.

All seven children beatified

At first, the seventh Ulma child was not considered among the candidates for sainthood. Only when theologians working on the Ulma family sainthood cause learned that — according to witnesses who saw Wiktoria’s body after the murder — the child was partially born, the commission decided to propose that all seven children of the Ulmas be beatified.

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were killied by German occupiers of Poland March 24, 1944, for sheltering eight Jewish fugitives in their house. The Jews, too, were executed.

“Then there was a realization that there was this seventh life that had sprung up — I would say dramatically — in the moment of death. And this is a very important Christian element because if we look at Jesus Christ the moment of his death is also the moment that opens us to resurrection, to a new life,” Cardinal Semeraro told Polish Television Sept. 9.

“This presence, this silent presence, this dramatic presence, this neglected presence of this child who came partially out of the womb, hidden in the drama, in the blood of the slaughter (was) brought to the attention of those who were studying the cause … they reflected (on it) from the theological aspect and made this proposal,” Cardinal Semeraro said. He then personally brought it to Pope Francis, who accepted that all nine members of the Ulma family should be beatified.

“To be born — the word to be born — means to come out into the light,” the cardinal said.

‘Life comes from God’

Father Zdzislaw Kijas, general postulator of the Franciscan order in Rome and longtime staff member of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, told OSV News that “life, after all, can’t be afflicted, because life comes from God.” That’s what the Ulma family murder shows, Father Kijas said.

“Wiktoria, who was pregnant in a blessed state, as we say in Polish, was shot. She was carrying her baby under her heart, and was shot fatally. But life came out of her. That baby’s head and those shoulders came out of her mother’s womb. Life cannot be completely lost. The abuser may try to kill the source of life, because the mother was the source of life for this nameless child — but life still came out of her,” he said.

“I read this as a symbol — that if something comes from God, man is not able to kill it,” Father Kijas said.

In his homily, Cardinal Semeraro underlined an incredible witness of the Ulma family. “The Ulma house has become a place of “saints from the neighborhood, as Pope Francis calls it,” he said.

In his conversation with Polish Television, the cardinal said he was “first of all moved to see this testimony that certainly comes from two parents, but involves a family. A testimony that is moving, that is exemplary. And that is why the church proposes it as a model for families,” he said.

A call to love God in the everyday

For John Sikorski, professor of the University of Notre Dame, who visited Markowa with his wife and children over the summer, the Ulma family beatification is a call to be saints in everyday, ordinary life.

“So many times in our families, we can take the ordinary circumstances of everyday life for granted. And in this way, the Ulma family struck me. They were an ordinary family who, when the time and circumstances called for it, exercised a heroic courage to shelter Jews, an act for which they very well knew they could pay for with their lives,” he told OSV News in an email.

“One does not decide randomly to undertake an action for which he would risk his life. Yet, this is precisely what Józef and Wiktoria must have discerned God was calling them to do, together, as a couple, and as a family. This heroic courage must have been the fruit of the daily life of prayer, the sacraments, and a desire to be abandoned to God’s will in the midst of every circumstance of each day,” he said.

The Ulmas did not want to die — on the contrary — their home was a celebration of life, and a celebration of the family, Agnieszka Bugala, author of the book “The Ulmas — Righteous and Blessed,” told OSV News.

“It was indeed a marriage, and by extension a family, that loved life, loved to bear children, to welcome more children. In December 1942, when they opened their home to three Jewish families, it was actually a continuation of this great love of life. Because if one loves life, one saves life. They committed insanity, it’s true, but one only commits insanity out of love and out of love for life,” she said.

Heroic parents, heroic children

Father Kijas emphasized that one cannot forget about the heroism of the Ulmas’ children, thinking about the heroism of their parents. They were one, working together for the success of the mission of sheltering their friends and neighbors.

“We don’t have testimonies that the parents told them to keep quiet about the Jews they were sheltering. They naturally interacted with what the parents were doing. And this is beautiful,” Father Kijas said. “We should not put them in the shadow of this beatification,” he said.

“It is the trust of the parents, the faith, the upbringing that these children received already at this stage of their lives that allows us today to say that the whole family shares in this martyrdom. The whole family is blessed in martyrdom and faithfulness to Christ until the end of their earthly life,” the primate of Poland, Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, told OSV News.

Sikorski added that the Ulmas remind us that, to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI, “the saints are not ‘superheroes,’ distant figures whom we admire for great and heroic deeds, but rather, they are most often ordinary Christians who have been transformed by the grace of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”

“They are what we are all called to be. This particularly struck home when we were at the grave site, and began to speak with a local woman who evidently had come to tend the flowers on the grave, an act, we found out, which she undertakes every day. In short order, we found out in conversation that her name was Urszula Niemczak, and that her husband was Wiktoria Ulma’s nephew,” Sikorski recalled.

“Meeting her made a great impact — not only because she gave my children cookies baked in Wiktoria Ulma’s stove that morning — but because she is related to a saint,” Sikorski remarked. “The saint became less distant, and more intimate; here was her family member!”

Paulina Guzik

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.