While in third grade, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope St. John Paul II, suffered the death of his mother, Emilia. Despite the many words spoken during his lengthy papacy, John Paul II rarely spoke about her. Perhaps this silence was due to his sense of personal privacy. He has also admitted that: “I had not yet made my First Holy Communion when I lost my mother: I was barely nine years old. So I do not have a clear awareness of her contribution, which must have been great, to my religious training” (“Gift and Mystery”).
His mother’s loss was a loss he continued to bear. At the age of 19 he wrote a heart-wrenching poem, which laments, “so many years without you — / how many have passed out of sight?” (“Over This, Your White Grave”). As pope he kept a small portrait of his parents, a photograph taken some time after their wedding, on his bedside table.
Wojtlya’s long life was marked by other profound losses. He had an older sister he never knew, as she died shortly after birth. His brother Edmund, a physician, died when Wojtyla was 12. Then, at the age of 21 he lost his father. During his first visit to Poland as pope in 1979, he remembered his family in Wadowice, his hometown, saying, “My prayer is for so many people who have died, beginning with my parents, my brother and my sister, whose memory is linked for me with this city.”
But there was one thing that clearly gave Wojtyla solace throughout his long life marked by profound loss: devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. After the passing of the saintly Emilia Kaczorowska, Wojtyla’s father presented the young boy to the Virgin Mary at the shrine of Our Lady in nearby Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Standing before an image of the Virgin Mary, Wojtlya’s father told him, “From today on, she will be your mother.”
Wojtyla took his father’s words to heart. Choosing as his papal motto “Totus Tuus” (“Totally yours”), Pope John Paul II came to discover not only does the Virgin Mary lead those devoted to her to Christ, but Christ leads us to his mother.
The rosary was part of the practical expression of love for the Virgin Mary for Wojtlya. He helped to form a rosary group as a young man in Krakow during World War II. This beloved Catholic prayer, which he had prayed often with his father, helped ease his sorrow and console him in his grief.
For any Christian who has lost his or her mother, the words of Christ on the cross hold a powerful meaning. “Behold, your mother” he tells the Beloved Disciple. The Virgin Mary was given by Christ not only to a particular disciple, but to every follower of Jesus.
Mother’s Day can be tinged with heartache for those who mourn the loss of their mothers. It can be more easily born with the consolation the Virgin Mary continues to offer her sons and daughters. Loss is not foreign to her. Her own life was touched by seven momentous sorrows, culminating in the death of her son.
An icon of the Virgin Mary in the parish church of Wadowice, where Wojtyla often prayed as a child, portrays Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. It is a tender and loving posture, demonstrating Mary’s maternal care. But in this image, they are also surrounded by the instruments of Christ’s passion, signs and symbols of the suffering to come.
John Paul II was born in May, the month Catholics dedicate to the Virgin Mary. Some of the first sounds he heard as a newborn were bells and Marian hymns drifting through an open window from the parish church. In May we celebrate our earthly mothers, and mourn those who have passed — all that they have done, and sacrificed, for us. But we are not orphaned. Our mother in heaven will continue to guide and sustain us.