For centuries Poland has been fighting for its independence. Sometimes it has achieved it, but never for long. Positioned at a geographical crossroads and deprived of strong national boundaries, it has been at the mercy of many intruders.
One time, however, back in 1498, an imminent invasion by the Muslim Turks was thwarted. It was not the hand of man but the hand of God that halted Islam. In his swordless victory Blessed Ladislaus of Gnielniow was a key figure.
Ladislaus, born in Gnielniow, near Gniezno, Poland, must have come from a fairly prosperous family, for he attended the University of Warsaw. That he was devout as well as brainy was proved by his entrance, after graduation, into the Franciscans, of the Strict Observance. The convent that received him had been founded by the great Italian diplomat and founder of the Franciscan Bernardine reform, St. John Capistrano (1384-1456). Here Ladislaus learned the zeal and leadership that characterized this branch of the Franciscan family.
The Franciscan superiors soon noticed the talents of this junior friar. Several times he was elected head of his province. He was also an excellent preacher, both in Polish and Latin, and he composed hymns that became very popular. His favorite subject was the passion of Christ, a good theme for his long-suffering homeland to ponder.
As a provincial of the Polish province of Franciscans, Ladislaus, at the request of Duke Alexander, sent a select team of missionary friars to preach the faith in Lithuania. The Lithuanians, still pagan, had long fought the adoption of the Christian faith because it was brought to them by the Teutonic Knights, who favored the Apostolate of the sword. Ladislaus, on the other hand, told his missionary deputation that they would succeed only if they went to Lithuania as men of peace. Their ultimate success was due to this, and to their display of personal holiness.
In 1498 another aggression was launched against Poland. The Muslim Turks, who tried for centuries to gain control of all eastern Europe, entered into an alliance with the Russian Tartars to invade Poland from the south. When it became known that this anti-Christian army numbered 70,000, Friar Ladislaus warned the Polish faithful that of themselves they could not win against them in battle. Therefore, he said, they must depend on God for protection, and for that reason they should join him in storming heaven with their prayers.
God heard all these prayers and granted them through a marvel of nature reminiscent of those He had wrought to help the Israelites escape from the Pharaohs. The allied enemy troops set up camp at the south entrance to Poland, between the Pruth and Dniester Rivers. This is now in Ukraine near the Rumanian border. Suddenly, however, the rivers reached flood proportions, swamping the area of the camp. Then the weather turned cold, there was a heavy frost and finally a blinding blizzard. Thousands of Muslims and Tartars were drowned and thousands more died of exposure. What was left of the invading army, the Polish forces were able to defeat with ease. In their gratitude to God, the Poles paid special tribute to Fr. Ladislaus. He, they said, through leadership and prayer, had preserved Poland from Islam.
But Ladislaus was not esteemed merely for his patriotism. He was also a genuine mystic. His fellow friars often saw him lifted up in the air as he prayed. And on the Good Friday before his death, as he was preaching on Christ’s passion, the congregation saw him rise into the air above the pulpit and hang there as one crucified. When he finally sank to the ground, he was so weak that he had to be taken into the convent infirmary. There, he died a month afterward. Beatified in 1750, Ladislaus of Gnielniow was three years later designated one of the principal patrons of Poland, of Lithuania, and of the city of Warsaw. He had served well both the soul and the body of his native land.
–Father Robert F. McNamara