The Man Who Didn’t Know He Changed the World

Facedown on the cold tiles of a small Krakow chapel, a row of priests lay prostrate as they surrendered their lives in service to God and the Church. It was All Saints Day, 1946.

The Nazi occupation of Poland had come to an end the previous year, but the effects lingered; the violent efforts to extinguish organized religion could not stop the fires of faith in these young men.

In a small apartment nearby, a forty-six-year-old parishioner, bedridden by a worsening bout of pulmonary tuberculosis, prayed for his friends being ordained. Despite his illness, he couldn’t help but rejoice as these young men took their next steps in the journey toward holiness.

He thought back to the beginnings of their friendship five years earlier: a small group of college-aged men gathering in his living room, under the nose of Nazi forces. They prayed the Rosary together and strategized how they would lead others in the life of faith. He remembered his initial fear of leading—how would he overcome his introverted nature to lead them well? But a priest’s exhortation that “it is not difficult to be a saint” had taken ahold of his heart, and he couldn’t help but respond.

The men spent nearly five years together in their small community. And now, a few of his men were being ordained to great lives of service not far from where he lay. After years of working fervently to form these men, he was receiving a glimpse of the fruit of his work.

When he began working with his small, rag-tag group of twenty-somethings, Jan had no idea that eleven of them would eventually become priests, and that one of the eleven would rise up to become one of the greatest cultural and religious leaders of the twentieth century.

Four months after the ordination, Jan Tyranowski passed away. His men continued to pray and serve and lead, using what he taught them. Fifty years later, a new cause for canonization was opened—not for any of the young men, but for Jan himself!

One of the men ordained on that day remembered his mentor’s holiness and initiated the process. Every day of his priesthood, he kept a small photo of Jan in his office, from his first assignment in a small village outside of Krakow, to the Archbishop’s office in Krakow, to the papal offices in Rome. This friend (or, you might say, disciple) of Jan Tyranowski was the future Pope John Paul II.

I wonder if Jan had any idea that the man in his living room week after week would be a future pope; I’m sure there must have been days when he wondered if his actions would truly inspire others to become saints, days where the threat of imprisonment and the hopelessness of the culture made him want to give up. But still, he persevered week after week, investing in his men not for the glory of success or the spotlight, but out of a true desire for their transformation in Christ.

Years later, John Paul described the powerful impact of Jan’s investment on his life:

“He was one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvelous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns. He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace.” 1

Though John Paul the Great’s legacy widely eclipses Jan’s humble life, it was this hidden perseverance in holiness and relationship that began a monumental ripple effect in the life of the Church.

A few months ago, a friend sent me a photo of a bunch of young postulants, in their new skirts and vests, on the day of their entrance into religious life. Kneeling in the front row, frozen in the middle of a laugh, was a student I met my first year as a missionary on campus, who was now a good friend.

I didn’t get to go to her entrance day, but I was there the first time she attended a Bible study five years ago, hesitant but curious. I was there the day she walked into RCIA. I was there on the side of a mountain in Panama, on a mission trip, where she came more alive each time another child re-braided her hair and each time she answered another question in Spanish. I was there in the Cathedral the day she entered the Catholic church and the day she accepted the offer to become a missionary. I remember the phone call where she first told me about the sisters.

Sometimes, we don’t know where our investment will end up. I doubt Jan did; I myself spent many days wondering if I was doing enough, if I had the right answers to her questions, if one day she would change her mind and all of my efforts would come to nothing.

But every so often, we get to see glimpses of glory, when the Lord lets it be revealed to us the way He takes our small efforts and uses them to change lives. We should celebrate these moments as great gifts and as encouragement for our perseverance!

But regardless of the outcome, Jesus desires to use our investment to change the lives of those around us. He wants our friendship and our witness to open the door for him to do great miracles, even if we do not get to see them immediately. Let us persevere in friendship and lead courageously, like Jan Tyranowski did, never seeking recognition or reward, never giving up in the midst of fear and persecution, but always persevering in love for the next future saint in our midst.

  1. Peterson, L. (2017). How a tailor in Nazi-occupied territory brought the world a pope
Stephanie Parks
Stephanie Parks
Stephanie has served with FOCUS for over seven years. Hailing from Nebraska and graduating from Drake University, Stephanie served as a missionary on campus for four years at the University of Minnesota Duluth. After that, Stephanie joined the FOCUS Formation Team; she was one of the writers and editors of Foundations for Discipleship, a training tool for missionary discipleship. She now serves FOCUS by managing New Staff Training. Stephanie has an affinity for good literature, CrossFit, Broadway musicals, and spending time with her twin sister in the lake country of Minnesota.

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