Though the practice of peregrination with icons of the Blessed Mother has fallen out of favor in much of the Catholic world, its history is worth noting. Even in the West, the faithful have over the centuries venerated the images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and called on her intercession in times of great distress.
Their stories of miracles and intercessions are not often heard in the West, as icons are particularly venerated in the East. An icon, as opposed to paintings, sculptures or other artistic depictions of persons, is considered to be almost a living presence of the person or deity who is venerated. They are seen as a window with a view of a greater truth, rather than simply a fine object of art.
History of the Black Madonna
The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa has a fascinating history, though there is some variation in the accounts.
Tradition holds that St. Luke the Evangelist himself “wrote” the icon on a cypress table in the home of the Holy Family. St. Helena is said to have located the icon during her visit to the Holy Land and to have brought it to Constantinople in the fourth century. The painting was eventually owned by Charlemagne, who presented it as a dowry to Prince Lev of Galicia (present–day Western Ukraine), where it was kept for almost six centuries in the royal palace at Belz. In 1382, after invading Tartars attacked the fortress at Belz, the icon was taken to the Polish town of Czechstochowa for safekeeping, and it has remained there ever since.
The icon was damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430, who slashed and attempted to burn the it, changing the visage of what is now referred to as the “Black Madonna.” In a sense, she is a symbol of Poland herself, scarred but persevering in faith.
The Power of the Black Madonna
The Black Madonna is credited with numerous miracles among those that she visited, and on behalf of those who prayed for her protection and intercession. The icon is credited with saving Constantinople in a critical battle with the Saracens, after its display from the walls of the city. After its transfer to Galicia, the kingdom was threatened by an invasion in the 11th century. The king prayed to Our Lady to aid his small army and, as a result of this prayer, a darkness overcame the enemy troops who, in their confusion, began attacking one another.
Since the icon was brought to Poland, Our Lady has interceded a number of times for the Polish people. Just one modern example: In May 1979 many faithful held what became known as the “Siege of Jericho” at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. They prayed continuous rosaries for the intention that the Communist Polish government would relax its restrictions on the visit of Pope John Paul II to his native land. On May 7, the Polish government unexpectedly relented and dropped the major obstacles that were preventing the Pope’s visit. We know now the fire that Pope Saint John Paul lit with his bold proclamation of the Gospel “behind enemy lines,” and how large a role he played in the most remarkable peaceful revolution of the 20th century, eventually even bringing down Communism in Poland and the Soviet Union.
These and similar historic events testify to the all-too-often forgotten power of prayer—particularly in asking for the intercession of the Blessed Mother to deliver the faithful from problems that seem too overwhelming for any practical human solution. And this is precisely the situation in which much the world finds itself.
In 1920, Russia was the first country to legalize abortion for any reason. Josef Stalin again outlawed abortion in 1936, not because he respected human life, but he saw that it was weakening the Soviet Union, decimating its population along with war, the various purges, and the starvation of millions. Shortly after his death in 1954, abortion was again legalized, and the number of babies lost again skyrocketed. Abortion remains the primary means of birth control in the newly independent states although the rate is falling. In Russia, for example, there are still 13 abortions for every 10 live births.
In 1917, Our Lady of Fatima predicted that Russia would spread her errors throughout the world. Although several volumes are filled with the depth and breadth of these errors, the greatest is undoubtedly the state endorsement of the killing of children in the womb.
We Need the Black Madonna
But now, not only Russia but Europe as a whole, together with other developed and developing countries know they have a problem. Their populations continue to decline at an alarming rate. The total fertility rate of Russian women hit a historic low in 1999 of 1.16. By 2012, it had risen slightly to 1.61, exceeding even that of the European Union’s 1.58, while Poland’s and most of the other East European nation’s range between an even lower range of 1.27 and 1.45.
Against this backdrop of demographic collapse, widespread abortion and an apparent inability for Russia and other dying European countries to marshal a return to openness to life, a faithful few are looking for more dramatic, and more traditional, solutions. Pope John Paul’s monumental encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which he called “central to the whole Magisterium of my Pontificate,” closes with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary for victory over the culture of death.
So the faithful must again turn to Our Lady under her title of Our Lady of Czestochowa, who is venerated both in the East and the West. Please pray with us that the Blessed Virgin Mary will inspire the people of the entire world to return to faith in God and respect for life and family.