Orthodox America

In Poland, "A Second Pascha"

The Translation of the Relics of Martyr Gabriel of Zabludov

by Yaroslaw Charkiewicz

Child-Martyr Gabriel

Poland's Child-Martyr was born in 1684 to a devout peasant family. When still very young he was distinguished by a mature spiritual perception and helped people to discern God's will. At the age of six he was abducted by a demonically possessed man, who tortured him to death by slowly draining his blood. His body was later found at the edge of a wood, where dogs had protected it from predatory birds. In the 18th century his remains were discovered to be incorrupt.  Circumstances inimical to Orthodoxy forced the transfer of the holy relics, and they were eventually moved to Minsk and then to Grodno, where they remained until their solemn return this year to Bialystok, the Martyr's homeland.

Archbishop Savva of Bialystok and Gdansk called the celebration "a second Pascha."  And indeed, those who participated in the translation of the relics of Child Martyr Gabriel from Grodno to Bialystok on the memorable days of September 21-23 [1992], would agree.

The joyous event was the culmination of a great deal of effort, primarily on the part of the Fellowship of Orthodox Youth in Poland, whose heavenly patron is St. Gabriel.  Negotiations initiated several years ago were successfully concluded in June when Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk visited Poland and gave his blessing for the translation. Permission was confirmed in August by Archbishop Valentin of Grodno on his visit to Bialystok.  Once permission was secured, arrangements for the actual transfer proceeded rapidly.

The festivities began the morning of September 21 with a service of intercession in the Grodno church of the Holy Protection where, since 1944, the holy relics had been kept.  The relics were then taken in procession to the church of the Nativity of the Mother of God, which the communists had turned into a museum of the history of religion but which has since been turned over to the local convent, also in the process of being restored. Metropolitan Filaret was the chief celebrant at the Divine Liturgy, assisted by Archbishops Savva of Bialystok and Valentin of Grodno, together with local Belorussian Bishops Stephan and Constantine.  After the Liturgy the procession with the relics made its way to the outskirts of the city where everyone boarded cars and busses which took them to the Belorussian-Polish border.

Customs procedures were streamlined for the more than 1500 pilgrims from Belorus (among them were more than fifty priests and some eighty seminarians from the Zhirovitsk monastery).  However, a potential "roadblock" was reached when Belorus customs inspectors asked for an official document allowing the relics, "a national treasure", to be taken out of the country.  Fortunately, the hierarchs acted quickly and decisively, and a phone call to Grodno was enough to clear the way. It was close to five o'clock in the evening when the relics were solemnly met on the Polish side of the border.  The small, dark oak reliquary, adorned with red roses, was taken by six seminarians from the Warsaw Theological Academy. Also present were the mayor of Bialystok and local Roman Catholic clergy.

To the ringing of bells (from the Roman church as well-an unexpected and pleasant acknowledgment), the relics were carried into the Kuznica village church.  An akathist was sung to the glory of the Child-Martyr and then the procession made its way to the next village, Sokolka. There pilgrims were greeted in the gathering darkness by hundreds, thousands of candles. All sang as the relics were carried into the local church of St. Alexander Nevsky.  Services began, and continued until morning. Through the night there was a constant stream of those in line to venerate the relics, over which two monks from Suprasl Monastery manfully stood watch.

A yet larger crowd accompanied the relics after Liturgy to the neighboring town of Czarna.  There, next to the still unfinished church of the Holy Myrrhbearers, the pilgrims had something to eat before the procession continued its way.  In front of the reliquary-which was carried in turn by seminarians, monks, clergy and laity-walked children strewing the way with flowers in honor of their heavenly patron and intercessor.

A sizeable number of pilgrims were added to the procession as it entered the town of Wasilkow, but this bore little comparison to the tens of thousands who joined the procession in Bialystok, on the final stage of its journey.

The procession took over three hours to wend its way through the city to the St. Nicholas cathedral, stopping only once at a parish church in the Wygoda district for a service of intercession on behalf of invalids and elderly.  A choir of four to five hundred voices sang continuously, led by conductors of various Bialystok parish choirs in rotation. All traffic en route was redirected to make way for the procession.  Credit should be given to those members of the Brotherhood responsible for keeping order along the way.

Approaching the cathedral, pilgrims were surprised to hear a military band. It took a moment before people realized they were playing church hymns: "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart," and "Impassible Gateway."  Everyone began singing.

Outside the cathedral enclosure, the relics were met by representatives of the cathedral clergy and laity.  Only a small fraction of the pilgrims were able to find space in the cathedral; the rest stood outside. The entire night was spent in prayer. Those outside encircled the cathedral with a blazing crown of candles. Divine Liturgy the next morning, Wednesday, was celebrated by nine bishops from Belorus, Poland and Italy.  Considering it was an ordinary work day, the number of people in attendance was impressive.

It was disappointing that an event of such magnitude was given no coverage by the media. Polish central TV didn't send a single news reporter, and the "democratic" press, which regularly covers Roman Catholic Church affairs, chose to feature articles about pot holes and a soccer match rather than this major Orthodox festival. When some delayed news items finally did appear, they were marred by inaccuracies.  Nowhere were any figures given reflecting the scale of this celebration, estimated at between fifty and sixty thousand participants. On this score there is ample room for improvement in the future.  Nevertheless, the festivities provided an unprecedented missionary witness to the local Roman Catholic populace and served likewise to strengthen the Orthodox faithful.

A praise of thanksgiving is due to our Most High God for His mercy in the return of Bialystok's only local saint.  Would that God might bless everyone to experience in their lifetime such a joyous and unforgettable, triumphant celebration.

Yaroslaw Charkiewicz President of the Fellowship of Orthodox Youth in Poland