In 1941, Nazi soldiers conducted a raid on St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in Krakow, Poland, hauling off seven priests. With the loss of so many clergymen, the parish’s youth outreach depended increasingly upon lay volunteers. The task fell to Jan Tyranowski, a seemingly ordinary, but somewhat quirky, man in his forties.
Few people had high expectations for Tyranowski, but he ended up becoming the linchpin for training a new generation of witnesses to Christ. In fact, ten of the men that he mentored went on to become Catholic priests—including a young Karol Wojtyla, now recognized as Pope St. John Paul II.
In one of his earliest published essays, Wojtyla called Jan (pronounced “Yahn”) “the apostle.” He wrote that his holy, eccentric mentor “lived close to God or rather with God.” The witness of Tyranowski’s life had captured Wojtyla’s heart and instilled in him a deep and abiding desire for the interior life.
“It’s Not Difficult to Be a Saint.” Born in 1901 in Krakow, Tyranowski completed a high school diploma in order to become an accountant. Years into his career, however, he had a conversion experience during Mass one day when he heard a simple statement from a Salesian preacher: “It’s not difficult to be a saint.”
Through these words, the Holy Spirit gave Tyranowski a new desire to become a man of prayer. He left his accountant’s desk in his mid-thirties to work instead with sewing machines as a tailor. He hoped that this would give him more time for prayer (and perhaps ease some stomach problems related to the stress of his last job).
At this time, the faith and culture of Poland were under siege by the Nazis. Anybody actively promoting Catholicism was targeted for backlash. In spite of this challenge, or perhaps because of it, Tyranowski began to build his entire day around prayer and spiritual reading. He developed a special love for the Carmelites St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila. Over time, Tyranowski became deeply aware of the presence of God, an awareness he would soon share with the students and working-class men from his parish and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Around the time of the Nazi raid at St. Stanislaus Kostka, Tyranowski had an idea. In the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, he read about “handing down to others the fruits of contemplation” (in Latin, contemplata aliis tradere). Reading this phrase, he felt the Holy Spirit telling him that his own reading and reflection on Christ could be helpful to share with other people, particularly with other men. He started initiating conversations with various teenagers whom he had seen at Mass.
“Handing Down” a Life of Prayer. After talking to some young men initially, he asked them to join him after Mass to pray the Rosary together. One was Karol Wojtyla, a bright young man who worked at a stone quarry, and another was Mieczyslaw Malinksi, a high school student with hopes of becoming an engineer. He talked with them about what it meant to be a Christian man of character, and he explained his own spiritual routine to them, which he recorded in a small notebook daily.
Reflecting later, Wojtyla and Malinski said that Tyranowski came across as awkward to them, but he was also strangely compelling because they could tell that he had a close relationship with God.
“This, I found, was indeed the key to Tyranowski’s personality,” said Malinski. “Although his ‘fusty’ language, as I called it, still got on my nerves, I listened attentively and realized that everything he said was directed to a single object—the truth of God dwelling within us.”
As word got around, Tyranowski’s small group of friends grew to fifteen young men. That’s when he decided to call it a Living Rosary group—a brotherhood comprised of one man for each of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. This group provided a center around which young men could grow in their faith and cling to spiritual truth in the face of the Nazi ideology that surrounded them.
Cultivating Interior Resistance. The whole town of Krakow, like other Polish territories under Nazi control, lived under a constant state of terror, and many a young man’s natural response was anger and hatred toward Poland’s oppressors. They dreamed of armed retaliation, and many turned to violent resistance. Tyranowski’s group, however, was one exception.
Under his direction, the Living Rosary group started talking about the challenge of imitating Christ in their current dangerous circumstances. They reflected on their own temperaments, their good and bad qualities, and the demands of the gospel. “God is within us,” Tyranowski told the men. “God is in us to draw us out of ourselves.”
Guided by such insights, the group asked God to help them respond peacefully and courageously to the Nazi regime. It was a prayerful, humble approach that ran counter to everything around them.
As Tyranowski mentored these young men, his primary goal was to help them cultivate a deep sense of God’s presence. The interior freedom they discovered because of this became a newfound source of resistance that replaced baser, more mean-spirited instincts.
The result was magnetic. As more boys in the neighborhood heard about the meetings, they flocked to join by the dozen. A new group of fifteen was started, then another. Soon Wojtyla, Malinski, and several other members of the original group were leading their own Living Rosary groups that met weekly. Each leader tried to instill in his peers the same life of prayer and sense of responsibility for his thoughts, words, and actions, which Tyranowski had taught them. And each leader also kept meeting weekly with Tyranowski to hear his latest reflections and receive whatever advice they wanted.
Working for Eternal Life. By 1943, sixty men were involved in Living Rosary groups. The threat of being discovered by the Gestapo was increasing daily. No one knew whether they would be dragged to prison or packed off to a concentration camp between breakfast and dinner. The groups discussed disbanding for safety reasons. Nearly unanimously they decided no: keep meeting secretly with Jan and with each other.
As their faith grew, some of the young men began to look into the priesthood. By this time, the Nazis had shut down Krakow’s Catholic seminary. This action forced the professors and priests to continue their work underground. The men who entered lived double lives, but they found themselves energized by the faith. Tyranowski himself wanted to join the seminary, but his health was declining, so it was impractical. Nevertheless, he arranged to take some classes from the theology professors. And every once in a while, he appeared, smiling, to visit his younger friends. They had become his brothers in the Lord, and they cared for him now as he had cared for them.
Wojtyla was in Rome completing a doctorate when Tyranowski became very ill, first with tuberculosis and then a serious infection. “Are you having injections for the pain?” Malinski, now a seminarian, asked. “As long as I can stand it, I don’t want them,” Tyranowski responded.
In and through his patient suffering (which earned him the nickname “Job” from Wojtyla) Tyranowski believed he was doing something of eternal worth. “I am lying here doing nothing, but I still want to work for the salvation of the world, as you people are doing at the seminary,” he said, “so I am offering up my pain for the benefit of all those in need.”
Tyranowski died in 1947 after a year in the hospital. A crowd of people to whom he had passed on his faith showed up at the funeral. As one man said, he had taught them “the secrets of inner life,” above all, “by his own example.”
Lessons for Us All. Venerable Jan Tyranowski’s example is still powerful, especially for single people and those who aren’t sure where the Lord is calling them. He shows us the fruitfulness of answering the Lord’s call now, without knowing what the future holds. When Jan decided to put a little extra time and energy into his prayer life, his life was changed. When he boldly invited men from his neighborhood to deepen their spiritual lives, many lives were changed as well. So whether we are single or married, college educated or not, we who are lay members of the Church can hand down to others whatever we have received from the Lord.
On the face of it, Tyranowski was an unlikely evangelist. He was socially awkward and without formal theological training. Yet his impact reverberated far beyond Krakow.
Throughout his life, St. Pope John Paul II spoke about Jan as an example for laypeople everywhere. Now, years later, we know more than ever that people like Jan are needed in every parish and in every secular environment to make the faith present through their words and their witness.
Andrew Swafford is an associate professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.