June 13, 2011

In 1935, a 34-year-old tailor, Jan Tyranowski, heard a sermon by a Salesian priest in his parish in Krakow, Poland. The priest's message was, "It's not difficult to be a saint."

Tyranowski took the message to heart. He regulated his daily life to make prayer its central aspect and most frequent act. He studied the writings of the great spiritual masters and gradually, methodically, reoriented his whole life to be freedom thoughts and images so that he was continually in the presence of God.

Six years later, the Gestapo stripped the parish of most of its priests, shipping them off to concentration camps. The one remaining Salesian asked Tyranowski to form a group of young men who could continue the parish's youth ministry.

For that group, including one Karol Wojtyla, this was no ordinary youth ministry. It was a total immersion in Catholic spirituality. Tyranowski's Living Rosary groups provided weekly spiritual direction and instruction from the holy tailor.


The young men were drawn to Tyranowski who showed them that Catholicism is not a religion of rules and obligations, but rather a way of entering into the very life of God. Wojtyla came to see how his own life was not a random collection of events, but a pattern of God's grace.

Discerning that pattern, he realized that he was called to the priesthood. A few years later, after ordination, he was sent to study in Rome where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the spiritual writer most dear to Tyranowski's heart, St. John of the Cross.

Wojtyla died in 2005 and was beatified last month before hundreds of thousands of people at the Vatican. Tyranowski's ministry had borne abundant fruit.

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales says that for a person who seeks holiness, the most important thing is to find a good person to provide guidance. He cites the words St. Louis wrote to his son: "Go to Confession frequently and choose as your confessor an able and experienced man who can safely teach you the things you must do."

One can delude oneself into thinking, "I know my faults and my strengths and I can guide myself." But one would be wrong on both counts.

First, no man knows his own strengths and weaknesses as well as say, his wife. One may know particular sins that even an astute observer does not pick up, but one does not see his life and actions with a clear-eyed objectivity. One needs feedback.

Second, even armed with objective knowledge of oneself, guidance is not a simple matter. All people who are serious about overcoming faults and building up strengths need someone to hold them accountable. Look at top athletes. The best ones have a trainer or coach who gives them something approaching full-time attention. They cannot rise to excellence on their own.


Fr. Karol Wojtyla sits reading in a kayak in 1955. Wojtyla became a priest after receiving expert spiritual guidance from Jan Tykanowski.

It raises the question: If people get such devoted guidance for something as trivial as sports, how much more important is it for us to be guided by an expert in our relationship with God?


Francis de Sales urges his readers to "most insistently beseech God to provide you with (a guide) after his own heart." Once you have found such a person, do not look upon him or her as a mere mortal. Listen to him rather as the voice of God. "God will put into his heart and mouth whatever is requisite for your welfare. Hence you must listen to him as an angel who comes down from heaven to lead you."

A good guide to holiness is a rare thing, Francis insists. "There are fewer men than we realize who are capable of this task." He requires charity, knowledge and prudence.

Jan Tyranowski took the task of leading himself and others to the Lord with utmost seriousness. Would that we be all so fortunate as to find such an able guide.

(Information in this article about the relationship between Jan Tyranowski and Karol Wojtyla was taken from Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II by George Weigel.)