I’ve often heard we should develop a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. I have tried to understand this, and have grasped at this relationship, seeking to develop and embrace it.
But it doesn’t feel natural to me: He is too great, and demanding, and the word “cross” always shows up.
Still, I’ve come to my own way of getting to know him, and it a simple way: through the saints, who all have one thing in common: they all found their way to Jesus, often after much struggle. They all got it right.
Since that’s my goal too, I look to them. Some might call that “cheating.” I say it’s more efficient to walk in the footsteps of saints than to try to plow new paths which can lead me anywhere.
The saints are my “Catholic Hall of Fame.” They’ve marked the path with examples of unconditional love, humility, patience, joy, kindness and — so many times — unimaginable courage.
Many of these Hall-of-Famers are well-known, of course, but I’m always on the lookout for one of the hidden gems whose stories are not as familiar to us so I can make friends with them; settle down and hang out, so to speak.
Here is one saintly family that met the criteria for Hall of Fame membership. Meet Joe (Jozef) and Vicki (Wiktoria) Ulma.
My new friends, Joe and Vicki, lived in southern Poland in a town called Markowa. Joe was a librarian, a photographer, and a bee-keeper. He was active with the local Catholic Youth Organization. Vicki was 12 years younger than her husband and they had six kids: Stanislaw, age 8, Barbara, age 7, Vladyslaw, age 6, Franciszek, age 4, Antoni, age 3, and Maria, age 2.
Then along came the Nazis.
During the summer of 1942, the Nazi military police began deporting Jewish families from Markow to the death camps. Joe and Vicki, good Catholics who loved their faith and Jesus, knew what they had to do. Toward the end of summer, in the darkness of night, they sneaked their Jewish neighbors, the Szall family — a mom, dad, and four kids — into their home. In addition to the Szalls, there were two young sisters from the Goldman family. Hiding in their attic, these guests remained with the Ulmas for a year and a half.
Then a neighbor who had harbored some ill-will toward the Szall family discovered the secret and informed on the Ulmas. Early on the morning of March 24, 1944, Lt. Eilert Dieken led his German soldiers to the Ulma house and surrounded it. They promptly found the two adults and six children hiding there.
The Jews were brought outside and several people were ordered to act as witnesses. One by one, each was shot in the head and killed. Then Lt. Dieken ordered Joe, Vicki, and their kids outside. Vicki was now pregnant with her seventh child and almost full term.
Dieken, enjoying the power he had been given, had the Ulma kids line up facing their mom and dad. Then he made them watch as their parents, holding hands, were shot to death right in front of them. The kids began screaming and one of the soldiers, Joseph Kott, asked for permission to silence them.
Diekens quickly approved and, in a matter of minutes, 17 people had been executed. The 17th was Vicki’s baby, who was discovered, upon later exhumation, to have been almost born as Vicki lay in her grave.
What evil there is in the hearts of so many.
The Ulmas and their neighbors were no different than the rest of us. They had family and friends whom they loved. They laughed, they cried, they loved to dance and sing, to hug their children and to eat cake. They enjoyed a Sunday picnic and loved Christmas or Easter. And they all had every shred of personal dignity ripped unmercifully from their very existence. The Ulmas’ great “crime” was loving their neighbors through Christ.
You see, I need people like Joe and Vicki in my life to show me how that is done. Therein lies my path to Christ, through the Communion of Saints, in the footsteps they’ve left to mark the way.
Post Script: Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1995 and their cause for beatification was presented to Rome by the Catholic Church of Poland in 2003 and completed in 2011.