Venerable Jan Tyranowski and Mother Seton: When Lay People Help Create Saints - Seton Shrine
Jan Tyranowski

Venerable Jan Tyranowski and Mother Seton: When Lay People Help Create Saints

Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Paul II may not have become saints without the early influence of devoted lay people who spiritually mentored them along the path to Christ.

Behind every saintly priest or religious there is often a devoted layperson, usually a family member such as St. Augustine’s mother Monica or St. Gregory Nazianzen’s sister St. Gorgonia.

In the case of both Saint John Paul II and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the layperson was a friend and mentor.

Jan Tyranowski did for St. John Paul II what Antonio Filicchi did for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: lived his lay life so well that it would inspire another human being to give their whole life to God in total commitment to the Church.

Jan Tyranowski came from a faithful Polish family.

Jan Tyranowski was born in 1901. His father was a tailor who wanted his son to be something he considered better: an accountant. Jan was not particularly charismatic. He was an introvert who kept to himself and enjoyed reading about science and psychology. He made photography a hobby.

When he was 29, Jan suffered from a painful stomach ailment and could no longer work as an accountant. Instead, he joined his father in the tailor shop, and found he enjoyed working with fabric much more than he enjoyed working with numbers.

His less stressful and happier life as a tailor motivated Tyranowski’s commitment to parish life, where he became active. All the same, Jan was not unusually committed to his faith compared to his Polish neighbors.

Then came the fateful Sunday Mass in 1935 when a Salesian priest said the words that would change Jan’s life: “It is not difficult to be a saint.”

Those words reflected an understanding of the Christian vocation that would later be called “the universal call to holiness.”

Tyranowski committed himself to prayer, and was soon praying for hours every day.

A prayer book he received introduced Tyranowski to the words of St. John of the Cross. He was entranced, and went on to study other Carmelite works, especially St. Teresa of Avila.

Then, with the rise of Hitler in Germany and the invasion of Poland in 1939, war reached Kraków. Priests were being deported and ministry was becoming strained. Tyranowski’s parish priest asked him if he could serve as a minister to the young people in the parish.

Jan created a ministry he called “Living Rosary”— men arranged into groups of 15, the same as the number of mysteries in the rosary at that time.

One of the young men involved in the group was Karol Wojtyla, the future Saint John Paul II. The future pope didn’t take to the prayerful layman at first. Tyranowski was strict and intense. But his joyful vision of the faith shone through, and Jan won the young man over.

Jan introduced him to St. John of the Cross — sparking a lifelong appreciation in Karol, who would go on to write his doctoral dissertation on the Spanish mystic.

But Jan also introduced Karol to Marian piety. By some reports, Wojtyla was hesitant about being too devoted to Mary, thinking fervor for the blessed mother must detract from devotion to Jesus Christ himself.

Tyranowski introduced Karol to the book “True Devotion to Mary” by Louis-Marie de Montfort. John Paul was so moved and inspired by the book that it shaped his Christian life, including his papacy, where he took the motto “Totus tuus,” Montfort’s words to Mary dedicating “All for you,” and would later end most of his major papal documents with references to the Blessed Mother.

Tyranowski became a mentor for Karol, the future “John Paul the Great.”

The two took long walks together and discussed spirituality. Though Tyranowski would die young — in 1947 at age 46 — he lived to know of Wojtyla’s ordination to the priesthood in 1946.

Wojtyla summed up Tyranowski as “one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvelous light” and summed up his influence this way: “He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace.”

Tyranowski came at a pivotal time in Karol’s development—after his involvement with the Rhapsodic Theatre group—and was decisive in a new way.

The Living Rosary had a very practical structure. Tyranowski created paper circles with flowers painted on them, and the names of virtues. Each member had to practice one of the virtues per month, telling Tyranowski how it went.

One of the young men in the group who became a priest, Mieczysław Malinski, would later say “I can safely say that if it wasn’t for him, neither Wojtyla nor I would have become priests.”

Wojtyla said Tyranowski taught him that “one could not only inquire about God… one could live with God.”

For Elizabeth Ann Seton, the layman who helped her find her faith was Antonio Filicchi.

Antonio and Filippo Filicchi were the sons of a wealthy Italian merchant. In the 1780s Filippo did business in New York, where he met his American wife.

William Seton was an American who studied in England for six years. He met Filippo in Livorno, Italy, while touring Europe. Back home in the U.S., he would marry Elizabeth Ann Bayley in 1794.

William became ill with tuberculosis, and when he could no longer function, he sought a cure in the better climate of Italy.

When Elizabeth, William and their daughter Annina landed in Italy, authorities feared yellow fever and quarantined the Setons in a cold stone tower.

The Filicchi family visited the Setons in the prison-like Lazaretto, bringing warm food. William would die soon after leaving quarantine, but Elizabeth was moved deeply by their hospitality. She was even more moved by their faith. The Filicchis took Elizabeth to see the many beautiful Italian churches and she learned the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist from them. Later, when Elizabeth returned to the states, the Filicchis were financially generous with her.

Elizabeth later reflected on what her benefactors did for her in a letter to Antonio Filicchi.

“Do you remember when you carried the poor little wandering sheep to the fold? and led it to the feet of its tender Shepherd?” she asked.

Then she shared a kind of litany of the service of Antonio:

  • “Whose warning voice first said ‘my Sister you are in the Broadway, and not in the right one?’ Antonio’s.
  • “Who begged me to seek the right one? Antonio!
  • “Who led me kindly, gently in it? Antonio.
  • “And when deceived and turning back, whose tender persevering charity withheld my erring steps and strengthened my fainting heart? Antonio’s.
  • “And who is my unfailing friend, protector, benefactor? Antonio.
  • “Antonio. Commissioned from on high. The Messenger of Peace, and instrument of Mercy. My God, My God, My God, reward him!”

It’s a beautiful list of what believers like Antonio Filicchi—and Venerable Jan Tyranowski—can do to deepen the faith of one person — and maybe of the whole world.

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.

Image: Jan Tyranowski. Public domain.

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