The Tailor-Mystic Who Inspired a Pope
The Tailor-Mystic Who Inspired a Pope

The Tailor-Mystic Who Inspired a Pope

Clare Anderson FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2014

Among the priests of his time, Pope John Paul II was unusual in that he owed much of his spiritual formation to lay people. His lack of clericalism was doubtless due to the influence of his father and, later, of a Krakow artisan with a gift for teaching the spiritual life. Clare Anderson co-authored John Paul II, Man of Prayer, which is due out in May. She will also shortly co-present an EWTN series on the influences that shaped the life and work of Blessed John Paul II.

“It’s not difficult to be a saint!”

Nothing very surprising about that sentence, you might think, although the reality might be a struggle for most of us. But in 1935, when spoken from the pulpit to a Sunday congregation in Krakow, the idea was revolutionary to at least one hearer. Sanctity was for priests and religious. Lay people could aspire to great goodness by going to Mass, saying their prayers and doing good to others. What else was there? Yet that Salesian priest made it sound almost easy…. For the fair-haired young man with the intense expression, hearing these words was to change his life.

Jan Leopold Tyranowski was born in Krakow in 1901 into a middle-class household. His father owned a tailoring workshop but the family had other plans for their elder son. Jan duly became an accountant, a discipline which suited his orderly mind. An introvert and a loner, he liked to walk the Beskid mountains on his own and indulge his talent for photography. Everything interested him, from science and gardening to learning foreign languages. He also took an interest in the new science of psychology, especially the emerging theories of personality types. Rumour later had it that he had received psychiatric treatment himself.

“He was one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvellous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns. He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. In his words...''

In 1930 a chronic stomach ailment, possibly worsened by stress, compelled him to give up accountancy and join his father’s tailoring business. Working from home, he was much happier than in an office of people. His faith began to deepen and he joined Catholic Action, becoming a familiar face at parish events. Yet despite all this “busyness” he still felt that something was missing.

Then came the sermon in 1935 with its irresistible challenge. Tyranowski suddenly knew that to be a saint was his vocation and he felt called to deeper conversion. Thirsting for greater union with God in his spiritual life, he approached one of the parish priests for advice. It is greatly to this priest’s credit that he was able to give excellent help. He lent Tyranowski a manual of prayer commonly used in seminaries at that time, Ascetical and Mystical Theology by Adolphe Tanqueray, which Tyranowski devoured, coming back for more. Finally he came across the works of St Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The work of this last writer was to be Jan’s constant companion until his death 12 years later.

John of the Cross is not an easy read; his poetry is highly symbolic. Whether writing in poetry or prose, St John’s topic is prayer beyond the beginning – at that point where consolations dry up and the first fervour of the spiritual life has worn off. His remedy is complete detachment from everything that is not God: “If you desire that devotion be born in your spirit and that the love of God and the desire for divine things increase, cleanse your soul of every desire, attachment and ambition in such a way that you have no concern about anything” (Sayings of Light and Love 28).

Becoming detached from possessions, the soul mysteriously gains a clearer knowledge of them, and a better understanding and appreciation of them. The soul that is no longer intent on possessing things finds a freedom of spirit, and curiously “those whose joy is unpossessive of things rejoice in them all as though they possessed them all” (Ascent of Mount Carmel). St John’s message is clear: to possess God fully, you must desire God and God alone and pursue only those things that lead to him.

Tyranowski, possibly because he was supporting his mother, became intent on living the contemplative life in the lay state. Shortly after hearing the sermon he took a vow of chastity, and, convinced that God was calling him to a more hidden life, began to detach himself from church activities. At the same time, his accountant’s mind organised a daily routine according to a quasi-monastic rule. A fragment of card from 1941 shows something of this. He rose at 5am and attended early Mass with Holy Communion, followed by spiritual reading and the rosary. A frugal breakfast would be followed by more prayer and reading, including Scripture. At 2pm he would start his work, meditating on the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Dinner was at 5.30pm, followed by the Angelus and more meditation and reading. Bed would follow at 8.30 pm.

Such a regime might seem oppressively prescriptive but it suited Tyranowski so well that his confessor Alexander Drozd later described him as a spiritual mountaineer, so advanced in the spiritual life that he was difficult to direct. The Salesians of St Stanislaus Kostka parish would say “Look, there goes the saint” and “The glory of God dwells in Rozana Street” (where Tyranowski lived at number 11). In his chosen way of life, Tyranowski practised the presence of God both in work and in prayer. This would have been almost impossible in a busy office.

Earning one’s living by simple manual work while being constantly mindful of God is of course not new; the desert fathers wove baskets while they prayed. In one of the paradoxes that surround the spiritual life, the ascetic, having reached spiritual maturity and wisdom, would find himself attracting followers who went to him for guidance and advice. He would become what the Eastern church calls a “staretz”. Tyranowski certainly never entertained any ideas about advising others; by temperament and inclination he was a loner. If the life of a tailor working from home was chosen to facilitate his prayer life, it is also possible that his choice was a convenient one for an introvert with little self-confidence. Had he chosen his hidden lifestyle as a way of avoiding having to deal with people?

The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 would change his life in more ways than one. Eleven of the Salesians in the parish were to die in concentration camps; only a couple of elderly priests were left to take charge. The church today bears witness to the terrible sacrifice; a row of faces, forever young, gaze down from the walls of the side chapel. A successful preached retreat in 1940 had led to a discussion group and afterwards there was a feeling in the parish that the momentum should not be lost. Something permanent was needed, but by then the priests were already stretched to the limit.

In the days when priests were plentiful, parish work was solely a clerical responsibility, but now one third of all priests in Krakow had been deported. Towards the Salesians, whose special charism is work with youth, the Nazis were especially ruthless. In what might be called an early example of collaborative ministry Jan Tyranowski was asked to form a Living Rosary group among the youth of the parish. Jan was initially terrified, protesting that  he was no speaker and wouldn’t know how to communicate with young people. Do not be afraid, the Lord will help you, he was told.

And so Jan would wait by the church door, observing the young men as they attended Mass, silently discerning who would be suitable for his Living Rosary. He cut a strange figure, with his rather high voice and intense manner; many of the young people thought him odd, a religious eccentric. Several times he was suspected of being a German spy.

The Living Rosary group met in the parish church to pray the rosary together. In addition, small cells of 15 young men would be formed, under a leader who reported back to Tyranowski; one of these leaders was Karol Wojtyla. Each member had to pray one specified decade of the rosary daily – so each cell would cover the entire rosary every day. As well as this, Tyranowski began to meet with members individually in his apartment for direction; he was concerned about the spiritual well-being of everyone in the group entrusted to him, giving generously of his time. Using his wisdom and powers of discernment, Tyranowski was able to lead many young people into a deeper relationship with Christ. He recommended books, different ones to different people, in accordance with their temperament and level of spiritual attainment

It is interesting how sometimes God works through his enemies, using them unwittingly to do his will. By depriving the St Stanislaus Kostka parish of most of its priests, the Nazis gave it Jan Tyranowski, who discovered that he had a talent for nurturing souls. His apostolate numbered a few hundred at most, and had Karol Wojtyla not been among its members, no one outside Krakow would ever have heard of Tyranowski or his work. Yet his influence was profound. From among the members of his Living Rosary group came 11 vocations, including a future pope.

The Holy Father would never forget the influence Tyranowski had on him; he had a small picture of him in his bedroom in the Apostolic Palace and credited him with bringing his vocation to fruition at a time when he wanted to be an actor. He would write: “He was one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvellous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns. 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” (from Be Not Afraid!, a book-length interview with André Frossard).

Mieczyslaw Malinski (Pope John Paul II: The Life of My Friend Karol Wojtyla, 1979) describes a rather fusty apartment, the sitting room full of ancient furniture, books, old portraits and pictures. People came in groups or singly. It was in this place that the young Karol Wojtyla would be introduced to John of the Cross and told that anyone can be a saint. As he was with himself, Tyranowski was a hard taskmaster – a notebook was to be ruled with columns under headings such as “Scripture reading”, “Morning prayer”, “Afternoon recreation” etc. Each day the columns would be filled with a tick or a cross and once a week the list would be discussed with Tyranowski.

It is easy to imagine that the young Wojtyla, the child of an army officer, would have taken to this manly, no‑nonsense approach. In any case, the intention was not to enforce a military-style routine, but to lead each young person into a continual encounter with God. When Malinski mentioned Tyranowski’s oddness to his friend, Wojtyla replied protectively that he seemed the most normal person in the world.

Karol’s father died in 1941. He had no immediate family left and now no country either; under the shadow of the Nazis and their daily cruelty he must have felt utterly alone and bereft. However, Tyranowski may have stepped in as a tentative father-figure. The two certainly became good friends. They were a familiar sight, walking side by side along the bank of the Vistula river talking about the things of God. When Karol laboured at the chemical plant outside Krakow during the German occupation, Tyranowski would sometimes accompany him on the long walk to work in the early morning. It was safer to discuss religious matters in this way, with no eavesdroppers around.

It’s hard to forget the conversations with him. One of these that remains in my memory was a time when this simple man, who complained to his confessor that he does not know how to speak, talked late into the night about the nature of God and indeed what life with God is. He didn’t quote others’ words but drew on his own experiences… he was the apostle of God’s greatness, the beauty of God, the transcendence of God. (John Paul II, My Friends, Rome 1993)

Jan Tyranowski was not to be present at the ordination of his friend in November 1946. That year he had developed tuberculosis in his arm, and it had spread throughout his body. The arm was amputated, but the disease could not be stopped. After a long and agonising illness borne without complaint, he died on 15 March 1947, embracing the crucifix. Sadly his spiritual son, Karol Wojtyla, was abroad at the time. In his memoir Gift and Mystery, the Pope wrote that his friend was given the death that he had wished for. To surrender one’s life in this way as a spiritual offering for others takes a heroism that is beyond most of us.

In 1997 the cause for his canonisation was opened by the Salesians and the remains of the brave little tailor were taken from his family vault and placed in the church of St Stanislaus Kostka in the Debniki district of Krakow. They are kept in a casket inside a glass case. The house at 11 Rozana Street has a small plaque indicating that he once lived there, but it is now a children’s hospice and can only be seen from outside.

Malinski would write: “I can safely say that if it wasn’t for him neither Wojtyla nor I would have become priests.”


Servant of God Jan Tyranowski, pray for us.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2014