Today in a small village in Poland Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, beatified an entire family.

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their children, massacred by the Nazis on March 24, 1944—the day before the Annunciation and the same day as St. Óscar Romero’s martyrdom thirty-six years later—were murdered for hiding eight Jews in their home. Their beatification is thus a banner event in Catholic-Jewish relations; the Chief Rabbi of Poland is present for the observances and the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See praised the Ulmas the other day, while warning against using their story for “historical revisionism.” (This would, at least to my mind, seem to be a side-swipe at the current Polish government’s practice of selectively elevating stories of Polish Holocaust rescuers in order to obscure the fact that there were also Poles who were complicit.) The Ulmas, like St. Maximilian Kolbe and some other World War II-era martyrs, were killed out of a genocidal hatred of Jews, and by extension of human values, rather than hatred of Catholics in the traditional sense. This is a development in the Church’s understanding of martyrdom that is probably still underexplored.

This is also the first time that an entire family has been raised to the altars en masse and the first time that an unbaptized baby has been beatified. Until the family’s recent exhumation it was thought that the Ulmas’ seventh child would be the first beatified fetus; the exhumation established that in fact Wiktoria Ulma went into labor during the massacre and the baby was born and died in the same moment. It’s remarkable either way, because as Paul Fahey pointed out in his announcement about the Ulmas yesterday, it wasn’t so long ago that unbaptized babies weren’t even allowed Catholic burials in many parishes.

Canonization of saints and beatification of beati is one of the main processes by which the Catholic Church holds up exemplars to the faithful and thus one of the main processes by which the sensus fidelium develops through the ages. Although saints don’t need to have led exemplary lives in every respect, the fact that someone has been canonized does imply that something about their biographies is being recommended for emulation. With the Ulma family the faithful have a new series of exemplars for holy family life and holy life in service to others, even others whom Catholic culture has often unjustly condemned in the past.

Image: Wiktoria Ulma, six of her and Józef’s children, and some sheep.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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