(OSV News) — Kamil Cierniak lived with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a terminal illness, for 26 years. He was fragile, he spoke with a delicate, weak voice and operated his electric wheelchair with one finger. But one thing was unbeatable in his life — his faith. It was this faith that brought him to the Sanctuary of Lourdes, France, in May 2015. Even though disabled himself, the young Polish student directed a documentary on other disabled people traveling to Lourdes for an annual May pilgrimage with the Order of Malta.
Kamil was born Aug. 28, 1993. “He was a tiny and very calm baby. We thought this is just his character,” Krystyna Cierniak, Kamil’s mother, told OSV News. She learned that her child was ill when he was 8 months old.
“I never took his disease as a cross. You can’t expect that everything will be great in your life, because that would be like hoping that someone else would get sick,” she said. “This would be unacceptable for a Christian.”
Krystyna did everything she could to make her son’s life as normal as possible. “He was exceptionally smart,” she said, so when the time came for him to go to college, she did not hesitate.
“He was planning to study remotely but then he saw a disabled student living in the dormitory with her mom,” she said, “and his face just lit with a smile — ‘Mom, we can do the same!'”
Given that Kamil’s older brothers were adults, Krystyna moved to the university’s dormitory with her youngest. She spent eight years living in a small dormitory room with her son, who first studied political science at the Jagiellonian University, then cognitive studies in the field of psychology, and finally philosophy at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland.
Kamil’s passion was editorial journalism. He published a blog, sharing thoughts filled with humor about the life of a disabled student. Once he described applying for a job as a flight attendant. “There is one problem,” he wrote in a job application. “I am disabled. But thanks to this, if — God forbid — something bad starts to happen during the flight, I will be a model of calm and self-control.”
He remembers fondly one flight of his own — one to Lourdes, France, to visit the beloved Marian shrine.
In April 2015, the Pontifical University of John Paul II approached Kamil to become a director of a documentary on the pilgrimage of the disabled to Lourdes.
Every year at the beginning of May, the month traditionally devoted to Mary, national associations of the Order of Malta travel to Lourdes with disabled pilgrims to the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous — a place that has become known for the medical miracles that sometimes result from an encounter with its waters.
Kamil and his cameraman friend, Jakub Stoszek, took on the challenge of producing a 30-minute documentary. As usual, Kamil traveled with his mom.
“Without the help of the Maltesers, and the support of the university, this trip would never be possible,” Krystyna told OSV News. “It had a huge impact on Kamil. I knew it, and I saw how poignant it was for him to be in this sacred place.”
Kamil’s wheelchair was too big to fit into the plane, so the airline delivered it the day after his arrival. That meant that for his first day in Lourdes, Kamil was in a hospital bed.
“Thanks to the Knights of Malta, on my hospital bed I was able to go and visit the Grotto, where the apparitions of the Virgin Mary happened. It was very meaningful to me, especially that a month before I would never think I would ever see this place on my own,” he wrote on his blog upon his return.
He continued: “On that same bed I was wheeled to Mass to the chapel of our hospital-hotel. At the end of Mass, during announcements, I was introduced as a participant of a journalistic team. Those present at Mass must have been really surprised that a reporter is actually lying on the hospital bed.”
“Well, someone needs to be the innovative one,” he quipped.
“The pilgrimage to Lourdes was for him a spiritual strengthening — a place to charge his batteries. My son had an amazing relationship with God. And he felt praying in Lourdes was an exceptional spiritual experience for him,” Krystyna said.
Kamil interviewed multiple dames and knights of the Order of Malta and the sick while producing the documentary. He told a story of the first international pilgrimage organized by the Order of Malta in 1958 (the centenary of Mary’s apparitions to Bernadette), during which women were dressed in old-fashioned nurse uniforms and men wore traditional national uniforms similar to those worn by the military. All of the participants take care of big groups of sick people that accompany them, making Lourdes a colorful mosaic of people united in prayer and service to others.
“During the international pilgrimage of the Order of Malta, Lourdes is really, really impressive,” Kamil wrote on his blog.
With his usual touch of a sense of humor, he concluded his blog post about Lourdes: “In a way, I was blessed with a miracle, as I returned to Poland without my wheelchair. Unfortunately, two days later, it made it home by bus.”
The documentary produced by Kamil was aired by Polish Television, a national public channel, during the church’s Year of Mercy in 2016.
“Kamil never complained,” his mother told OSV News. In November 2019, his father was diagnosed with brain cancer and died only a few weeks later. “It was devastating for Kamil; only a month after his dad passed away, on Christmas Eve, his condition gravely deteriorated,” she said.
Kamil spent the last three months of his life on a hospital bed, intubated and unable to breathe on his own.
“He was still cheering the hospital staff,” Krystyna told OSV News. “The ward would be full of laughter of his friends taking night shifts with him so I can sleep.”
“He would be writing with his eyes on a screen asking the nurses whether they are OK and whether they are not too tired. He always cared about others more than he cared about himself,” Krystyna remembered.
“One of the last messages he wrote to me was: ‘Mommy, put your head on the pillow and rest.'”
“One day he asked me, ‘Mom, can you please go to the store to pick up some sweets for doctors and nurses?’ It was a very brief errand and when I came back, a nurse rushed from his room and told me that my son had died,” Krystyna recalled.
“I could not believe it,” she said, “but later I learned from the doctor that kids rarely let their parents see their children’s death.”
Kamil died on April 18, 2020, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.
“I know Kamil is now with God, as I feel his presence with me all the time,” Krystyna said.
“He had a strength of faith that we all learned from him.”
Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.