Saints for Our Times: St. Adalbert is patron of Bohemia, Poland

By Mary Lou Gibson

Columnist

There was never any doubt about what Adalbert of Prague would do with his life. His parents offered him to God as a priest if he survived a serious illness in his childhood. So when Adalbert, who was christened Wojciech, recovered his health, he was sent to study under Archbishop Adalbert of Magdeburg.

This sainted archbishop, who would later be canonized in his own right, gave the young student his own name at confirmation. This all took place in the late 900s in the Central European region of Bohemia, now the western part of the Czech Republic. Adalbert was born in 956, the youngest son of Duke Slavnic of Libice.

The archbishop died in 981 and young Adalbert returned to Prague and was ordained a priest two years later. The young priest’s outlook on life was changed when he saw his bishop die despairing that he had neglected his spiritual duties in favor of wealth, honors and pleasure.

An account in the Catholic News Agency reports that Adalbert immediately resolved to live his own life in a more penitential spirit. Biographer Paul Burns writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that Adalbert was amiable and somewhat worldly, but after the bishop’s death, he began to take his religion and duties far more seriously.

He was consecrated as bishop of Prague in 983 just months after becoming a priest. Adalbert entered Prague barefoot and was enthusiastically welcomed by Duke Boleslaus II, the clergy and the people. The warm reception soon cooled, however, as Adalbert proposed several steps to reform the finances of his diocese and convert the Bohemian pagans.

Some report pagan beliefs were deeply embedded in the people of Bohemia and Adalbert made little progress in their conversion. He especially resented the participation of baptized Christians in the slave trade. There was also some political intrigue between Adalbert’s family and Boleslaus. This involved a noblewoman caught in adultery. Burns writes that she sought sanctuary in a convent, but was dragged out and killed. Adalbert upheld the church’s right to give sanctuary and excommunicated everyone who was involved.

Frustrated and very disappointed, Bishop Adalbert resigned, left Prague and went to Rome where he joined the Benedictine monastery of Saints Boniface and Alexius. But he was not done with Prague.

He came back about five years later and again the people welcomed him warmly and promised to change their ways. Sadly, they did not keep their promises and Adalbert left again and asked the pope to give him a roving missionary brief.

For the next several years, Adalbert traveled on mission trips to Hungary, Poland and Germany. Rosemary Guiley writes in the "Encyclopedia of Saints" that Adalbert had considerable influence among many of the people he visited. He was friends with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and in his Hungarian mission, he taught King Stephen I, who would later be canonized as St. Stephen of Hungary. Adalbert is considered a pioneer in taking Christianity to Northeastern Europe.

He found time to compose several Czech and Polish hymns in the vernacular and Guiley credits him with writing the Polish battle song, "Boga – Rodzica."

Then Pope Gregory V ordered him to resume his duties as the bishop of Prague. When he arrived, the citizens defied him openly and feeling himself to be in danger, he left.

So Adalbert decided to begin a mission in Poland and Northeastern Germany. The Catholic News Agency reports that he was successful in converting many, but that he eventually ran into the same hostility that had driven him from Prague.

One of the practices that Adalbert preached against was the native practice of tree worship. It is reported that it was a standard procedure of Christian missionaries to try to cut down sacred oak trees. The people believed that spirits inhabited the trees and these were feared for their powers. The missionaries cut down the trees to show that no supernatural powers protected the trees from the Christians.

Adalbert was warned to stay away from the sacred oak groves. He disregarded the warning and with two companions set out in 997 to preach near Gdansk in Poland. They were escorted by soldiers of Poland’s new ruler, Boleslaus I. The Prussians regarded Adalbert and his companions as Polish spies and killed them when they refused to abandon their mission. Their martyrdom took place on April 23, 997, on the Baltic Sea coast near Tenkitten.

Adalbert’s body was recovered and buried at Gniezno, which in 1000 became the first permanent Polish bishopric. It was later moved to Prague in 1029.

Burns writes that Adalbert is venerated as a bishop, monk and martyr. His life was marked by the blurring of the roles of church and state that were the norm for life in medieval Europe. He is the patron of Bohemia, Poland, Hungary and Prussia.

April 1997 was the thousandth anniversary of St. Adalbert’s martyrdom. It was commemorated in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Russia and other countries. Blessed John Paul II visited Gniezno and held a ceremonial divine service there attended by more than a million people.

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