1030 – 1079
Memorial: Liturgical Color: Red
For many centuries the coronation ritual of a king was considered to be a Sacrament of the Church. Such was the importance of the king’s role in protecting and disseminating the faith in his realm that he was accorded liturgical honors and rituals similar to the ordination rite of a bishop. The sacramental character of a king’s coronation was theologically accepted enough that it did not extend to the ritual by which a woman became a queen. Only a man could be crowned, in the same way that only a man could receive Holy Orders. The parallel duties which kings and bishops owed to both Church and Kingdom sometimes led to irresolvable conflicts. Bishops resented kings infringing upon ecclesiastical affairs while kings resented bishops meddling in civil matters. As civil and religious life was, until very modern times, utterly intermingled in most cultures, the high tensions generated by the nearly co-equal powers and responsibilities of kings and bishops inevitably led to bloodshed.
Today’s saint’s blood was spilled precisely due to such high tension. St. Stanislaus was the Bishop of Krakow in southern Poland in the century just after that nation entered the Church through the conversion of its king. St. Stanislaus had various and serious disputes with King Bolesław II; over property, over a war, and over the King’s moral failings. This led to Stanislaus excommunicating Bolesław, in seeming support of the King’s enemies. Bolesław was outraged by Stanislaus’ sanction and labelled him a traitor to the nation. He proceeded to seek his blood. But the henchmen the King sent to assassinate Stanislaus refused to carry out the deed. So King Bolesław murdered Bishop Stanislaus with his own hands, perhaps as he was celebrating Mass. Stanislaus was immediately venerated as a martyr and, a century and half after his death, his relics were transferred to the Wawel Cathedral complex in the heart of Krakow. For centuries Polish kings were crowned at the splendid tomb of the martyr. He is one of the patron saints of Poland, being especially venerated in the city and diocese of Krakow.
On November 1, 1946 a young Polish man named Karol Wojtyla, in love with God and his country, was ordained a priest for the diocese of Krakow. He went on to become a successor of St. Stanislaus as Archbishop of Krakow, then a Cardinal, then Pope John Paul II, and then a saint. Pope John Paul II had a great devotion to St. Stanislaus and often prayed at his tomb. The Pope even planned his first pastoral trip to Poland to coincide exactly with the 900th anniversary of the death of the saint. He missed the exact date of martyrdom, due to a lack of cooperation from the communist government, but he didn’t miss the year. 1979 turned out to be a pivotal year for Poland because the papal trip unleashed various social movements that brought down communism a decade later. So the memory of St. Stanislaus played a remote role in conquering a deeply unjust modern government.
Many details about the life of St. Stanislaus are lost in the fog of the past. Only a basic outline of his life is possible. But his heroic example, precisely as a bishop, gave Karol Wojtyla a very real model to follow in his own life as a Polish bishop and Pope in far different circumstances of civil and ecclesiastical tension than those of the eleventh century. We can speculate that on May 13, 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot, and almost killed, by an assassin’s bullet, he thought of the attack which ended St. Stanislaus’ life so many centuries prior. Civil and Church power still clash. Thank God for the Church, Pope John Paul II survived, perhaps through the intercession of the great patron of Poland we celebrate today.
St. Stanislaus, you fearlessly confronted those who threatened the well-being of the Church, and so gave a heroic example of martyrdom to an entire nation. Help all who seek your intercession to be as brave and forthright as you in the face of threats and adversity.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
STANISLAS was born in answer to prayer when his parents were advanced in age. Out of gratitude they educated him for the Church, and from a holy priest he became in time Bishop of Cracow. Boleslas II. was then King of Poland—a prince of good disposition, but spoilt by a long course of victory and success. After many acts of lust and cruelty, he outraged the whole kingdom by carrying off the wife of one of his nobles. Against this public scandal the chaste and gentle bishop alone raised his voice. Having commended the matter to God, he went down to the palace and openly rebuked the king for his crime against God and his subjects, and threatened to excommunicate him if he persisted in his sin. To slander the Saint’s character, Boleslas suborned the nephews of one Paul, lately dead, to swear that their uncle had never been paid for land bought by the bishop for the Church. The Saint stood fearlessly before the king’s tribunal, though all his witnesses forsook him, and guaranteed to bring the dead man to witness for him within three days. On the third day, after many prayers and tears, he raised Paul to life, and led him in his grave-clothes before the king. Boleslas made a show for a while of a better life. Soon, however, he relapsed into the most scandalous excesses, and the bishop, finding all remonstrance useless, pronounced the sentence of excommunication. In defiance of the censure, on May 8, 1079, the king went down to a chapel where the bishop himself was saying Mass, and sent in three companies of soldiers to dispatch him at the altar. Each in turn came out, saying they had been scared by a light from heaven. Then the king rushed in and slew the Saint at the altar with his own hand.
Reflection.—The safest correction of vice is a blameless life. Yet there are times when silence would make us answerable for the sins of others. At such times let us, in the name of God, rebuke the offender without fear.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.