c. 956 – 997
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: Red
Old, stodgy, traditional Catholic Europe in tension with new, liberal, flexible values is not a new dichotomy. A millennium ago the roles were reversed. It was old, stodgy, traditional pagan Europe in tension with new, groundbreaking, and progressive Christianity. As the missionary monks, abbots, and bishops of Europe fanned out, ever more north and east, into upper Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, and the Baltics, they met the painted chieftains and warrior tribes of old Europe, men tough as bark. These tribes of the forests offered sacrifice to their pagan idols in sacred groves under the broad canopies of large oaks, their only temples. They butchered prisoners of war, lived polygamously, and sprinkled the blood of their slain cattle on their bodies. Yet from the ninth through the eleventh centuries, missionaries began to shine the light of the Gospel into these dark lands. And Teutonic and Norse paganism, for all of its unwritten creeds of courage and manliness, was doomed. It was unable to resist the vital, solid, well-organized Catholic Church with its coherent monotheistic beliefs, beautiful worship, ethical code, and Gospel of love and respect for all.
But the Catholic Church does not arrive to a mission territory as a full fledged institution. The Church arrives in a person who embodies all that the Church teaches and symbolizes. This person is the Church to those he meets. Today’s saint was one of the first missionary bishops to penetrate into the lands of Prussia, in north eastern Germany. And for daring to preach the Gospel to coarse men he was murdered on the coast of the Baltic Sea at the command of a pagan priest upset at the disruptions Adalbert caused. St. Adalbert’s body was ransomed for its weight in gold by a Polish king and returned to Poland. He was eventually canonized as St. Adalbert of Prague, as he was born and raised in Bohemia. He remains a saint equally claimed by both the Polish and Czech people.
Courageous men like St. Adalbert don’t just happen. They are forged over time in red hot fires. Adalbert had a long, difficult, and interesting career before losing his life for the faith. He was baptized as Vojtěch. But he was so impressed with the saintly German Bishop, named Adalbert, who taught him that he took his tutor’s name at Confirmation. Adalbert was then named Bishop of Prague at a young age, and challenged the people of his diocese as they slowly shed their pre-Christian customs and learned what it meant to be true children of God. Bishop Adalbert had a strong temperament which led him to abandon his diocese twice and flee to Rome. But he always returned to the north: to the Czech people, to Hungary, and to Poland. He was a pan Slavic Bishop equipped to evangelize throughout central and eastern Europe. The rough Prussian people who murdered Adalbert were not fully conquered and converted until 1239, when the Teutonic Knights planted themselves in that land more than two hundred year after St. Adalbert’s death. Yet somebody had to take the first step on the long journey of converting them. Somebody had to first hear “no” before someone unknown, much later, heard “yes.” And that man was Adalbert. His body absorbed the blows so that other bodies could walk safely. His suffering and death proved that he, an educated Bishop, was just as sturdy and brave as the rugged men he tried to convert.
St. Adalbert, we ask that you intercede before God to make all missionaries as courageous as you were, and willing to place themselves in difficult situations for the good of the Church. With your example to inspire us, we will all be brave witnesses to the fact that death is sometimes preferable to life.
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