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Catholic Heroes . . . St. John of Nepomuk (Nepomucen)

May 14, 2020 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

“A humble Confession displeases Satan and, if he could, he would make you omit Holy Communion” — The Imitation of Christ.

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The devoted patron saint of both Slovakia and Bohemia, St. John Nepomuk is lovingly remembered on his feast day, May 16. Few others would be so identified with Slavic countries, other than the “Apostles of the Slavs,” Saints Cyril and Methodius.
His name is a corruption of St. John of Nepomuk, his Bohemian village birthplace, in today’s Czech Republic. In the fourteenth-century borders were constantly changing and oh so different: The Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of the Romans . . . and the Holy Roman Empire!
The head of all three was King Charles I of Bohemia, known as Charles IV of the Most Holy Roman Empire.
A direct descendant of the saint, “Good King Wenceslaus,” King Charles launched the Golden Age of Bohemia, an era when Prague and not Paris was a capital. Why should we remember him today? At the request of Pope Clement VI, he founded the University of Prague, would commission the famed golden reliquary housing the relics of Charlemagne, and would build St. Vitus Cathedral — where St. John Nepomuk would later be buried.
He would build the St. Charles Bridge, where a statue honoring St. John Nepomuk’s martyrdom has existed since 1683. But sadly this king would die just five years after St. John Nepomuk’s Ordination to the priesthood. His passing in 1378 brought a far from pious successor. History does not look kindly on the memory of his 16-year-old son, King Wenceslaus IV. “Wenceslaus the Lazy,” as he was known, was cruel, drunken, vicious, debauched, and eventually deposed, as well.
St. John of Nepomuk came from an area known as Zelená Hora. Reportedly sickly when young, his health improved and he would first leave home to study Latin, intent on becoming a priest. Years later, studying both in Prague and Padua, he earned a doctorate in canon law. Once home, he quickly gained a reputation as a good preacher and was assigned variously to the parishes St. Aegidius in Prague, then Wyschehrad (Vysehrad), near the city fortifications.
Next came a parish assignment at St. Gallus. And then he was raised to the position of archdeacon in Sasz — a medieval post second only to the bishop at that time — while also stationed at the Cathedral of St. Vitus.
The year 1393 saw Archbishop Jan of Jenzenstein (Jensleyn) lastly appoint him head of the ecclesiastical court and his own vicar general.
We can assume around this time St. John Nepomuk also became confessor to Queen Sophie, the king’s second wife.
It would be his last year on Earth.

The King Targets The Church

Not only was Wenceslaus clearly an enemy of the Church, he hated the Sacrament of Penance especially. How do we know?
He supported the false pope of Avignon and ordered Bohemian clergy to do the same;
He wished to usurp the Church’s freedom, attempting (and failing) to create his own diocese with his own bishop;
He supported the excommunicated priest and heretic Jan Hus; and
He ordered St. John Nepomuk to break the seal of the confessional, and tell him what his wife had confessed. Nepomuk refused.
When a certain Abbot Rarek of Kladrau died, King Wenceslaus planned to declare the abbey a cathedral, and ordered that he be allowed to create a new diocese and install his own bishop. Nepomuk protested. When the abbot passed away, the monks moved swiftly to elect their new abbot as usual, with St. John immediately stamping his approval.
By the time the king discovered anything, it was “done and dusted” and he flew into a rage. Among the four churchmen he arrested, imprisoned, and tortured was St. John. The others were released alive, but St. John was the most grievously injured, tortured with fire.
The king already sought an occasion to rid himself of the man who dared uphold the sacred seal of the confessional. He had the badly injured priest bound with chains and thrown over the edge of the St. Charles Bridge. Many reported seeing five stars floating over the water of the Moldau until the drowned body of the martyr was removed, to be buried in St. Vitus Cathedral.
“Reconciliation itself is a benefit that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded with all her moral and legal might, with the sacramental seal. Although it is not always understood by the modern mentality, it is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the freedom of the conscience of the penitent…and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor [may] lay any claim to it” — Pope Francis, June 21, 2019.
Over the years there have been attempts to discredit St. John Nepomuk and by extension, the Church’s truthfulness. Some argue there were two John Nepomuks, as if to say his martyrdom is a fable. Others write that the Jesuits embellished his history — as if there were not plenty of Jesuit saints already and why the Jesuits anyway, founded centuries later?
And lastly there is the tired debate this was just Church vs. state, that poor St. John Nepomuk was a victim of circumstances, a tragic figure caught in the middle. No, St. John’s sacrifice was very real, and he must have known the danger in actively resisting the sinful demands of the king.
New Advent states that four documents from the time of his death exist, and all show his contemporaries recognized his martyrdom. The archbishop referred to his former vicar general as a “martyr sanctus” (holy martyr) and Nepomuk’s chaplain named him “a glorious martyr sparkling with miracles.”

Postlude

St. John Nepomuk’s tomb was opened as part of his cause for beatification and canonization on April 14, 1719. Uncovering his bones, they found flesh in his mouth. It was believed to be his incorrupt tongue. Immediately a church was built to house the remains at Zelená Hora. It was uniquely designed with architectural elements incorporating the number five over and over to symbolize: the five wounds of Christ, the five stars that were seen floating over the Moldau, and the five letters, “Tacui,” meaning in Latin, “I kept silent.”
One source mentions that in 1973 an examination of the saint’s body was undertaken by a presumed expert in forensics. He found the remains were characteristic to those of a middle-aged man, showing violent injury to the bones, but the flesh was found to be brain matter, not Nepomuk’s tongue. But last year in Europe a loose facial reconstruction of the saint was done. Sadly it was not based on the skull, merely following what was described in Vicek’s report.
With today’s fascination with all things forensic, what lessons would this saint’s body tell us now?
Here are the crucial dates regarding St. John Nepomuk and his path to sainthood: He died on March 20, 1393, was beatified on May 31, 1721, and he was canonized: March 19, 1729.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. . . . During this pandemic, the inability to access the sacraments is a terrible tragedy. For those who may not be able to see a priest, those fearing mortal danger should ask pardon of God with perfect contrition (out of love for God, not out or fear), and beg God’s mercy, if it should come, for a holy death. As we should daily say in the rosary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

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