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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Wenceslaus

January 12, 2021 saints No Comments


Good King Wenceslaus, originally a duke, was born in Bohemia, in today’s Czech Republic, during the tenth century. (The former Czechoslovakia was composed of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia; Slovakia is now its own country.) His father was an honorable Christian, but died or was killed in battle when Wenceslaus was only about 13. His mother, Drahomira, was instead a pagan, and had her other son, Boleslaus, raised likewise. In contrast, Wenceslaus was largely cared for by his grandmother, also a saint, St. Ludmila.
She and her husband were Bohemia’s first Christian rulers, converted by the famous saints Cyril and, specifically, Methodius, known across Eastern Europe as the “Apostles of the Slavs.” It was St. Ludmila who determined that Wenceslaus, who would next rule when he came of age, would be Christian. Indeed, she was assisted in this task by her chaplain, who had been a personal disciple of St. Methodius. It was said that Wenceslaus “understood Latin as if he were a bishop and read Slavonic with ease” (Butler’s Lives).
History has been universal in condemning Drahomira, who was perhaps envious of Ludmila’s influence. It is said that she was determined to erase the influence of Christianity and persecuted the Church, and even had her mother-in-law, St. Ludmila, strangled. This was about five years before Wenceslaus was able to assert himself when he reached 18 and, with the help of others, ascended the throne.
St. Ludmila was canonized not long after her death and her grandson moved her remains to St. George’s Basilica in Prague. Meanwhile his mother was sent into exile. At a later date she was invited back to court by Wenceslaus and caused no more trouble.
During those turbulent times, so long ago, Christianity was considered new and those of pagan persuasion were often hostile. However, Wenceslaus was determined to keep the peace as best he could.
There are varying accounts as to differing dates in the events of his biography; after all, these events happened a millennium ago.
However, Wenceslaus was considered a good ruler, making peace with Germans and keeping the Magyar invaders at bay. At one point, some profiles of Wenceslaus state civil unrest broke out in the country, led by a Count Radislas. Not wishing to spill the blood of any men, Wenceslaus challenged Radislas to a man-to-man fight with the winner taking all. After agreeing, Wenceslaus approached Radislas flanked by two angels, who warned him, “Stand off!” At which point Radislas naturally dropped to the ground, asking for mercy. He was promptly forgiven.
“Vaclav the Good,” as his name is sometimes translated, is also the subject of the oldest Czech song, “Svaty Vaclave” or “St. Wenceslaus.” Dating to the tenth century, over centuries it has been both hymn and anthem to the Bohemians. At one point, in 1918, it was weighed as a possible national anthem and while not chosen, during times of uprising — for instance during the Nazi occupation — it would be played along with the nation’s anthem at times of protest.
During his reign, Wenceslaus was devoted both to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. It is said he had rather been a monk than a ruler! He also was known for his charitable works toward the poor, children and widows, as celebrated in the famous Christmas hymn, known to all. It is said that bringing alms one night, barefoot, he was assisted by a servant who complained of the bitter cold. Wenceslaus advised him to walk in his footsteps which had warmed the snow, and the servant was never cold again.
Some accounts state he remained chaste and unmarried, while others infer he had a son which caused family ill will in disinheriting his pagan brother. Whatever the case, in 935, brother Boleslaus plotted the end of Wenceslaus. On the Feast of Saints Cosmos and Damian he invited him to celebrate with him in the town of Stara Boleslav. This he did, but after leaving the meal to pray in the Church of Saints Cosmos and Damian, Wenceslaus was attacked and murdered by his brother on September 28. As he died from the fatal blow, his last words were ones of forgiveness for his brother. (September 28 is now the feast day of St. Wenceslaus.)
Following his death, Otto I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, posthumously named Wenceslaus a king. He was universally acclaimed both saint and martyr after his death, and there were so many miracles his brother was frightened and moved his remains to St. Vitus Cathedral. Otto also saw that protections for Catholics remained and were not abolished by the pagans.

“Martyr Of Christ”

Today on the site of his martyrdom St. Wenceslaus Basilica remains, built on the site and combined with the ancient church where St. Wenceslaus died. Several times cardinal archbishops of Prague have allowed the skull of the saint to be brought to this location from St. Vitus in Prague, for veneration and prayers during an annual pilgrimage.
In September of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI would be among those who paid homage to his relics, calling him a “martyr for Christ.” Indeed, despite the sheer number of countless saints in history, an altar in St. Peter’s Basilica is dedicated to St. Wenceslaus; why him, among so many?
Perhaps as Pope Benedict said, “This is the lesson we can learn from St. Wenceslaus, who had the courage to prefer the Kingdom of Heaven to the enticement of worldly power. His gaze never moved away from Jesus Christ, who suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps.” The Pontiff also pointed out that the crown of Bohemia is still named for St. Wenceslaus, having been created by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. And beware! For it is said that any usurper who wears the crown will not survive the year.
Anglican John Mason Neale, who wished to bring honor to the saints and other Catholic traditions back into the Anglican faith, wrote the lovely and popular Christmas carol we have heartily sung since the 1800s. It is also said — and this is the stuff legends are made of — that in times of danger, knights sleep under the mountains at Blanik, Bohemia. Commanded by St. Wenceslaus, they will awake if the motherland is ever in danger, and conquer in righteousness, bringing peace and goodness back to their land.
In any case, let us pray to this holy martyr, whose feast is a yet national holiday in the formerly Communist Czech Republic.

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