Saint Stanislaus, two sad comparisons, and the fall of Communism

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A central part of any visit to Krakow is a visit to the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill. It is some years now since I walked around it on a cold and foggy late November evening. I remember the thrilling sense that here, every stone is Poland.

The Wawel Cathedral is of enormous significance to the Polish people. Most importantly of all, it has the altar and sarcophagus of Saint Stanislaus, the Bishop who defied a King. Saint Stanislaus 1030-1079 was Bishop of Kracow at a time when Christianity was still being established in Poland. The faith was only brought to the country after the preaching of Saint Methodius in Moldavia. Saint Stanislaus furthered the early growth of Christianity in Poland significantly by getting the King, Boleslaw II the Bold, to establish Benedictine monasteries. He contributed even more to the Christianisation of Poland by his martyrdom.

The dispute with Boleslaw began with a legal case over the ownership of land. Saint Stanislaus spectacularly provided new evidence in the case by raising a crucial witness from the dead temporarily, so that he could appear in court in his favour. After a further dispute over Boleslaw’s cruelty and sexual immorality, Saint Stanislaus excommunicated the King. One provision of the sentence was that the canons were not to sing the office in the Wawel Cathedral in case the King attended. In a striking counterpoint to the martyrdom of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Boleslaw sent his men to kill Saint Stanislaus but they refused, and the king killed him personally while he was celebrating Mass.

The veneration of Saint Stanislaus in Poland is rather like the veneration of Saint Thomas Becket in England, except that it has continued, and the shrine is still there, unlike the shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury which was destroyed by King Henry VIII and the spoils carted off to enrich his obliging yes-men. If you want to get an idea of what the veneration of St Thomas Becket was like, visit the altar of St Stanislaus on his feast day (if indeed you can get within half a mile of it.)

The Wawel Cathedral is also the burial site for most of the Polish monarchs, and for many other national figures. Here, you find the tomb of John III Sobieski who defeated the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Vienna in 1683 when, at the head of a vastly outnumbered army, he led a cavalry charge down the hillside to win the day and earn Pope Innocent XI’s acclamation as “Saviour of Vienna and Western European civilization.”

Americans will want to remember Tadeusz Kościuszko, also buried in the Cathedral. He is a hero in the USA because of the part he played in the American War of Independence. He was an engineer and supervised the construction of some of the fortifications at West Point. In 1783 he was promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental Army.

Thinking also of the tomb of Adam Mickiewicz, the great poet of Poland inevitably invites an English Catholic to think of Westminster Abbey and Poets’ Corner, and to experience a pang of regret for the loss of faith in England. Again, if you want to know what Westminster Abbey would feel like if England were still as enthusiastically Catholic as it was before the Reformation, take a trip to the Cathedral in Krakow. We might also offer a fond prayer for Poland that the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, which remained a place of Catholic worship throughout the Reformation and the Stalinist era, will never suffer the fate of falling into non-Catholic hands.

Today I celebrated Mass for the feast of Saint Stanislaus which falls on this day in the older calendar. Reading about him this morning, I found that fear of his powerful influence remained nine hundred years after his martyrdom. In 1979, the Polish Communist Party refused to allow the visit of Saint John Paul to coincide with the feast of Saint Stanislaus, making sure that it took place a month or so later. Nevertheless, the Party issued a memo, warning activists that the pope would try to make Saint Stanislaus “the patron of the opposition to the authorities and the defender of human rights.”

Saint John Paul did not, of course, offer any explicit opposition to the Communist authorities in his addresses. He simply hammered out again and again and again the Christian message, especially as it applied to the social order; and with the delicious discretion of not mentioning any specific type of government that he might be implicitly criticising. It was thrilling to watch. His speech at Krakow to various Bishops and distinguished guests that the Bishops of Poland had invited from across the world provides one example of very many:
After nine centuries the personality and the message of Saint Stanislaus preserve an extraordinary relevance. This regards both his life as a pastor of a portion of God's People and the witness of blood given by his martyrdom.
But Saint Stanislaus is certainly and especially “the man” of his times: his pastoral ministry is fulfilled under the pontificate of Saint Gregory VII, in a period, that is, in which the Church claims her own freedom and her own original spiritual mission in the face of the powerful men of the world.
I was an undergraduate in those heady days. We didn’t really imagine that the Communist governments would actually fall: we should have had more faith in the power of God. Within ten years it was all over.

Saint Stanislaus. Pray for us.

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