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Speaking Truth to Power Cost His Life

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Born around 1030 in the ancient city of Szczpanow in Poland, Stanislaus went west to Liège, Belgium (or possibly Paris, France), to study and was ordained to the priesthood. On his return, he was appointed a canon of the cathedral in Krakow.

In 1072, he was elected bishop of the diocese and distinguished himself as a powerful preacher, teacher of the faith and a model for his clergy. He was always solicitous toward the poor.

Voice for Justice

After a quarrel with Boleslaus II over the king’s immoral personal life and public tyranny, Stanislaus excommunicated the intransigent monarch in 1079. Boleslaus’s response was to order his soldiers to kill the bishop.

Stanislaus was trapped in a chapel dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel on the outskirts of Krakow. The royal guards hesitated to kill the prelate on the holy grounds of a church building. Boleslaus showed no such reluctance.

The king entered the sanctuary and murdered Stanislaus himself. When the news reached Rome, the pope, St. Gregory the Great, put the entire country under interdict (forbidding the sacraments to the whole Church of Poland) until Boleslaus stepped down from his throne.

The king fled to Hungary to find refuge with relatives and, according to tradition, became a penitent at a Benedictine monastery. He, who was once called Boleslaus the Bold, is sometimes listed in Polish Benedictine sources as “Blessed Boleslaus, king penitent.”

Gospel Without Compromise

The body of Stanislaus was interred in the cathedral in 1088 and the cathedral was renamed for him. In 1964, Karol Wojtyla was installed as one of his successors in that same cathedral.

Like St. Thomas à Becket in England who challenged King Henry II, St. John Nepomucen in Bohemia who took on King Wenceslaus IV and St. Thomas More in England who confronted Henry VIII, Stanislaus spoke truth to power at the cost of his own life. All these saints understood that the teachings of Christ cannot be compromised with the needs of the state.

It is not without significance that the Communist authorities in Poland negotiated the first visit of John Paul II in 1979 after his election to the papacy the previous year (the ninth centenary of the death of Stanislaus). They wanted it to occur a month after his April feast.

Everyone understood how symbolic it would have been for the former archbishop of Krakow to be in Poland on the feast of a saint who withstood a hostile regime in the name of the gospel. In fact, a secret memo of the Polish Communist Party warned their activists the pope would try to make St. Stanislaus “the patron of the opposition to the authorities and the defender of human rights.” How perceptive the memo was!

While Stanislaus is the patron saint of Poland, his popularity pervades Eastern Europe. His name is honored in Lithuania, the Ukraine and Belarus—countries that recently experienced political tyranny and religious persecution.

In our own day, Poles in various parts of the world are intensely patriotic. The name of Stanislaus is honored not only as a common first name but also as the name of many churches in the Polish diaspora.

Historical Background

Christianity had come to Poland only two centuries before Stanislaus when St. Methodius, the apostle to the Slavs, first preached in Moldavia. In 968, a missionary diocese was established on Polish territory. The decisive moment for the Church came in 1000 when Pope Sylvester II and the Holy Roman Emperor established four dioceses in Poland, thus cementing Poland’s religious future with the West. Poland has remained strongly Roman Catholic ever since.

When Stanislaus was a young man, a large part of Poland was pagan and antagonistic to the Christian missionaries. The saint’s actions must be seen against the background of secular rulers who wished to gain and consolidate power at the expense of the growing Church. St. Stanislaus, then, is seen as one of the founders of Polish Catholicism.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 18 books, and is at work on another about St. Francis of Assisi.