April 23


ST ADALBERT was born of a noble family in Bohemia in 956 and received in baptism the name of Voytiekh. He was sent to be educated under St Adalbert at Magdeburg, who gave him his own name at confirmation. On the death of the archbishop the young man returned to Bohemia with a library of books he had collected, and two years later he was ordained subdeacon by Bishop Thietmar of Prague, who died in 982. Adalbert, though so young, was elected to the vacant bishopric. He had been much impressed by the death-bed scruples of Thietmar as to whether he had neglected his episcopal duties, and "It is easy to wear a mitre and carry a crozier", Adalbert was heard to say, "but it is a terrible thing to have to give account of a bishopric to the Judge of the living and the dead". Barefoot he entered Prague, where he was received with enthusiasm by Boleslaus II of Bohemia and the people. His first care was to divide the revenues of his see into four parts, of which one was devoted to the upkeep of the fabric and ornaments of the church, a second to the maintenance of his canons, a third to the relief of the poor, whilst the fourth portion was reserved for his own use and for that of his household and guests.

After his consecration at Mainz Adalbert had met St Majolus, abbot of Cluny, at Pavia, and had been fired with Cluniac ideals; but though he preached assiduously and visited the poor in their homes and the prisoners in their dungeons, he seemed unable to make any impression upon his flock, some of whom were still heathen, while many of the rest were Christian only in name. Thoroughly discouraged, he left his diocese in 990 and went to Rome. A good bishop, of course, does not abandon his charge in the face of pastoral difficulties, and there is evidence that there were serious political complications behind Adalbert's action.

In Italy he came under the influence of the Greek abbot St Nilus at Vallelucio and, together with his step-brother Gaudentius, the bishop became a monk of the abbey of SS. Boniface and Alexis in Rome. But soon Duke Boleslaus asked for his return, and at the bidding of Pope John XV Adalbert returned to Prague, on the understanding, it is said, that he should receive proper support from the civil power. He was well received, and at once proceeded to establish the famous Benedictine abbey of Brevnov, whose church he consecrated in 993. But difficulties again arose, culminating when a noblewoman, convicted of adultery, took refuge with the bishop to escape the sentence of death that was the penalty in those barbarous times. Adalbert sheltered her in the church of some nuns, and defied her accusers in the name of penitence and sanctuary. But the unhappy woman was dragged from the altar and slain on the spot. Adalbert thereupon excommunicated the principals in the affair; and this so aggravated the malice of his political opponents that he had to leave Prague a second time.

St Adalbert went back to his monastery in Rome, and there he remained as prior until a synod under Pope Gregory V, on the insistence of his metropolitan, St Willigis of Mainz, ordered him back again. He was prepared to obey; but it was agreed that he should be free to go and preach the gospel to the heathen if he found it impossible to return to Bohemia, for a powerful section of the citizens of Prague had massacred a number of his kinsmen and burnt their castles. To go amongst them against their will was only to provoke further bloodshed, and therefore the saint turned aside to visit his friend Duke Boleslaus of Poland, by whose advice he sent to Prague to inquire if the people would admit him and obey him as their bishop. They replied with threats, callously adding that they were too bad to mend their ways. Under the patronage of Duke Boleslaus, St Adalbert then directed his efforts to the conversion of pagan Prussians in Pomerania. With his two companions, Benedict and Gaudentius, he made some converts in Danzig, but also met with opposition, for they were regarded with suspicion as Polish spies and told to leave the country. But they refused to abandon their Christian mission, and very soon, on April 23, 997, St Adalbert and his brethren were done to death. Traditionally this happened not far from Königsberg, at a spot between Fischausen and Pillau, but it is more likely to have been somewhere between the Elbing canal and the Nogat river. Adalbert's body was thrown into the water and, being washed up on the Polish coast, it was eventually enshrined at Gniezno; in 1039 the relics were translated (by force) to Prague.

The importance of St Adalbert in the history of central Europe has perhaps been insufficiently appreciated. He was intimate with the Emperor Otto III, and appears to have entered into that monarch's scheme for a renovatio imperii Romanorum and the christianization and unification of the remoter parts of Europe. Adalbert sent missionaries to the Magyars and visited them himself, and was the "remote" inspiration of King St Stephen. St Bruno of Querfurt (who wrote his life) was his friend and devoted follower, as was St Astrik, the first archbishop of Hungary; and his memory was influential in Poland, where the foundation of a monastery, either at Miedrzyrzecze in Poznania or at Trzemeszno, is attributed to him. There was some cultus of him even in Kiev. The name of St Adalbert has also been associated with Czech and Polish hymnody; one thing seems certain, that he was not opposed to the use of the Slavonic liturgy in the tradition of SS. Cyril and Methodius: hostility to that was rather a product of the Gregorian reformist movement, half a century later. But above all he was a holy man and a martyr, who gave his life rather than cease to witness to Christ; and the wide extent of his cultus is the measure of his appreciation.

The sources available for the life of St Adalbert are unusually abundant and early; it must suffice here to give a reference to BHL., nn. 37-56, where the different items are carefully enumerated. There are two contemporary lives, by St Bruno of Querfurt and the Roman monk John Canaparius. The best modern biography is that of H. G. Voigt, Adalbert von Prag (1898), which includes a detailed list of sources. See also B. Bretholz, Geschichte Böhmens und Mährens... (1912); R. Hennig, "Die Missionsfahrt des hl. Adalbert ins Preussenland" in Forschungen zur Preussischen und Brandenburgischen Geschichte vol. xlvii (1935), pp. 139-148; and the Cambridge History, of Poland, vol. i (1950) pp. 66-68 and passim. But the most up-to-date account is F. Dvornik, The Making of Central and Eastern Europe (1949), pp. 97-135 and passim.

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(Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1995) wmaster@hcbc.hu