St. Andrew Bobola


For most martyrs, one persecution is enough. St. Andrew Bobola, who died for his Catholicism in 1657, was, in a sense, doubly persecuted. Long after his death his body was again grossly mistreated by enemies of his faith.

Andrew, the scion of a distinguished Polish family, was born in Sandomir, Poland, in 1591. In 1611 he entered the Society of Jesus at Vilna, in the present Lithuania. Ordained to the priesthood in 1622, he was appointed pastor at Niewiez. There he won great favor, not only for his pastoral efforts but also for his heroic care, in 1624, of the victims of plague.

Father Bobola spent his whole active priestly career working in Vilna and elsewhere as a missionary. He enjoyed great success in bringing back lay Catholics to the practice of the faith, and in persuading whole villages of separated Orthodox to return to union with the pope. In the concurrent political and religious struggle between Poland and Russia, the Jesuits became marked men, Bobola in particular. When he entered a town that had a large non-Catholic population, the townsfolk made a practice of sending their children out to insult him and try to shout him down as he preached. Andrew did not allow himself to be discouraged by them, or even impatient.

Eventually, however, the Polish Jesuits were driven from their churches and colleges and had to take refuge in the forests and wetlands. In 1652 Prince Radziwill invited them to live in one of his residences at Pinsk, in White Russia. Bobola accepted the invitation, although he knew that Pinsk was an even more perilous location.

In May 1657, Cossack cavalry raided Pinsk and the surroundings. Near Janow they seized Father Andrew and gave him a severe beating. Then two of them, tying him by a rope to the pommels of their horses, made him stumble back to Janow behind them.

At Janow the priest was interrogated and ordered to abjure his Catholicism. When he gave a firm reply, the officer nearly cut off his hand with a sword. The barbarity with which he was then treated was almost unbelievable: scorched and skinned by his tormentors, his nose and lips were sliced off and his tongue torn out. The prayers he uttered to Jesus and Mary seemed to make his bitter executioners all the more furious. Finally, they beheaded him. They cast his mutilated body on a manure pile.

The dead missionary was buried in the crypt of the Jesuit church in Pinsk. Forty years passed. Then in 1697 his tomb was rediscovered in the ruined church and found to be perfectly incorrupt, even though it had never been embalmed. Still clearly visible on the fair flesh were his wounds and mutilations. It was as if God, by this miraculous sign, had wished to preserve the evidences of his cruel martyrdom. Father Andrew’s tomb at once became a center of pilgrimage and many miracles were reported. The cause for his canonization was soon introduced, although circumstances prevented his being declared a saint until 1938.

Over a decade before the canonization, the treasured relics of Blessed Andrew were submitted to new indignities. The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917. In 1922, Soviet troops took over the shrine church (it was then in Polotsk) and, knowing of the reputation of Bobola’s body for being incorrupt, broke open the tomb. Unimpressed, apparently, they stripped the body of its clothing and threw it on the floor. It was then taken to Moscow and put on exhibit in an atheist medical museum as an illustration of religious credulity. Thus did the saint undergo his second persecution.

When he learned of the desecration, Pope Pius XI asked the Russian government to consign the relics to him. Once the whereabouts of the body were discovered, Father Edmund A. Walsh, an American Jesuit, as an emissary of the pope, succeeded in bringing it to Rome in 1923. After the canonization, the relics were carried back in triumph to Poland. Today they are finally at rest in the church of St. Andrew Bobola in Warsaw. The martyr’s frame is now rigid and his skin is dark, but the body is still well preserved and bears even today the marks of his hideous tortures.

--Father Robert F. McNamara