St. Wenceslaus of Bohemia

(Died A.D. 929)

Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia, lived in the turbulent age when the Slavic nations of eastern Europe were first becoming aware of the Gospel. His grandfather Borivoy and his grandmother Ludmila had both been converted by St. Methodius, the apostle of the Czechs. The converted duke and duchess then built, north of Prague, the first Christian church in Bohemia. Unfortunately, Borivoy, like several other converted medieval monarchs, tried to force Christianity upon his people. Not only did his effort fail, it engendered a hatred for Christianity among many of his pagan subjects.

Borivoy’s successor on the ducal throne was his son Ratislav. Ratislav was firmly Christian, but his wife Drahomira was an opportunist. They had two sons, Wenceslaus (Vaclav) and Boleslav. Wenceslaus was carefully raised in the faith by is gentle and popular grandmother Ludmila. She engaged a priest to tutor him in Slavonic and Latin. She and the priest both taught him Christian doctrine, Christian virtue, and the practice of charitable works.

Wenceslaus was still young when his father Ratislav died in a battle against the Magyars. His mother Drahomira then assumed the office of regent, and began to set a course of rule detrimental to Christianity. Ludmila, seeing the decline of faith and good order, urged her grandson to take over the government himself. To prevent this coup, two men of the pagan party who thought Vaclav too pious, strangled Ludmila in 921. Her daughter-in-law Drahomira, does not seem to have been party to this political murder. The Czechs in general hailed Ludmila as a martyr, and today she is venerated as a saint.

Wenceslaus followed Ludmila’s counsel, young though he was. He declared at once that he would support the law of God and God’s Church. He would strive to rule with justice and mercy, but punish murder severely. He and his mother were reconciled, and thereafter Drahomira give him loyal support.

Duke Vaclav proved a successful ruler both at home and abroad. But there was still a group of malcontents who thought he relied too much on the guidance of the clergy. Wenceslaus married and his duchess bore him a son. That meant that his brother Boleslav, hitherto his heir apparent, would no longer succeed him in the dukedom. Jealousy prompted the younger brother to join the party opposed to Wenceslaus. Trouble was brewing.

In September 929, Boleslav invited the Duke to his town to celebrate the feast of SS. Cosmas and Damian. On the evening of the holiday, somebody warned Wenceslaus that his life was in danger. The Duke ignored the warning. Next day, when he was bound for morning Mass in the chapel, he encountered his brother and stopped to thank him for his overnight hospitality. Boleslav, in a changed mood, replied, “Yesterday I did my best to serve you fittingly, but this must be my service today.” Thereupon, he struck the Duke in the face. Then some of his associates ran up and stabbed Vaclav. Mortally wounded, the ruler fell by the chapel door. His last words were, “Brother, may God forgive you!”

The Bohemians, in general, were greatly shocked. They at once hailed their dead ruler as a martyr, and miracles began to be reported among those who prayed at his tomb. Taking fright, Boleslav had the dead monarch’s body enshrined in the church of St. Vitus, Prague. Wenceslaus eventually became the patron saint of the Bohemian people.

We are all familiar with the English Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslaus.” St. Wenceslaus of Bohemia is the “king” referred to. Not that our saint was as widely invoked in Britain as he was in Bohemia. But when the English hymn writer J.M. Neale wrote the lyrics of the carol a century ago, he chose to relate one of the ruler’s typical acts of charity to the Christmastide “feast of Stephen” (St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, December 26). In a truly Christmas spirit, the carol urges us all to imitate this caring monarch: “Therefore, Christian men, be sure; Wealth or rank possessing; Ye who now will bless the poor; Shall yourselves find blessing.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara