From Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.’s continuing series on monastic saints.
Apostle of Bohemia; Apostle of the Prussians; Apostle of the Slavs; main Patron of Poland.
St. Adalbert was born Voytech c. 956 into a noble family. He was sent to Magdeburg to be educated and took the name of his catechist when he was baptized. After the death of his mentor in 981, Adalbert, who had visions of missionary work and clerical reform, returned to Prague.
Even as a child, he displayed a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and his studies led him to the priesthood. Gifted and industrious, Adalbert soon became well-known all over Europe. In 980 Adalbert finished his studies at Magdeburg school and returned to Prague where he became a priest.
On the tenth of 10 February 982, only two years after his ordination as a priest and at the age of 26, Adalbert became the Bishop of Prague and entered the city barefoot and determined to make a change in the unruly city, noting, “It is easy to wear a miter and carry a crozier, but it is a terrible thing to have to give an account of a bishopric to the Judge of the living and the dead.” Although Adalbert could afford comfort and luxury, he lived poorly of his own free will. He was noted for charity, austerity, and zealous service to the Church. He preached the faith to the poor and visited them in their rural village homes as well as in their prison cells. His duty was difficult even in baptized Bohemia, as the pagan creed was deeply embedded in the culture. Adalbert complained of polygamy and idolatry, which still were not unusual among the Czechs. Many of the nobility did not want to be seen worshipping with the peasantry and challenged Adalbert’s work in trying to convert the poor. He had aroused enmity by his efforts to reform the clergy of his diocese, and he strongly protested the participation of formally Christian inhabitants in the slave trade.
In 989, thoroughly discouraged, he resigned from his bishop’s cloth and left Prague. He went to Rome and lived as a hermit in St. Alexis Benedictine monastery with his brother, Blessed Radzim Gaudenty. Four years later, in 993, Pope John XV sent him back to Prague as the Bishop with the promised cooperation of civil rulers. Adalbert founded a monastery in Břevnov, near Prague, the first one for men in the Czech lands.
Then, Adalbert went to Hungary and baptized King Gesza and his son Stephen. He was then sent to convert the heathen Prussians in what was one of the last strongholds of polytheistic paganism in Europe. Adalbert went to Poland where he was cordially welcomed by Duke Boleslaw Chrobry, who sent soldiers with Adalbert. The bishop and his followers entered Prussian territory near Gdansk and went along the Baltic Sea coast.
It was a standard procedure of Christian missionaries to try to chop down sacred oak trees. The trees were worshipped, and the spirits believed to inhabit the trees were feared for their powers. This was done to demonstrate that no supernatural powers protected the trees from the Christians. When they did not heed warnings to stay away from the sacred oak groves, Adalbert was martyred along with his two companions, Benedict and Gaudentius, on the 23rd of April 997 on the Baltic Sea coast between Gdansk and Elblag at the instigation of a pagan priest. Adalbert was impaled with seven spears and decapitated. The bodies were thrown into the river somewhere in the area of the Elbing Canal and the Nogat River.
Since Boleslaw had been instrumental in sending Adalbert to convert the Prussians, when he learned of Adalbert’s death, he sent his emissaries to retrieve the body so it could be given a proper Christian burial. The Prussians demanded a ransom of silver equal in weight to that of Adalbert’s body. A makeshift balance was erected with the body on one side and a pile of silver pieces on the other. One by one, the pieces of silver were removed to achieve balance. To everyone’s amazement, the scale did not level off until all but one small piece of silver weighing about an ounce remained. This ‘miracle’ frightened the Prussians and so impressed the Poles that many continue to pray for the saint’s guidance when they have financial problems.
In April 999, Pope Sylvester II canonized Adalbert as Saint Adalbert of Prague. He established the Metropolitan See of Gniezno under his patronage and appointed Adalbert’s brother, Radzim Gaudenty as its first Bishop. Adalbert is credited as the author of the war-song, “Boga-Rodzica”, sung for centuries when Polish troops commenced a new battle.
June 1997 marked the thousandth anniversary of St. Adalbert’s martyrdom. It was commemorated in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Russia and other countries. Representatives of Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Evangelical churches made pilgrimages to the saint’s tomb in Gniezno. John Paul II held a ceremonial service with seven heads of state of European countries and a million believers. In the area where Adalbert’s death took place, a ten-meter cross was established.