The occasion for Benedict XVI's visit to the Czech Republic is the feast day of St. Wenceslas, patron saint ot the Czech Republic, whose feast day since 2002, is also the Day of Czech Statehood.
Who was St. Wenceslas?
Wenceslas, also spelled Wenceslaus; Vaclav
in Czech. Duke, martyr, and patron of Bohemia, born probably 903; died 28 September, 935.
His parents were Duke Wratislaw, a Christian [said to have been converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius], and Dragomir, a heathen. He received a good Christian education from his grandmother (St. Ludmilla).
After the death of Wratislaw, Dragomir, acting as regent, opposed Christianity, and Wenceslas, being urged by the people, took the reins of government. He placed his duchy under the protection of Germany, introduced German priests, and favoured the Latin rite instead of the old Slavic, which had gone into disuse in many places for want of priests.
Wenceslas had taken the vow of virginity and was known for his virtues. The Emperor Otto I conferred on him the regal dignity and title. For religious and national motives, and at the instigation of Dragomir (his mother), Wenceslas was murdered by his brother Boleslaw. [What a bizarre story!]
The story of the murder in Wikipedia: "In September of 935 (in older sources 929) a group of nobles allied with Wenceslaus's younger brother, Boleslav in a plot to kill the prince. Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, where three of Boleslav's companions murdered Wenceslaus on his way to church. Boleslav thus succeeded him as the Duke of Bohemia."
The body, hacked to pieces, was buried at the place of murder, but three years later Boleslaw, having repented of his deed, ordered its translation to the Church of St. Vitus in Prague.
The gathering of his relics is noted in the iturgical calendars on June 27, their translation on March4, and his feast day on Sept. 28.
Here is a more detailed account from Monarchs by William Sylvester::
Center photo, the altar of St. Wenceslas, one of 25 in in St. Peter's Basilica.
Wenceslas was born around 907 in Stochov Castle near Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, the eldest son of Prince Ratislav and his wife, Drahomira.
Ratislav became king in 915 after the death of his father Borivoy. Preoccupied with matters of state, the king and queen left their son to be raised by Ludmila, his paternal grandmother.
Brought up at his grandmother’s castle, Wenceslas reveled in the outdoor life, helping with the harvest and preparing bread and wine for religious purposes, a task he enjoyed all his life.
Ludmila was a fervent Christian and educated her grandson in the Christian faith much to the distress of his mother who was a pagan. In the following years Ratislav and Drahomora brought four daughters and a son, named Boleslav, into the world.
When Wenceslas was only thirteen his father died in battle and his mother became regent. It did not take long before Drahomira showed her true colors and reverted back to her pagan religion.
The confusion resulting from Ratislav’s sudden death and the animosity between the old pagan and new Christian nobles, enabled Drahomira to consolidate her position.
She began persecuting the Christian priests in the kingdom, attempted to reinstate her religion and had Ludmila strangled in her castle at Tetin in September 921.
Drahomira now tried to undo what her mother-in-law had done and began including Wenceslas in her pagan ceremonies. The young prince, however, secretly continued with his private Christian services. He garnered support from the Christian nobles and when he turned 18 they rose in rebellion and deposed his mother.
One of his first acts was to reinstate the Christian religion and end the persecution of the priests. The young king’s Christian beliefs permeated his reign and he soon became renown for his acts of charity, especially the help he gave to the poor whom he sheltered and clothed.
All was not well within the king’s domain, however, for many of his pagan nobles still resented the return to Christianity, amongst them was his brother Boleslav.
The last straw was when Wenceslas, believing it was in the best interests of his people, swore fealty to King Henry I, the king of Germany and a Christian monarch. He felt that it was better to willingly recognize Henry than he forced to by conquest. His nobles were enraged at this, feeling that Bohemia should be a nation unto itself and not part of a foreign king’s empire.
Meanwhile, brother Boleslav was becoming troublesome. He had been raised with pagan beliefs and had the support of the pagan nobility. The same nobles responsible for the murder of Ludmila now had influence over the young prince.
The birth of Wenceslas’s son, which pushed Boleslav down the line of succession, was used to convince the king’s brother that if he did not act soon he would loose all chance to becoming king. They convinced Bolesalv that he should join them in their plot against Wenceslas.
The conspirators invited Wenceslas to attend a feast (of Saints Cosmas and Damina) that was to be held in the chapel of Boleslav’s castle. Though warned in advance that his life might be in danger, Wenceslas decided to ignore the warning and put his trust in God to see him safe.
When the Liturgy was over, the king was preparing to return to his own castle when Boleslav invited him to remain and join him and his friends in a drink. Wenceslas agreed and stayed for the rest of the day. As darkness fell he accepted his brother’s invitation to stay the night even though he had been warned of a plot against him.
The next morning, September 20, 929, he awoke, found himself still alive and set off for the chapel for his morning prayers. Boleslav and his henchman caught him alone and unarmed and stabbed him to death on the steps of the chapel.
Boleslav, who was now king, had his brother’s body interred in the church of St. Vitus and the chapel of St. Wenceslas was constructed around his tomb. In time the good king, though he had reigned for only five years, became the patron saint of Czechoslovakia.
St Wenceslas popular among all Czechs
25 September 2009
Vaclav Square in Prague's Old Town is dominated by the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas, with the National Museum in the background.
Prague, Sept 24 (CTK) - Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech state whose day will be celebrated on Monday, is highly popular among Czechs, including those who are not church-goers.
This year, the mass following a pilgrimage to Stara Boleslav, central Bohemia, will be celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI who will arrive in the Czech Republic on Saturday.
In 2008, the pilgrimage recalled the 1100th anniversary of St Wenceslas's birth.
St Wenceslas fairs that were not organised during the era of Czechoslovak communism will be held in many Czech towns and villages during the weekend and on Monday, St Wenceslas Day and Date of Czech Statehood, which has been a national holiday since 2000.
"The cult of St Wenceslas is of crucial importance. He heads the Czech patrons, he is the most popular of them and his cult is the most widespread and has the longest tradition in the Czech lands," art historian Jan Royt told CTK.
As early as the 12th century, St Wenceslas was declared the eternal king of the Czech land.
Royt recalled that the cult of St Wenceslas was common both among Catholics and Utraquists, a moderate faction of the Czech Hussite reform movement.
The Hussites followed the teachings of Czech church reformer John Huss who died at the stake in 1415.
Thanks to 14th century Emperor Charles IV, statues of St Wenceslas can be found not only in all Czech regions but also in current Germany and Italy, Royt said.
He said the fact that St Wenceslas was a political saint probably contributed to his popularity.
"He was a respected politician and martyr, a representative of the Premyslid dynasty in heaven," Royt said, referring to the Czech dynasty that ruled Bohemia from the 9th century to the early 14th century.
St Wenceslas was murdered in Stara Boleslav by his opponents, probably on September 28, 935.
In the English-speaking world, the saint is immortalized in the Christmas carol 'Good King Wenceslas', written by John Mason Neale, a warden at Sackville College in England, and published in 1853. Sung to the tune of a popular 13th century Latin hymn to spring, it has been recorded by everyone from Joan Sutherland to the Beatles.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.
"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."
"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.
"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."
In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.