At the beginning of the 13th century, King Ottokar I of Bohemia and his wife Constance had their first daughter, whom they named Agnes.
She came into the world with blood ties to the most eminent royal and princely families of Central Europe. However, more than the brilliance of earthly nobility, the glory of belonging to a dazzling spiritual lineage hovered over her: “On her father’s side she descended from the distinguished line of Saints Ludmila and Wenceslas; St. Hedwig of Silesia was her great aunt, while St. Elizabeth of Thuringia was her cousin and St. Margaret of Hungary her niece.”1
Promised in marriage at three years of age
From her childhood, she cherished in her heart the ardent desire to consecrate her virginity to God. But to reach this goal set by a discreet inner voice, a great obstacle had to be overcome: in keeping with the custom of the time, she had been promised in marriage, at the age of three, to the Polish prince Boleslaw, son of Henry I of Silesia and St. Hedwig.
In order to receive an education befitting a queen, she was sent with her elder sister, Anne, to the Cistercian monastery of Trzebnica, in present-day Poland, of which St. Gertrude was abbess.2 The latter taught her the fundamental truths of the Faith and guided her first steps in the spiritual life, marking the heart of the illustrious princess for the rest of her life. However, this splendid formation was intended to prepare her for a marriage which Agnes felt was contrary to the inspirations God had placed in her soul.
The certainty that Agnes had been called by Providence to follow other paths would soon be confirmed by events: at the age of six she returned to Bohemia, for her future husband had died prematurely.
Redoubled fidelity in face of another obstacle
Once again in her homeland, the pious little girl moved to a Premonstratensian abbey in Doksany, founded by her grandfather St. Wenceslas. There she learned to read and write and acquired such a love for prayer that she far preferred it to entertaining herself with the amusements typical of her young age.
However, the waves of tribulation soon battered her soul again: at the age of nine, she was promised in marriage to Henry VII, King of Sicily and Germany, son of Emperor Frederick II. She was then forced to travel to Vienna, where she was to learn German and familiarize herself with Germanic customs.
The worldly brilliance of the Austrian court might well have dazzled her and caused her to change her mind, but exactly the opposite happened: “Agnes was not at ease there. She distributed many alms, mortified herself with frequent fasts, and consecrated herself totally to the Mother of God, desiring to keep her virginity intact.”3
Docile to that inner voice that inspired her desire to give herself entirely to God, and steadfast in her wish to do the will of the Most High in everything, the young girl confidently implored Him to arrange things so that she could follow her vocation, although everything seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. During this period, she suffered unspeakably with heroic fidelity, having the Divine Redeemer as her only confidant.
Agnes’ dilemma would once again come to an unexpected end: Duke Leopold of Austria, into whose care she was entrusted in Vienna, intended to marry his own daughter to the one pledged to Agnes… The duke’s plans were successful, and so she was able to return to the royal court of Prague.
Unshakeable faith and spirit of sacrifice
The journey of a good soldier of Christ is not limited to two or three isolated battles; their life consists of a daily struggle, until the last moment of existence. This can be clearly appreciated in the story of our small but glorious combatant.
The joy that inundated her heart did not last long. New marriage proposals arrived in Prague, first from Henry III of England and then from Emperor Frederick II, who had been widowed. Despite the objections of Agnes, her brother, King Wenceslaus – who after his father’s death had assumed power – promised the princess’ hand to the emperor.
Having become a strong lady under the effect of the continuous trials, Agnes did not give up fighting to be the bride of Christ. Determined to overcome any obstacle that arose, she undertook new efforts to take to its final consequences the vocation that grace so clearly whispered in her soul.
She began by intensifying her prayers and penances. She often awoke before dawn to visit, barefoot and poorly clothed, some churches in the city in the company of other devout maidens. As her feet were left bleeding from the walk, upon her return to the palace she would wash them, put on her shoes and sumptuous robes of a princess, while wearing underneath them a coarse hair shirt and metal cilice.
Thus clothed, she began the day’s activities, without revealing the mortifications she had performed, alternating the obligations of court with her characteristic visits to the sick. In all these activities her intention was, in addition to praising God, to obtain from Him the answer to her entreaty.
She preferred the King of Heaven…
One day, when she was about twenty-eight years old, she learned that Emperor Frederick II had sent an ambassador to Prague to escort her to Germany. And as her brother, King Wenceslaus, remained deaf to her objections, Agnes decided to appeal to the Pope.
She wrote to His Holiness to beg him to prevent the marriage, arguing that she had never consented to marry and that she felt an ardent call to a religious vocation. This gesture adds special splendour to the pages of St. Agnes’ life, evincing her filial trust in him who represented the supreme spiritual power on earth.
Pope Gregory IX had just established peace with the emperor and, knowing him well enough to imagine what his reaction might be, he sent a legate to Prague to support the princess and wrote her a missive.
St. Agnes showed the papal letter to her brother who, alarmed, finally yielded. Although he feared the wrath of the German Emperor, Wenceslaus did not want to displease the Roman Pontiff or force his sister to do something against the will of the Most High.
Nevertheless, unexpected was the reaction of Frederick II. When he realized that the decision did not come from a political manoeuver by the King of Bohemia, but from a holy desire of the princess, the emperor annulled his pledge with words that deserve a special place in the firmament of history: “If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have unleashed the full weight of my vengeance; but I cannot feel offended that she preferred the King of Heaven.”4
Her gesture impressed Christendom of that time, and the news of Agnes’ refusal of worldly goods and glories for love of Jesus spread through the courts of Europe, inciting great admiration. Free from any earthly commitment, she could now live according to the ideal that God had inspired in her.
At that time, some nobles brought news to Prague of the apostolate and lifestyle of the Poverello and his faithful disciple, Clare. Upon hearing these reports, Agnes was seized with the desire to imitate her.
She began by ridding herself of jewels, adornments and sumptuous dresses and helped the poor of the region with the proceeds from their sale. She wanted to use all her possessions in the service of the Church.
With the help of the king, her brother, she built a monastery for the Franciscans, another for the Poor Clares, and a hospital for the poor. The hospital’s administration was entrusted to a sodality which she herself founded and which would later give rise to the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of the Red Star.
The Bohemian people wanted to help with the construction costs. Although the king and princess refused all offers, if often happened that, at the end of the work day, the labourers would steal away without charging for their services, so that they might selflessly contribute to the building of the hospital.
In the footsteps of St. Clare of Assisi
However, Agnes longed to follow more closely the one who would be her spiritual mother, her best friend, the confidante of her virtues and the “angel” of her vocation, St. Clare of Assisi.
Accompanied by five young ladies from the leading families of Prague, she then entered the monastery she herself had built on the banks of the Moldova River, to which the founder had sent five of her nuns. On that occasion, St. Clare wrote a remarkable letter to her, in which she praised her reputation for virtue and congratulated her for preferring “a spouse of nobler lineage,”5 renouncing all the glories of the world.
Agnes’ example attracted numerous young maidens to the cloisters and greatly increased the number of Clarist convents in Europe. She professed her vows on Pentecost and, by determination of Pope Gregory IX, she had to assume – not without reluctance, given her great humility – the office of abbess of the monastery, which she carried out faithfully for forty years.
Although St. Clare did not personally meet her noble disciple, the correspondence they exchanged bears witness to how united they were in the same ideal of holiness. So deep was the friendship formed between the two, fruit of true love for God, that the Saint of Assisi thus began the last of her letters to Agnes: “To her who is the half of my soul and the special shrine of my love.”6
Exemplary religious, favoured with mystical gifts
A worthy daughter of St. Francis and St. Clare, she sought to excel in the practice of humility and charity, the foundations of true poverty. She had such a profound Eucharistic devotion that she enkindled other monasteries of the Order with this fervour, “later culminating in the desire for daily Communion.”7
She was happy to be alone to spend time in prayer and contemplation, and in those moments it was common for her to enter into ecstasy. To everyone she gave an example of the apostolate based on the interior life: “She did not speak excessively with the sisters, but when she addressed them, her words were burning with love for Christ and the desire for Paradise, so much so that she could hardly hold back her tears.”8
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was the focal point of her piety, and in the Holy Cross she found the strength to bear the infirmities that often afflicted her. She faced all her misfortunes with the same resolution with which, in her childhood, she had overcome the difficulties that arose to fulfilling her vocation.
On one occasion, certain of the proximity of her death, she wanted to receive Viaticum. However, an inner voice assured her that all her family members would precede her into eternity. In fact, “during her long life she saw her father die, several relatives, and her brothers and sisters, among them Wenceslaus himself, whom she had managed to reconcile with his rebellious son, Premysl Ottokar, in her own monastery.”9
In another circumstance, during vespers, she mystically saw this nephew, then King Ottokar II, being slain in battle. And she also endured with serene confidence the death of St. Clare, her spiritual mother.
Charity that crosses the threshold of eternity
Always supported by grace, the holy abbess of Prague gave sage advice, avoiding conflicts and encouraging the fidelity of her kingdom to the true Religion. However, after the death of Ottokar II, foreign armies invaded Bohemia, disrupting the good order and sowing violence.
In those moments of chaos, at the doors of the Clarist monasteries, whose pantries were woefully empty, countless dying people arrived in search of help. Many perished from hunger or the plague.
It was in the midst of the troubled and unstable scenario of war that Agnes, already venerated as a Saint, passed away. In her last moments, while everything was collapsing around her, she preserved the enduring patience that characterized her. And when God called her to Himself, she left without offering any resistance to Heaven, where her virginal heart had reposed since childhood.
Before leaving this life, Agnes exhorted her sisters to love their heavenly Spouse unreservedly and “to follow Him in humility and poverty, remaining – after the example of Saints Francis and Clare – always submissive to His Vicar and the See of Rome.”10 It was March 2, 1282.
Agnes of Prague was canonized by Pope John Paul II on November 12, 1989. Days later, the Velvet Revolution began, bringing about the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Communist yoke. Many attributed this to the intercession of St. Agnes for the people she had favoured so much during her earthly pilgrimage.
Her ardent and tireless love, which disregarded the obstacles of the world to be faithful to the voice of God, now crosses the threshold of eternity reaffirming the sublime truth that “love never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). ◊
1 ST. JOHN PAUL II. Letter to the Archbishop of Prague on the occasion of the celebration of the VII Centenary of the death of Blessed Agnes of Bohemia, 2/2/1982.
2 St. Gertrude was the daughter of St. Hedwig and, therefore, a relative of St. Agnes. According to some authors consulted, Hedwig also lived in the monastery at that time and strongly influenced the formation of her grandniece.
3 ST. JOHN PAUL II, op. cit.
4 BUTLER, Alban. Lives of the Saints. Westminster (MD): Christian Classics, 1990, v.I, p.463.
5 ST. CLARE OF ASSISI. First letter to Agnes of Prague. In: Fontes Franciscanas. 2.ed. Braga: Editorial Franciscana, 1996, v.II, p.87.
6 ST. CLARE OF ASSISI. Fourth letter to Agnes of Prague. In: Fontes Franciscanas, op. cit., p.107.
7 ST. JOHN PAUL II, op. cit.
8 Idem, ibidem.
9 Idem, ibidem.
10 Idem, ibidem.