The patroness of the Bohemian people reflects in history the radiance of that Queen who loved the sublime designs of God to the point of becoming, for the wicked, as terrible as an army in battle array!
I t is the dawning of a crisp spring morning, at the beginning of the 10th century. Another session of the diet called by the King of Germania will soon begin in the city of Worms.
All the illustrious participants have already gathered at the appointed place, with only the young Duke of Bohemia, Wenceslaus, yet to arrive. Comments are exchanged about his tardiness, considered a lack of deference towards the sovereign present. To show their unanimous disapproval, the nobles agree that, contrary to custom, no one will rise at the Duke’s arrival. A considerable time passes before it is announced that he is finally at the door. And as soon as he enters… everyone changes their mind! As soon as they see him, they gasp in admiration, and the king himself rises from his throne to greet him.
What could have changed the attitude of the select assembly so suddenly?
Wenceslaus had not arrived alone: everyone could plainly see two beautiful Angels preceding him, carrying a golden cross! Stupefied, the monarch invited him to sit at his right hand. The Duke apologized for his late arrival, explaining that it was due to his custom of attending two Masses every day…
This enchanting fact is only one among many immortalized by the legends of St. Wenceslaus, in which we contemplate aspects of his life that do not fit into the cold documented archives of history, but are inscribed with letters of gold in the age-old treasury of Catholic piety.
Alongside this great monarch, the Church has always venerated another unique figure of Christianity in the Slavic world: St. Ludmila, his grandmother, “the first pearl and at the same time the first flower collected in Bohemia.”1 With unwavering zeal she prepared for her people, in the person of her grandson, “not only a wise and prudent king, but also a dedicated promoter of Eucharistic worship and love of neighbour.”2
A conquest of St. Methodius
Ludmila was born around 860, surrounded by the prevalent paganism of the city of Melník, in central Bohemia. Her family belonged to the highest lineage of the land.
When she was fourteen years old, she was given in marriage to Bořivoj, the first prince of the Přemyslid State, which was formed by the unification of the lands that today make up the Czech Republic. It was a time when the great apostle of the Slavs, St. Methodius, was devoting all his efforts to the evangelization of that region. Bořivoj, enchanted by the Catholic Faith, had the honour and the merit of being the first Czech ruler to receive the waters of Baptism. His young wife also requested Baptism, and embraced the Christian commitments in such a sincere and profound way that she took it as her life’s ideal, together with her husband, to propagate the true Religion in her domains.
It was not an easy task, but, spurred on by the fire of faith, no obstacle deterred them. They organized missions of monks to preach to the people and encourage them to live a life of piety. To this end, they undertook the construction of the first church in Bohemia, dedicated to St. Clement.
Gradually the fruits of their apostolate multiplied, and with them came persecution, a characteristic sign that one is walking in the ways of Our Lord. The noble couple was even exiled because of the action of influential people at court who were still attached to idolatry. Nothing inspires more enthusiasm in an apostle than the rage of the enemy, who thus testifies that he is losing ground…
But St. Ludmila and her husband soon succeeded in regaining the throne and, with it, their impetus for the expansion of Catholicism.
Sagacity in the education of her grandson
When a fortress seems impregnable, the most effective method of conquering it is to penetrate discreetly into its interior and, from within, to begin the destruction… This was the tactic used by the devil to try to demolish St. Ludmila’s household.
The danger arose when her son Vratislav married Drahomira of Lucsko, a young lady who would go down in history as a woman of “a haughty and brutal temperament, combining cruelty and perfidy with wickedness.”3 She feigned sympathy for Christianity, but secretly favoured idolatrous practices. Not even her husband’s exhortations, zeal or good example could dissuade her from her machinations.
The wise and holy duchess knew that this meant not only a possible division in the throne or the family, but also an imminent danger for the true Religion in the duchy. For this reason, she did not delay in taking action: when Drahomira’s second son was born, she requested the tutelage of her firstborn, Wenceslaus, because she discerned in him the qualities of an excellent sovereign.
Accordingly, the little boy went to live in his grandmother’s palace in Prague. “The virtuous princess took it upon herself to form that tender heart, sharing the care of his education with a wise tutor, whom she appointed. The latter was her chaplain, a holy priest named Paul. In the lessons he gave Wenceslaus, he fully complied with the princess’ wishes to cultivate both his understanding with the study of letters, and his heart with the love and exercise of virtue.”4 The boy responded so perfectly to this course of studies that he was reputed to be one of the most gifted princes of his time.
A resolute spirit in the face of setbacks
While her grandson grew stronger in wisdom and virtue, the prudent grandmother was watchful, for she knew that this period was a preparation for the great battle of her life, which would set the decisive course for the nation that God had entrusted to her. She foresaw that this moment would not be long in coming, and her presentiment proved true…
Before the Duchess had reached the age of forty, her husband died in battle. What would she do without the protection and support of the faithful Bořivoj? Always resolute, she did not waver for an instant: she would continue fighting, for if Providence had given her the mission of propagating and defending Catholicism in incipient Bohemia, with God’s grace she would carry it through to the end.
The first action she took was to place her eldest son, Spytihněv, at the head of the duchy, after some dispute. He continued the work begun by his parents, establishing the nascent civilization on Catholic foundations. His rule endured for over twenty years, until his death in 915, when he was succeeded by his brother Vratislav.
St. Ludmila had a strong influence during this period. She was firm with rebels, but at the same time kind and merciful to the weak and afflicted who turned to her. In this way, the Duchess-mother became the delight of the Czechs, from the highest courtiers to the humblest of the people. Everyone knew that this lady with an iron will, implacable when it came to defending the good and punishing evil, had a maternal heart, always ready to protect, to forgive and to encourage all to follow the path of virtue.
However, someone was becoming irritated by this situation…
Clash with the “new Jezebel”
Some have compared Drahomira to the wicked Jezebel who “killed the prophets of the Lord” (1 Kgs 18:4). In fact, this woman hated Christianity and was willing to do anything to restore the pagan religion of her ancestors… Like a serpent waiting for the right moment to strike, she was waiting for an opportunity to unleash her fury.
The occasion came with the untimely death of her good husband Vratislav in 921, during a battle against the Hungarians. The most arduous of St. Ludmila’s trials began, a veritable clash between Christianity and paganism. In this conflict, Drahomira played the part of the prince of this world, insolently challenging Our Lord Jesus Christ in the person of His beloved and faithful follower Ludmila.
Since Wenceslaus was not yet old enough to ascend to the throne, Drahomira seized the reins of government and, now without her husband’s restraint, gave free rein to her implacable hatred. She decreed the closure of churches and the suspension of liturgical services, prohibited all Christian priests and teachers from instructing the people, deposed Catholic magistrates from public office and, finally, announced that pagans had the right to kill Christians, but Christians could not take the lives of their aggressors, not even in self-defence.
St. Ludmila, shut away in her palace in Tetin, did not allow herself to be overwhelmed by this harsh turn of events. With admirable astuteness, she remained resolute and serene, continuing the formation of her grandson.
But Drahomira knew very well from which tree the best fruits of Catholicism in the duchy came, and she wanted to uproot it. It was then that she meticulously planned a sinister scheme.
Martyred at the foot of the altar
We can imagine the saintly Duchess recollected in her chambers, deep in thought on a morning that dawned radiant. All the battles, all the graces, all the victories that the Most High had granted her in the glorious mission of winning souls for Him, arose successively in her mind like a series of scenes. However, she felt that God was asking her for something more, a final step, a supreme holocaust with which to crown her militancy in this world.
Just as she was reflecting on this, she perceived hurried but discreet footsteps approaching. It was an emissary of great confidence who brought her alarming news: her enemies were plotting her death. With this news, she understood everything. She had dedicated her whole life to the struggle here on earth, now she was going to offer her death to God in order to continue the battle from Heaven.
She used the time remaining to her to rid herself completely of her earthly goods, giving generous remuneration to her servants for their services and distributing the rest of her wealth to the poor.
One afternoon in the year 921, on Saturday, September 15, according to some authors, or on Sunday, September 16, according to others, St. Ludmila went to Confession and entered the castle’s chapel, where she remained prostrate before the altar for some time. She received the Holy Eucharist and remained in deep prayer. While she was renewing her offering to the Lord, two assassins hired by Drahomira burst into the precinct, and fell savagely upon the Saint, hanging her with her own veil. In this manner, the intrepid Ludmila, at the age of sixty-one, received the palm of martyrdom.
The new Jezebel rejoiced, but her sense of triumph did not last for long. The Duchess Martyr was buried near the castle in Tetin, and soon the fame of her sanctity spread. At her tomb, numerous miracles began to take place. A bright luminosity could be seen hovering over the site and, at night, a fragrance was diffused around it, like the voice of Heaven reminding us of God’s immortality, filling the good with faith and terrifying the wicked.
Reflection of the Queen of Heaven and earth
Having reached the required age, St. Wenceslaus took over the government of Bohemia. One of his first acts as sovereign was to exile his mother and younger brother – Boleslav, who was following in the footsteps of his mother – to a remote province, and to arrange a grand transfer of his grandmother’s remains to the Church of St. George in Prague.
It is said that God took it upon himself to avenge the blood of His beloved combatant: one day, when Drahomira was passing near a place where she had ordered the execution of countless Christians, the ground opened up beneath her, and she was swallowed alive.
The young Duke devoted himself to re-establishing order, which had been devastated by the years of despotic rule under the bloodthirsty Drahomira. He was so successful in this task, due to his wisdom and prudence, that he soon became a model Christian monarch. His name has come down the centuries enveloped in glory, as clear proof that the Lord did not disappoint the hopes of the woman who had brought him up, as a true mother, to fight!
Thus, the example of the patron saint of the Bohemian people reflects in history the radiance of that humble “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38), who trusted in God’s most sublime designs to the point of being crowned Queen of Heaven and earth, of Angels and men, becoming for the infernal regions “terrible as an army in battle array” (Sgs 6:4)! ◊
1 BENEŠ, Vladimír (Ed.). Legenda о svatém Václavovi. Praga: Bonaventura, 2008, p.12.
2 ST. JOHN PAUL II. Address to the Bishops of Czechoslovakia on their “ad Limina” visit, 11/3/1982.
3 CROISSET, SJ, Juan. Año Cristiano. Barcelona: Librería Religiosa, 1854, v.IX, p.539.
4 Idem, ibidem.