St. Otto of Bamberg – From Lucifer’s Chancellor to Christ’s Ambassador

The spiritual journey of the blessed is not without its setbacks; after all, like us, they are children of Adam, not Jupiter.

Never in history has there been a more skilful lawyer than Our Lord Jesus Christ. Among the utterances of the Divine Master, some seem to have been specially crafted with an artist’s chisel or weighed with a pharmacist’s scale, such is the precision of the message they convey and the universe of subtleties they reveal.

Nothing could be more just, for example, than the recommendation to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25) – after all, justice, says St. Thomas,1 is giving to each his rightful due: ius suum unicuique tribuere. The Gospel’s statement would even seem obvious, banal and academic, if it were not for one small detail.

Since God created and sustains the universe, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 23:1). The question must therefore be asked: is there anything left for Caesar? From this perspective, Jesus’ division of goods is less symmetrical than appears at first glance…

In fact, no power is given to men except from on high (cf. Jn 19:11). It behoves “Caesar” to bend his knee before Christ and recognize that everything comes from Him; when he refuses to do so, he appropriates what is not his and aspires to occupy God’s throne, just as the Prince of the Angels once did. In doing so, the ruler becomes the usurper; Caesar becomes Lucifer.

Well, at the height of the Middle Ages, in the heart of Christian civilization, Lucifer acquired a new name: Henry.

The world Otto knew as a young man

The clash provoked by Emperor Henry IV over lay investiture, namely, the possibility of a layman conferring ecclesiastical office, has become well known. Between 1075 and 1076, the monarch’s political interests led him to rebel against the Holy See, appointing bishops to various dioceses and slandering Pope St. Gregory VII. The latter then excommunicated him and deposed him from the throne.

In the heart of Christian Civilization, Lucifer gained a new name: Henry, a “Caesar” who wanted to take what is rightfully God’s

After a supposed conversion, which brought him, barefoot in the middle of the European winter, to knock at the gates of Canossa Castle, Henry became insubordinate again and was deposed once more in 1080, electing an antipope in an attempt at revenge.

The news of these upheavals shook the whole of Christendom and, of course, the empire in particular. We can take it for granted that it reached the ears of an eighteen-year-old German youth named Otto; perhaps it was the first time that the excommunicated emperor’s life affected that of the young man, but unfortunately it was not the last…

The river of events flows to Henry’s court

It seems quite possible that Otto was no longer living in Germany at the time of the Emperor’s second deposition. Born into a noble but unprosperous family, this lad of good culture, singular memory and elegant appearance decided to emigrate to Poland in order to earn a living as a children’s tutor. His diplomatic skills soon won him the favour of the country’s greats, including the Duke of Poland himself, Boleslaw III.

The friendship between the two reached such a point that when Boleslaw was widowed in 1085, Otto, already a priest, was his representative in arranging the new marriage, going with a delegation to ask for the bride’s hand. The Duke’s future consort was none other than Judith, Henry IV’s sister. This was the beginning of the saint’s relationship with the emperor, a relationship that was to become very close: a few years later, Otto was summoned to court.

Henry IV, by Johann Eduard Ihlée – City Hall of Frankfurt (Germany)

It is hard to imagine the delicate situation of the cleric’s conscience, who, while dedicating himself to liturgical offices in the royal chaplaincy, was increasingly entering – perhaps instinctively, perhaps without even wanting to – into the confidence and friendship of that king, who was himself an enemy of the Church in many ways. St. Otto is said to have admonished him to return to the visible unity of the Mystical Body and to submit to the true Pontiff. In any case, this was not enough to lose the esteem of Henry, who appointed him chancellor. And yet it was only the beginning…

A crossroads on St. Michael’s Hill

On the occasion of Christmas 1102, when the episcopal See of Bamberg had been vacant for some months, the schismatic monarch gathered the most illustrious ecclesiastical figures of his entourage to officially announce who would be the prelate of the diocese.

A paradoxical scene: the procession, decked out with all the pomp of an empire, surrounded by crosses, climbed to the top of a hill dedicated to St. Michael in order to meet the future guardian of Bamberg’s flock – its future Angel, according to the term used by the Apocalypse to refer to bishops (cf. Rv 1-3). Presiding over the procession, at the centre of all attention… Lucifer. Yes, because Henry was making this investiture without the Pope’s authorization.

The delicate situation of Otto’s conscience is hard to imagine, as he was drawn into the confidence of a king who was an enemy of the Church

While the legates whispered about the possible candidates, Henry took Otto’s hand and proclaimed: “Behold, this is your lord, this is the Bishop of the Church of Bamberg.”2

There was a clamour of discontent in the assembly. No one had expected this name. Henry IV defended his chosen one with his usual truculence and brought the discussions to a halt, but he was unable to silence the turmoil in Otto’s soul.

On receiving this announcement, the young cleric began to weep and threw himself at the Emperor’s feet, begging him not to be given the office, poor and unworthy as he was. However, this reaction only fortified Henry’s conviction that he had chosen the right man; after all, humility and selflessness are the cradle of loyalty. In the end, Otto accepted the investiture.

The sacred and impenetrable cloister of the conscience

An act of pusillanimity? A prevarication? Had his personal friendship with the monarch spoken louder than his submission to Rome?

The fact that St. Otto has been canonized by the Church does not, per se, prevent such perplexities from arising. After all, how do you determine the exact moment when someone crossed the threshold of sainthood? The saints themselves differ when it comes to dividing up the stages of this enigmatic journey: St. Thomas divides it into three degrees of charity; St. Teresa into seven dwellings; Blessed Suso into nine rocks. This proves that, in the final analysis, it is a continuous road that only ends in Heaven.

Furthermore, the study of history will never be an exact science; the same act can be virtuous or sinful, depending on the intention with which it is carried out. It is a discreet nuance, yes, but as decisive as the one that differentiates the molecular composition of coal from that of diamonds.

War strategy?

In fact, the future Bishop of Bamberg was in a delicate position. Having infiltrated the eye of the hurricane, the hard core of his opponent, he could jeopardize everything with one false move. He had already renounced two attempts to be appointed to the episcopate. What would happen after a third?

The fact that, once he had accepted the post, he had determined that he would never remain in it without the ratification of His Holiness, Paschal II, weighed heavily in his favour. And the reply that arrived was not only positive, but enthusiastic.3

It is also possible that his acceptance was a strategic move. In his sagacity, he must have worked out a way to take the post in order to benefit the Holy Church.

Whatever the case, doubts about one’s own fidelity will always linger in the conscience of every man, even in that of the saints – and I dare say: especially in that of the saints. Despite Paschal II’s rescript, St. Otto still wanted to spend three years preparing for his episcopal consecration, because he did not feel worthy. It was not until 1106 that he travelled to Rome to be ordained.

The problem of conscience persists

After a few setbacks on the way – a certain Count Adalbert captured him in the Tyrolean valleys, and the Saint was only freed through the use of arms – he arrived in Rome on Ascension Day, and from there he went to Anagni to meet with the Pope. Paschal II asked him to wait a little longer, until the feast of Pentecost. So St. Otto returned to his lodgings to rest, or at least to try to rest…

During the night, another crisis of scruples assailed him: was he prepared to carry the episcopal burden? The ordeal was so strong that the next day he was on the road again, determined to return to his homeland to live as a private individual.

The distress of his travelling companions can well be imagined. Only a madman would adopt such an incoherent attitude. In fact, few are capable of understanding the vehemence of the problems of conscience that afflict the saints.

Otto had already travelled for a whole day when the Pope’s delegates appeared and ordered him to return to Anagni for the consecration. It was God saying to him, as He had once said to the Apostle: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9).

St. Otto and the Church of Bamberg

The ceremony took place on the day of Pentecost, and Otto returned to Bamberg at the beginning of 1107.

It would be too lengthy to recount in detail the saint’s excellent administration, manifested both in his vigilance in keeping the flock in the fold of Rome, despite the delicate diplomatic situation with the emperor – at that time, Henry V – and in his efforts to foster the clergy, as well as the large number of basilicas and monasteries he built – one of them, incidentally, at the request of St. Norbert, to house a community of Premonstratensians.

Otto had taught, been the emperor’s chaplain, chancellor and finally a bishop; but he lacked one distinction: that of missionary

As a good medieval man – or rather, as a man of faith – St. Otto was convinced that monastic sanctity was the key to sustaining the practice of virtue, both in the clergy and in the laity, which is why he put a lot of effort into encouraging religious life, to the point of being called the Father of monks. For example, it was from his hands that St. Hildegard received the veil.

But this period was not the most brilliant phase in the life of the Bishop of Bamberg. He had already done everything: he had taught, served as chaplain to a duke and an emperor, been chancellor and finally bishop. He still lacked one award: that of missionary.

Bamberg receives a visitor

At the end of 1122, on the occasion of a court council, a singular character visited Bamberg: he was a bishop, of Spanish race, but something about his austerity gave him the air of a desert hermit. His name was Bernard.

This prelate enjoyed a great reputation for holiness and zeal, which is why St. Otto made a point of receiving him and hearing about his latest adventures in spreading the Gospel.

Bernard told how he had persuaded the Duke of Poland to authorize him to go to Pomerania to convert the pagan peoples who dominated it. He also described how he had entered the region barefoot and poorly dressed, in the hope of spreading the seeds of the Kingdom of God, and how the Pomeranians had judged him according to appearances and, thinking he was an indigent who had come to them in an attempt to get easy food, had expelled him from the country.

As the story unfolded, the Iberian prelate analysed his interlocutor’s reactions. In fact, he had a very clear objective with that entire explanation… He knew that Otto, enjoying an excellent personal presentation and being at the head of a rich diocese, had all the conditions to impress the Pomeranians and win them over to the Faith. Recognizing the good disposition of the Bishop of Bamberg, he used all his powers of persuasion and presented the plan.

Apostle of Pomerania

The request was further reinforced by an embassy from Boleslaw IV, who, combining the useful with the pleasant, wanted to convert these peoples in order to make them a little more tractable. The Duke of Poland also promised logistical support for the mission.

According to a contemporary biographer,4 St. Otto’s heart was filled with joy at both proposals. Having meticulously sent a request for authorization to Callixtus II – he certainly did not want to repeat the bitter experiences of the past – he began preparations for the mission. A new stage in our saint’s life was beginning – or rather, the second great odyssey of his life. In the first, he had fought an inner struggle; now he would wage an external war, a campaign of conquest. He who had once been able to call himself “Lucifer’s chancellor”, although perhaps through no fault of his own, now deserved the title of Christ’s ambassador.

The inner battles waged by the Apostle of Pomerania revealed that he shared our fragile flesh and is closer to us than we think

Gone were the palatial surroundings of the days of his imperial chaplaincy, gone were all the subtleties of socializing with men of power. Protected by dense forests, full of snakes and wild animals, Pomerania was home to a frightening people who considered it normal, among other things, to murder their own daughters, and who had recently crucified a missionary.

Some time before the journey, there had been a revolt against the yoke of Boleslaw, which the duke drowned in blood. The rotting corpses were still on display in the streets.

St. Otto presents the Church of Pomerania to Christ, Memorial Church of Wartislaw – Schleswig-Holstein (Germany)

We might describe St. Otto facing all kinds of obstacles, fleeing cities, burning pagan idols, performing miracles, always faithful to a war plan whose title could well be: evangelization through beauty, for his method involved captivating the natives with the magnificence of liturgical ornaments. It is estimated that during his apostolic work, St. Otto baptized more than twenty-two thousand people, making him the Apostle of Pomerania.

More than a Saint, a friend

At the age of seventy-seven and full of merits, the ambassador of Christ died on June 30, 1139.

When analysed in depth, this saint’s life – like everyone else’s – dismantles a myth. It shows us that the spiritual journey of the blessed is not without setbacks and remorse of conscience; after all, like us, they are children of Adam, not Jupiter.

The inner battle they wage to distance themselves from the world shows us that they are closer to us than we think.

God’s friends are also our friends, because they share our fragile flesh; they contemplate our spiritual battles eager to help, like an older brother who looks at his younger sibling and says: “Believe me, I’ve been there.” ◊



1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. II-II, q.58, a1.

2 SANCTI OTTONIS VITA, c.VI: PL 173, 1272.

3 Cf. ST. OTTO OF BAMBERG. Epistolæ et diplomata: PL 173, 1313-1315.

4 Cf. EBO; HERBORDUS. The Life of Otto: Apostle of Pomerania. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920, p.25.



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