Radomír Malý

Saint Adalbert - the common patron of Central European nations

Saint Adalbert is said to have been "the first Czech of European significance". During the communist era, this statement could often be heard from Oto Mádr, the Czech Catholic theologian and long-time prisoner of the communist regime, at underground seminars held in private flats at that time. It is now repeated as a mantra by intellectuals from both ecclesiastical and secular circles. They would hold wrong anyone who would object this designation and claim that the second bishop of Prague was not the first Czech of European significance. But the problem lies elsewhere. We need to ask: What kind of Europe was it then - and what kind of Europe is it today?

Answers to these questions can be found in the work of the eminent historian Josef Pekař, who argued - in a discourse over the meaning of Czech history - that the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 marked the victory of Roman culture and civilisation, represented by the House of Habsburg and the Catholic Church, over Germanic culture, represented by Frederick V of the Palatinate ("the Winter King") and Protestantism. Without exaggeration, it can be said that the struggle between the Roman and Germanic paths, albeit featuring variable denominators and circumstances, has been going on since the dawn of our national history, through the Middle Ages and until present day. Let us look for its beginnings in the era of Great Moravia and the mission of St. Cyril and Methodius. There was a fierce clash between the Eastern spirituality influenced by Christianity, presented by the two apostles, and the strictly formalistic notion of Christianity promoted by the Bavarian clergy in our lands. While the former wanted to convert Slavic inhabitants of the Rastislav's and Svatopluk's empire to authentic Christian life, the latter were content with their merely formal affiliation to Catholicism. According to Life of Methodius, a book of an unknown author, the main cause of the conflict between the Moravian-Pannonian Metropolitan and Prince Svatopluk was the fact that Methodius reproached the ruler and people for their immoral behaviour, for disrespecting monogamy and indulging in pagan superstitions, while the Bavarian clergy tolerated it out of political reasons, for they were not so much concerned with the conversion of the people to Christ and living in line with Christian ethics, but rather with the mere obedience of those subjected to the German (Eastern Franconian) king.

This conflict arising from strict adherence to Christianity, reflected in the rejection of all remnants of paganism in both cult and morality, exists also in St. Wenceslas, whose murder resulted from a different attitude of this prince and his brother Boleslav to Christian values. The story of St. Ludmila and her daughter-in-law Drahomíra bears many similarities. The same tension can also be found in the life of the first Czech bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert. As is well known, he was educated in Magdeburg where he met with the reform movement that originated in the Benedictine monastery in Cluny.

Not only did the Cluniac Reforms focus on restoring the traditional monastic life, but due to their radicalism in terms of a change of morality according to Christian principles they affected the whole society. There was a requirement that the secular ruler should not interfere with purely internal church affairs. The rulers did this primarily to increase their power over the church. They usually lived contrary to Christian principles - and therefore they did not like being reproached by an ascetic bishop or a monk. That is why they installed in ecclesiastical offices mostly persons who pursued similar ways of life.

That is something that the advocates of the Cluniac Reforms refused to tolerate, and those of them who became Church leaders did not tolerate it either. Including Bishop Adalbert, who had to deal with polygamy and consanguineous marriages, slave trade, blood feuds and desecration of Sundays and holy days. As historian Rudolf Holinka describes in St. Adalbert' biography, when Adalbert tried to intervene from his position of a spiritual authority, it was the clergymen, devoted to their secular benefactors, who became his arch enemies. This situation later resulted in a conflict over the ability to choose and install bishops ("Investiture Controversy") which was a common practice especially among German rulers. The clashes culminated in the second half of the 11th century, when Henry IV, the Roman Emperor and King of Germany, expelled from Rome Pope St. Gregory VII who uncompromisingly refused to install church dignitaries at the will of the monarch. During the Middle Ages, this practice (with few exceptions) was an inherent part of the policy of German rulers seeking to conquer Central and Eastern Europe. A free church - intrinsically separate from secular power - was a serious obstacle to these efforts. According to Pekař, this is where the conflict between Roman and Germanic civilisation and culture originated. While the Roman model was based on the recognition of the authority of the papacy and the independence of the Church from secular power, the Germanic model encouraged subordination of the clergy to the monarch. In this respect, St. Adalbert clearly shared Roman culture and civilization principles.

The first biographer of St. Adalbert was Bishop Bruno of Querfurt, St. Adalbert's personal friend and great defender of the rights of the peoples east of the Elbe. Although himself a German, he very resolutely challenged the aggressive policy of German rulers in relation to the Slavs, for which the term "Drang nach Osten" could already be used at that time. It is true that the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation included high-minded figures such as Otto III or St. Henry II, but these were exceptions to the rule. The overwhelming majority of German noblemen on the border between Slavic and Germanic ethnic groups pursued a policy of forcible control and usurpation of Slavic territories.

The veneration of St. Adalbert is inextricably linked not only to the Czech but also to the Polish patriotism. No wonder - St. Adalbert is one of the national patrons of Poland. Poland has a large number of churches dedicated to him; besides the cathedral in Gniezno there is, for instance, an important church in Kraków. We must not forget that Adalbert's brother Radim Gaudentius was the first Archbishop of Gniezno. At that time, an independent Church served as a political defence of the Poles against the expanding dominance of German rulers, of which King Bolesław the Brave was fully aware.

Both Czechs and Poles revered St. Adalbert for being a symbol of religious but also national sovereignty - especially when it was necessary to defend the homeland against Pan-Germanism, a threat to both nations. In his Treatise in Defence of the Slavic, and Especially Czech Language and other writings, Bohuslav Balbín invokes Adalbert as a patron saint (alongside St. Wenceslas), watching over the Czech nation against the onset of Germanisation, and he views Wenceslas as the protector of Czech statehood and Adalbert as the protector of Czech spirituality. The same can be observed among the Poles; it is known that during the Swedish invasions in the 17th century and later during clashes with Prussia in the 18th century, St. Adalbert was invoked as the protector of Polish nation, to whom Polish Catholics often turned for help to ward off danger .

Also the Hungarians had warm feelings for St. Adalbert. As is well known, Bishop Adalbert baptised the son of Duke Geyza, Vayk, who took the name of Stephen and became Hungary's first Christian King. Adalbert's tutor Radla Anastasius was ordained as the first Archbishop of Esztergom. According to Bruno of Querfurt, Adalbert visited Hungary twice after his resignation from the office of the Prague bishop and significantly contributed to its Christianisation. At that time, Christianisation had not only religious but also political significance, for a nation that accepted baptism was automatically admitted among civilised nations and treated accordingly in diplomatic circles. Thus, under the rule of St. Stephen, the savage Hungarians (previously the scourge of Europe) became a "normal" nation and a "normal" kingdom that professed the same faith as their neighbours. This is exactly for what the Hungarians are grateful to Adalbert and they invoke him as their nation's patron along with St. Stephen. Adalbert - Béla in Hungarian - was invoked by the Hungarian nation at the time of Turkish invasions and when the country was occupied by the Mohammedans. After all, the Esztergom Basilica, the historical seat of the Hungarian Primate, is dedicated not only to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but also to St. Béla, i.e. our Adalbert.

St. Adalbert was strongly revered in Slovakia too, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary throughout the Middle Ages and much of the modern history. This can be seen by many shrines in both Hungary and Slovakia that are dedicated to this martyr. St. Adalbert was regarded with religious reverence during the national revival of the Slovaks in the 19th century as suggested by the name of a publisher of books in Slovak: The Society of St. Adalbert.

The figure of St. Adalbert therefore belongs equally to all four nations: Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, and Hungarians. This is evidenced by numerous artistic depictions of Adalbert among these nations, as well as Saint Adalbert legends that originated in their environment, and by the specific liturgical cult of this saint, practised not only in Prague but also in Gniezno, Poland, and Esztergom, Hungary. On 17 April 2017, Cardinal Dominik Duka, the Archbishop of Prague, rightly said that St. Adalbert was the "Symbolic Primate of the Visegrad Four". The veneration of St. Adalbert is universal, regardless of the church. In particular, we can refer to the cult of this saint in Rome in the Benedictine monastery of St. Alexius on the Aventine Hill, where Bishop Adalbert stayed after his first departure from the country. St. Adalbert is strongly revered in Aachen and Mainz, Germany. However, this does not change the fact that only the above four European nations have an intrinsic relationship to him as their national saint: Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Hungarians.

This, of course, inspires further thoughts in connection to what has been said regarding the differences between the Roman and Germanic culture and civilization. Adalbert was an uncompromising advocate of the former associated with Catholicism and its ethical principles, which he fiercely demanded from himself, from the clergy and church members he led, the ruler, and the nobility. In contrast, Germanic culture and civilization emphasised the subordination of faith and morals to the political interests pursued by secular rulers, as clearly shown by the development of the Church in Germany, culminating in the Lutheran revolution, which revealed the dependence of spiritual authority on secular power as something clearly evident and significant. Adalbert can thus rightly be seen as a symbol of opposition to this trend consisting - besides the erosion of Catholic doctrine in favour of rulers' political interests - also in expansionism and the subjugation of different ethnic groups.

Therefore, Adalbert is definitely NOT the "first Czech of European significance" within the meaning of the idea of a European superstate, dominated by the German ethnicity, as promoted by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the Pan-European Union. On the contrary, he is the first great Czech striving for the unification of Central European nations and for their common defence against Germanic expansionism.