Bl. Ladislaus of Gielniów and the Power of Catholic Culture

 In the year of Our Lord fourteen sixty-two,
St. Peter’s chains’ day, I took the cloister’s bonds.
In Gielniów, Peter begot me, but Peter,
most kind, in the cloister enclosed me: smashed my chains.
Thanking good God, with the Psalmist I sing:
‘You have broken my bonds, O merciful God,
By a wretch be thanked, that I may fulfill my vows;
That I may end well, to a wretch be gracious.’

So wrote Bl. Ladislaus of Gielniów, a Polish friar of the Franciscan reform begun more than a generation before by St. Bernadine of Siena, a movement known in Poland as the “Bernadines” and elsewhere as the “Observantine Franciscans.”  After spending some time as a student, Bl. Ladislaus (Władysław) faithfully served the Polish Bernadines for more or less the whole of his adult life of more than four decades, up until his death in 1505, including several terms as the Polish provincial vicar.

Much like St. John Capistran, who had spent some time in Poland planting the Bernadine reform there, Bl. Ladislaus was known as a fervent preacher and a tireless worker—albeit on smaller, less international scale.  He worked to build up the fledgling order in Poland and Lithuania, often in the face of resistance from the larger and more established Conventual Franciscans, with their considerably more relaxed way of religious life. The Observants’ very rigorous asceticism and strict interpretation of Franciscan poverty constantly threatened to open old wounds among the followers of St. Francis, and public controversies between the two groups often broke out in the fifteenth century.

Bl. Ladislaus of GielniowIndeed many others amongst the clergy and religious of Poland, as in Europe in general, did not approve of a number of the features of the new order.  St. Bernadine of Siena had at one point even been tried for heresy for promoting a ‘novel superstition’ because of his special devotion to the monogram of the Holy Name of Jesus.  Likewise, the Cracow Cathedral Chapter had accused the famous Polish Bernadine preacher, St. Simon of Lipnica, a mentor to Ladislaus, of abusing the Holy Name by repeating it so often and forcefully in his sermons! The Polish Bernadines were eager to bring in the Eastern Orthodox of Poland and Lithuania, and fully recognized the validity of Orthodox sacraments, which made them targets of reproach for many of the Polish clergy, including from theologians and the Cracow University, who, on a pretext of the ignorance of Eastern clergy, had been for some time re-baptizing those who had come over from Eastern Churches.  Eventually, though, Rome ended the controversy, as it had in the previous cases, by intervening and upholding the Bernadine’s practice.  And if some, like the famous Italian humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, had criticized the poverty of the Observantines as miserable and beneath human dignity, others regarded their torn and patched habits as a moving sign of their fidelity to their vocation, and gave them warm support.

Bl. Ladislaus, for his part, was a firm defender of the rigorous spirit of St. Bernadine and consistently opposed any lessening of discipline. Yet he was always obedient, especially when not in office, to whatever directions his superiors gave, even if they were not to his liking.  When, as an old man, he was given by his superiors the option to go to whatever house of the order he wished, he begged not to have to exercise his own will after so many years of obedience, and to be assigned a place! They relented and gave him a mandatory assignment: Warsaw, a provincial, but growing city with which he was already well acquainted, and with which he is associated as a patron saint to this day.  Even in the context of the strict Bernadines, Ladislaus was famous for his fasts and other kinds of bodily mortifications, reflected in his special devotion to Christ scourged.

He also strongly upheld the Bernadine mission of preaching to the laity and poor in accessible, moving, and often colorful and even entertaining sermons, although always with forceful appeal to keep and live the Christian faith in all its rigor. As their provincial vicar, he arranged for vernacular hymns to be sung by the Bernadines after all sermons, including at Mass, following a practice already known in parts of Germany, and very much in line with the general tendency of the Observantines to elaborate the act of preaching devotionally.

It was precisely religious song and poetry, in fact, that would become Bl. Ladislaus’s most lasting legacy to Polish religious culture.  He is the first major Polish poet known by name to write sometimes in the vernacular, rather than exclusively in the learned language of Latin.

His songs and verse represent well his own piety, as well as those of his order. Frequently, they illustrate the popular orientation of both.  For instance, the simple poverty of Christ and Mary is sometimes stressed, in a homey and colorful way, which nonetheless puts across the Gospel story’s emotional weight.  Consider these verses from his vernacular song on the Nativity:

A town not large called Bethlehem
Around that time had many guests,
There Joseph with his new-found bride
Arrived, his Mary great with child.

Because these two possessed no wealth
No welcome could they find in town,
So to a stable off they went,
And there they dwelt in poverty

The purest Virgin Mary thus
To Jesus Christ the Lord gave birth.
At midnight, God himself was born,
And all the universe rejoiced.

*   *   *   *   *   *

And when the babe began to cry,
Upon bare earth itself he lay
Before him there his mother knelt
And so to her small child gave praise.

‘Wa, wa, wa, wa,’ the baby cried,
Lamenting all our human sins,
His mom then took him up from earth,
And wrapped him up in swaddling bands.

Because the stable was too tight,
A manger into crib she made.
No nursemaid there was found with her,
To come to that poor mother’s aid.

Some, lying, have been known to claim
(And thus that mother they insult!)
That serving maids abounded there,
And gave that mother lots of help.

Another major aspect of Franciscan and Bernadine piety was devotion to the Passion of Christ.  This is reflecting in his Polish poem on St. Veronica and her veil, and most especially in his Passion (or “Jesus”) chaplet, likely an adapted Polish translation of an earlier Czech hymn, but his most popular work.  Its beginning shows his interest in expressing significant theological content even in writings for ordinary people (for instance, in its consideration of kinds of giving away, human and divine) as well as his desire to create a sense of immediate seeing, or interior participation, in sacred events:

Jesus Judas sold away, for just wretched money
God the Father gave his Son, for our souls’ salvation
Jesus at the paschal feast, gave out his own body,
soothed his sad apostles’ grief, with his very life blood.

To the garden Jesus went, with his friends, his loved ones
Thrice his Father he implored, in behalf of sinners
Bloody sweat out from him poured, in his heavy struggle
O my soul, so very loved, look on him, who loves you.

Bl.  Ladislaus also wrote verse in Latin that had the purpose of instructing clergy or religious. Poetry for teenage scholars considering clerical careers was written on saints and Church feasts, in a style that is short and to the point, whereas some of the rest for the more mature are longer—for instance a poem summarizing canonical penalties and penances for confessors, or his interpretative verse paraphrase of the Song of Songs, meant to teach how to read the book spiritually.  His artistry even with didactic or easily accessible subject matters is very much in evidence here.

Bl. Ladislaus of Gielniów, died as he lived.  While preaching an especially fervent sermon on Good Friday, 1505, at which the spectators attested they saw him levitate in the air, he fell into a trance, and soon thereafter caught an illness, expiring about a month after Easter.

Although more than competent as a poet, he was outshone by his successors in the sixteenth century, who, having mastered a mature Renaissance style, could command a wider range of poetic styles in both Polish and Latin.  Yet Bl. Ladislaus remained a towering figure in Polish Catholic devotional poetry and song well into the seventeenth century, and his Passion chaplet, in particular, was in these years one of the most popular and highly-indulgenced Polish devotions.  This, along with the whole Bernadine effort among the poor and mediocre in status, helped to shape a Catholic culture in Poland and Lithuania that was able to survive the stresses of the Protestant Reformation, and the deep and prolonged political, social, and economic crisis that settled on Poland from the middle of the seventeenth century. Indeed, it was consistently the case that the simple were most loyal to the traditional Church in these centuries.

Bl. Ladislaus can serve to remind us that the tradition of Catholic culture is a many-splendored thing: really a harmony of different, interrelated traditions of given religious orders, nations, regions of the world, eras, rites, styles and institutions.  Parts of it speak easily to the intelligent, educated, and sophisticated, others to those children of God who are none of these things.  Then again, some of the tradition can, as many of the works of Bl. Ladislaus, speak easily to both.  Yet none of the strains need contradict the others in building up the Kingdom of Heaven.  All, used properly, work to the same end.

Editor’s note: Translations of the poetry of Bl. Ladislaus are by Paul Radzilowski; all rights reserved.

Paul Radzilowski

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Paul Radzilowski teaches history at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

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