1,050 Years of Christianity in Poland

2016 marks an important year for Poles, as we commemorate 1,050 years of Christianity.  It was in 966 the Duke Mieszko was baptized, ushering in a millennium of Christ-centered rule.  Join the Orchard Lake Schools as we commemorate this long legacy of faith, liberty, and knowledge, on June 22, 2016. A schedule and event details will be available here, so check back frequently for updates!

The following work, originally written by Fr. Joseph Swastek in 1963, is copyrighted by the Priest Conference for Polish Affairs (P.C.P.A.).  It is offered here for educational purposes only.  For more information on the P.C.P.A. contact Msgr. Frank Koper at fkoper@sscms.edu.  For more information on the works of Fr. Swastek, please contact the Adam Cardinal Maida Alumni Library here. 

Poland’s 1,000th Anniversary: 966 – 1966

by Rev. Joseph Swastek

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Preface

It is our pleasure to bring to you, in these pages, an introduction to the forthcoming observance of Poland’s thousandth anniversary.  This popular presetntation of the meaning, present and past, of the millenary has been written by a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit who teaches in the Polish Seminary at Orchard Lake, Michigan.

The pamphlet makes use of an unusual and intriguing approach.  First, it discusses the meaning of Poland’s thousandth anniversary – just precisely what it is. Next, it examines the anniversary’s historical origin by presenting the underlying facts after the manner of a baptismal certificate. Finally, it sums up the overall significance of the millenary.

This pamphlet is more than an introduction to an interesting event.  It is also an invitation – an invitation to participate in the forthcoming anniversary observance with understanding.  It is our sincere hope that you will accept the invitation.

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  1. The Anniversary

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Nineteen Sixty-six will be a notable year in the lives of about forty million Catholics of Polish descent scattered throughout the world. It will be the year of an important event in their history—a thousandth year anniversary.

Viewed in the perspective of world history, one thousand years is a relatively short span of time. But in the annals of Catholicism, ten centuries constitute over half of the church’s existence on earth. It is for this length of time that the Catholic Church has served and guided the Polish people.

Understandably, then, the eyes of Polish Catholics, and it is hoped also those of their fellow brethren in the faith throughout the world, turn with anticipation to the forthcoming anniversary. It represents a millennium in more sense than the numerical one.

In view of the increasing use of ambiguous designations, such as “Poland’s Millennium” and “The Polish Millenary,” it may be well to point out at the outset what the forthcoming thousand-year commemoration is not. First of all, it is not the anniversary of the Polish land or the Polish people; both these have existed since pre-Christian times, as archaeological discoveries amply attest. Nor is it the anniversary of Poland’s emergence as a political entity, for the formation of the Polish multi-tribal state took place between the middle of the ninth and the second half of the tenth century.

Still another thing to note about the millennial commemoration is that it is not the anniversary of the coming of Christianity to the Polish people, because the earliest extant records refer this advent to the second half of the ninth century. Neither is it the anniversary of the baptism of the Polish nation as a whole, because the conversion of the Poles to Catholicism was effected, not by mass baptism in the tenth century, but by continued missionary evangelization that extended over more than a hundred years.

Strictly speaking, the forthcoming thousandth anniversary commemorates the Catholic baptism of Poland’s first so-called historical ruler, Mieszko—that is, the earliest tribal chief of the Polanie mentioned by name in contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles written outside Poland. In other words, it is the anniversary of the official acceptance of Catholicism by a member (not the founder) of Poland’s first historical dynasty – an acceptance which set the stage for the entry of the Polish people into the Catholic Church.

As such, the approaching millenary is primarily a religious observance involving, above all, an earnest spiritual preparation. Under the inspiration of Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński and the Polish hierarchy, this has taken the form of a program of spiritual renewal known as the Great Novena of the Millennium. Extending from 1957 into 1966, this nine-year long moral crusade of prayer and sacrifice, the most concerted in the nation’s history, aims not only at disposing the Polish Catholics for the holy observance of the millenary but also at strengthening them spiritually against all encroaching powers of darkness.

Each year of the Great Novena, on the first Sunday of May in churches all over Poland, Catholics solemnly renew their 1956 Częstochowa pledge to the heavenly Queen of Poland and begin the specific spiritual work appointed for the coming twelve months. In 1957, the objective of prayer and sacrifice was loving loyalty to God, the Cross, the Gospel of Christ, and the Church; in 1958—personal sanctification through life in the state of sanctifying grace; in 1959—defense of the life of the soul and the body; in 1960—sanctification of sacramental marriage; in 1961—strengthening amily life in God; in 1962—dedication of the youth to Christ; in 1963—extension of social justice and love; in 1964—cultivation of Christian virtues and elimination of national vices; and in 1965—invocation of Mary, the Protectress and Queen of Poland.

The late Pope John XXIII blessed the Great Novena, encouraging Polish Catholics to remain faithful to their promises and to prepare themselves with ardent hearts for the thousandth anniversary. To invite American Catholic participation in the millenary devotion honoring and sustaining Poland’s Faith, Pope John blessed a copy of the portrait of Our Lady of Częstochowa which is to be carried in a continuing visitation of churches and dioceses in the United States, just as is being done with its counterpart in Poland. The original portrait, venerated for nearly 600 years at the famed monastic shrine of Jasna Góra, in 1956 evoked from over a million pilgrims the historic pledge which affirmed the Polish nation’s fidelity to the Christian ideals and laid the basis for the Great Novena.

Since 1959, American Catholics have increasingly joined their Polish brethren in prayer for the intentions of the Great Novena. Inspired by the itinerant Madonna and led by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, Archbishop John Król of Philadelphia, and Archbishop John F. Dearden of Detroit, they stand ready to participate ever more fully not only in commemoration Poland’s thousandth anniversary but also in sustaining Poland’s historic Faith—the faith into which Mieszko was baptized.

  1. The Convert

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The man, whose baptism in the historical basis of Poland’s forthcoming thousandth anniversary, lived over thirty generations ago. This alone, aside from his name which at once strikes Anglo-Saxon eyes and ears as foreign, makes him seem strange and different. But to participate in the Polish millenary with understanding, we must learn something about Mieszko and his times.

Mieszko’s life spanned nearly three quarters of the tenth century, from about 920 to 992. During these seventy years, the political, cultural, and religious organization of Europe underwent considerable change. The Holy Roman Empire, a union in which Germany sought to dominate Italy, began its more than eight centuries of existence in 962, as the western rival of the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople. The Moslems dominated the Near East, North Africa, and most of Spain. Pagan Norsemen periodically razed European lands, and in 983 stumbled upon Greenland, a stepping stone to the New World. Central and Eastern Europeans—the Slavic Bohemians, Poles and Ukrainians, and the Asiatic Hungarians who settled among them—accepted Christianity. Much of Europe’s population, however, still remained pagan.

Paganism, too, was the native environment in which Mieszko made his appearance early in the tenth century. In the absence of source information about the exact date, scholars have suggested 920 or 922 as a possible approximate year of his birth. The exact of Mieszko’s assumption of princely rule is also unknown; Polish scholars generally accept 960 as a likely date. This would make Mieszko about forty years old at the time. His rule may have extended over nearly thirty-two years for, according to Bishop Thietmar (975-1018), Mieszko died an old man on May 25, 992.

Two medieval chroniclers—Theitmar, an eleventh-century German Bishop of Merseburg, and Gall, a pseudonymous foreign monk residing in early twelfth-century in Poland (neither of them an eyewitness)—supply us with most of our present information about Mieszko, particularly those details that would be required of a prospective adult convert to Catholicism. Some of the information, however, is colored either by prejudice or by favoritism where it is not seasoned with legend and symbolism.

Mieszko was born blind of pagan parents. His father, Semimizl (Ziemomysł), was the third rule of the Piast dynasty among the Polanie, a West Slavic tribe that rose to prominence in a region of Central Europe around the fortified town of Gniezno. The tribal name, Polanie, derived from the word “pole,” (field) and meaning “dwellers of the fields” or plainsmen, eventually came to designate all tribes and lands under Piastian rule. The dynastic name, Piast, represents a lindquistic refinement of later historians who developed it from Gall’s designation “Pazt Chossictco” for Mieszko’s great-great-grandfather and founder of the family but not its first ruler.

Mieszko’s pagan mother, though mentioned by Gall, is not named by any of the chroniclers. Thietmar speaks of two brothers of Mieszko, calling one of them Cidebur. There is a possibility that Mieszko may have had a third brother (Procui) and a sister (Adelaide).

At the age of seven, says Gall in his chronicle written about 185 years after the vent, Mieszko was miraculously cured of his blindness—a portent not only of his own but also of his realm’s future conversion to Catholicism, for “Poland had previously been as if blind, but would be enlightened and raised over neighboring nations by Mieszko.”

Reared in idolatry, Mieszko grew to manhood, took over leadership of the Polanie and led them to conquests over other tribes. Like other pagan rulers, he also married polygamously, taking seven wives “according to custom.” Then at last, says Gall, Mieszko asked for the hand in marriage of a very good Christian woman from Bohemia named Dubrouca (Thietmar calles her Dobrawa). A daughter of King Boleslav I (929-967), she had a sister who was a Benedictine nun and a brother (one of three) who was a priest. Among her relatives were two martyrs: St. Ludmilla, her great-grandmother, and St. Vaclav (Wenceslaus), her uncle.

Both our chroniclers write of the mixed married that ensued and of Mieszko’s baptism that followed. They also provide an interesting composite picture of Mieszko. Bishop Thietmar speaks of Mieszko (whom he calls Miseco) as a warlike man, an active persecutor of God, a man steeped in many pagan errors, an outstanding leader, a faithful follower of the Holy Roman Emperor, and a greater ruler than his famous son, Boleslaw, the first crowed king of Poland. Gall writes of Mieszko (whom he calls Mescho) as great and famous, a frequent conqueror of his neighbors, a polygamist, the first Polish princely convert, and the man who led Poland out of the shadows of idolatry into the sunshine of Christianity.

Such is the man whose baptismal certificate we shall now try to reconstruct from the historical sources that have survived.

  1. The Place

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An important item in the baptismal certificate is the name of the place where the ceremony has been performed. This actually includes several place names—that of the country, that of the state or province, that of the city, and that of the church. Nowadays, when we want to get a baptismal certificate, we simply go to the parish priest and ask him to write one out or to apply for one at the church where the ceremony originally has taken place. In any event, the priest who fills out the certificate consults the parish baptismal ledger and transcribes the information contained therein unto the certificate. Now in the case of Mieszko, the procedure is neither so simple nor so easy. For one thing, contrary to what we might expect in connection with so important a matter as the baptism of a country’s first Christian, no baptismal register containing the record of Mieszko’s baptism has thus far been found. Either (which seems more likely) the register has been lost or destroyed by war, fire or some other mishap or (which seems strange but possible) the ceremony was not recorded for posterity but left to uncertain retention of human memory.

In the absence of a baptismal register we must, therefore, turn to the historian for help in securing information about the place of Mieszko’s baptism. And here we come upon a second surprise and disappointment.

Of the several available sources—or substitutes for the baptismal register—that tell us something about the ceremony none is an eyewitness statement. What is more disappointing, not a single one mentions the place—neither the city nor the church, not even the country nor the province—where the baptism occurred. The sources are completely silent about this matter, so that it is correct to say candidly that we do not know where Mieszko was baptized.

Nevertheless, since medieval times Polish historians, with few exceptions, have tended toward the tactic assumption that Mieszko was baptized in Poland. Most scholars, too, have been inclined to assume that the ceremony was performed in the ancestral region of the Polanie—in upper rather than lower Poland.

But even so, historians have differed in proposing informed guesses about the particular city in which Mieszko may have been baptized. Many, following John Długosz, the fifteenth-century priest-chronicler who is regarded as Poland’s greatest medieval historian, have proposed Gniezno as the municipal site of the historic ceremony. Located in northwestern Poland, Gniezno was an early stronghold of the Polanie and the first capital of Mieszko’s tribal state.

Other historians, however, have suggested Poznań, also an early Polanian fortress and Poland’s first ecclesiastical center, as the likely city of Mieszko’s baptism. Still others, moving into southern Poland, have tentatively proposed Kraków, perhaps the oldest Polish municipal center, as the probable site of the ceremony.

On the other hand, there have not been lacking since medieval times historians who have suggested that Mieszko’s baptism may well have occurred outside of Poland. The first to propose this, a fifteen-century chronicler named Sędziwój, pointed to Bohemia and the city of Prague. Since then, Germany (or more properly, the Holy Roman Empire), particularly the cities of Cologne, Halberstadt, Quedlinburg, and Magdeburg—all have been tentatively put forward as possible baptismal sites.

Most recently, Jerzy Dowiat, perhaps the foremost present-day authority on Mieszko’s baptism, has advanced a persuasive argument in favor of the Bavarian city of Ratisbon as the place of the ceremony. The oldest Bavarian town and an early center of missionary activity among the Western Slavs, Ratisbon had largely won Bohemia to Christianity in the ninth and tenth centuries. For about 100 years, until the episcopate of St. Wolfgang (972-994), Ratisbon, as the cathedral city of the Diocese of Regensburg, held ecclesiastical jurisdiction over all Bohemia from whose royal family Mieszko took his first Christian wife. Moreover, nearly all the known princely baptism of this period took place outside of the homeland of the convert, and Mieszko’s domestic situation at the time of the baptism was such as to favor no exception from the common practice.

Finally, as to the church in which Mieszko was baptized, Dowiat proposes the Benedictine monastery of St. Emmeram as the most likely ecclesiastical site. One of the earliest churches erected in Ratisbon, the monastery often served as the Episcopal seat, particularly if the bishop was a former monk. The patron saint of the monastery was a seventh-century Frankish missionary bishop who had labored in Ratisbon and was subsequently martyred at Heiffendorf in 653.

In summary, then, according to the latest scholarly interpretation of the available scanty source marterials, our reconstruction of Mieszko’s baptismal certificate shows that the place of the ceremony may quite probably have been the Benedictine monastery church of St. Emmeram, located in the city of Ratisbon, within the duchy of Bavaria, and in the Holy Roman Empire.

  1. The Date

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Another essential item in the baptismal certificate is the date—the year, month, and day of the ceremony. The date, at least the year, is usually the clue which the parish priest uses as a point of departure in searching through the baptismal register for a particular record, as the individual baptism are entered chronologically in the order of their occurrence, week by week, month by month, year by year.

Strange as it may seem, of the several pertinent medieval sources written in or outside Poland within 300 years after Mieszko’s baptism, only two give a partial date of the event. Stanger still, the two sources—both composed in Latin in Poland by anonymous analysts who did not witness the baptism—give different years for the ceremony.

Annals of the Holy Cross Monastery, preserved in the original manuscript written about 1122 (or approximately 156 years after Mieszko’s baptism), is the oldest annalistic record to survive in Poland in its original documentary form. Containing forty-four dated events, it is said by scholars to incorporate some material copied from earlier annalistic and calendar sources produced probably in Kraków but unfortunately lost since then. In any case, the Holy Cross Annals contain this pertinent statement: “967—Myska duz baptizatur:” “967—Mysko, the ruler, is baptized.”

The Annals of the Kraków Chapter, preserved in a manuscript written about 1266 (or approximately 300 years after Mieszko’s baptism), is a considerably longer record. A chronology of selected events from Adam, the father of Zeth, to the thirteenth-century Boleslaw, the ruler of Kraków, the Annals draw upon a variety of foreign and local sources, some of which are said to consist of annals and calendars originally produced in Kraków before the end of the tenth century. In brief, the Kraków Chapter Annals contain the following apposite entry: “966—Mesko dux Polonie baptizatur:” “966—Mesko, the ruler of Poland, is baptized.”

Which of these two dates is the correct year of Mieszko’s baptism—967 or 966? To complicate matters still further, two other anonymous annalists writing in the fifteenth century in southern Poland dated Mieszko’s baptism 942 and 944 respectively. Polish historical scholars are generally agreed in accepting 966 as the true date of the ceremony—a date supported by most medieval annals and chronicles—and in rejecting the other dates as copyist’s or scribe’s errors. This is particularly true of the Holy Cross Annals in which several successive events in one column are erroneously advanced by one year.

Even so, this gives us only the  year of Mieszko’s baptism; the month and day of the ceremony remain shrouded, since no extant source within 400 years of the event contains that specific information. Later historians, however, have not hesitated so submit more or less educated guesses about the matter. The earliest such proposal came in the fifteenth century from John Długosz (1415-1480) who suggested March 9 as the ate of Mieszko’s baptism.

A present-day Polish scholar, who has written two books on the beginnings of Christianity in Mieszko’s Poland, rejects Długosz’s proposal as incompatible with the Holy Week calendar for 966. Instead, Jerzy Dowiat persuasively proposes Holy Saturday, April 14, 966, as the specific date of Mieszko’s baptism.  This date is said to correspond fully with the liturgical practices and regulations of the tenth century as well as with the known political conditions of the time in Poland.

How old was Mieszko at the time of his baptism? We cannot say with any degree of accuracy, because the exact date of Mieszko’s birth is presently unknown. But several scholars, relying largely upon Bishop Thietmar’s statement that Mieszko died a feverish old man in 922, have proffered personal opinions about the matter. One medievalist suggests that Mieszko was about thirty years old at the time of his baptism; another historian tentatively proposes forty-three as a possible age limit. Those who accept 920 as a likely year of Mieszko’s birth favor forty-six or forty-five as his baptismal age.

In the face of such divergence of opinion, we are safe in affirming this much at least: that Mieszko was quite likely a middle-aged adult at the time of his baptism.

By way of conclusion, we may say that if we go by the incomplete extant record of Mieszko’s baptism, we must be satisfied with the statement that Mieszko was baptized in middle-age in the year 966. But if we wish to supplement this limited information with scholarly guesses, we may tentatively accept as probably that Mieszko may have been baptized in his forty-sixth year on Holy Saturday, April 14, 966.

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  1. The Ceremony

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So far, we have reviewed and to some extent ascertained the externals of Mieszko’s baptism—its time, place, and recipient.  Now let us examine the ceremony itself, with particular reference to the rite, the minister, the sponsors, and the baptismal name conferred upon the recipient.

All these details, it must be candidly admitted, remain shrouded in historical uncertainty, since none of our currently available sources of information contains any direct evidence about the particulars of Mieszko’s baptism. Scholars, however, have tried to reconstruct the ceremony with the help of background information about tenth-century baptismal practices and regulations in western and central Europe, adding to it personal educated guesses based on known facts of Mieszko’s life. The following statements represent a summary of the latest scholarly views on the matter.

Since Mieszko was an adult at the time of his baptism, he was baptized according to the special rite used in conferring the sacrament upon adults. Moreover, he was baptized according to the ceremonies of the Latin rite to which his Christian wife belonged and which he joined. In the tenth century, Latin baptism of adults was commonly performed by a three-fold immersion of the recipient in the baptistery pool. Consequently, it is inferred, Mieszko was baptized by immersion.

Since adult baptism was immediately followed by Confirmation and Holy Communion, and since normally the three sacraments were conferred at special times—on Holy Saturday or the Vigil of Pentecost—the ordinary minister of the threefold ceremony was the bishop with competent jurisdiction over the recipient, particularly if the convert was a person of prominence. In Mieszko’s case, it was suggested by older Polish scholars that the likely minister was Bishop Jordan, the first so-called missionary bishop of Poland and a man variously described as a German, a Roman, a Slav, a Frank, and a Celt, in the absence of any specific information about his origin. Another candidate proposed for the minister of baptism is a Bohemian priest, Bohwid, an alleged chaplain of Dobrawa.

Most recently, however, the leading Polish authority on Mieszko’s baptism has named a new candidate for the baptismal minister in the person of Bishop Michael of Ratisbon (942-972). This bishop exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Bohemia and its Christian subjects, among whom was Mieszko’s wife. Moreover, Ratisbon was one of two German dioceses (the other being Brandenburg) directly neighboring on Mieszko’s territory.

The prevailing tenth-century practice, regulating the presence of sponsors at the baptism of adults, commonly required one sponsor to assist at the immersion—a godfather for the male and a godmother for the female neophyte. The sponsor was to be a parishioner in good standing, known to the ministering bishop and to the convert. It has been suggested that this role was enacted for Mieszko by one of his Bohemian relatives by marriage—quite likely his father-in-law, King Boleslav (, the father of Mieszko’s wife.

Most difficult to determine is the baptismal name that Mieszko received during the ceremony.  The numerous more or less learned opinions advanced by Polish and German scholars fall into two main groups. One, less favored today, starts with the assumption that the Polish ruler’s Christian name had no connection with the present commonly used appellation—Mieszko—but that it was an entirely different name: either Dagobert, or Lambert, or Casimir. In this supposition, Mieszko is taken to be the convert’s original pagan name.

The more common view today begins by assuming that the Polish ruler’s baptismal name was somehow related to the accepted historical appellation, Mieszko. But the precise determination of this relationship is complicated by two areas of disagreement: one concerns the exact spelling of the name, Mieszko, the other pertains to its derivative meaning. The medieval Latin chronicles contain several variant spellings—Misica (most frequent), Misico, Miseco, Mysco, and Mesco (with “c” and “k” often interchanged”; the Polish translations of these Latinisms suggested by later historians and philogists are Mieszko (most common) and Miszka. The proposed derivative meanings of Mieszko include “bear,” “pouch,” “little mouse,” and “bellows.”

Since Długosz’s day, attempts have also been made to see in Mieszko a diminutive of Mieczsław (famed swordsman), or Mścisław (famed avenger), or Miecisław (possessor of fame). The latest scholarly suggestion made by Dowian opines that Mieszko is a dimunitive of Michael, the formal baptismal name taken by the Polish rule in honor of the bishop who christened him.

And so, historical reconstruction would have us conclude that Mieszko, sponsored by his father-in-law Boleslaw I of Bohemia, was baptized by immersion according to the Latin rite, receiving the name of Michael in honor of the baptizing minister, Bishop Michael of Ratisbon.

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  1. The Motive

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Now that we have reconstructed Mieszko’s baptismal certificate, let us examine another key element associated with the baptism—the movive.  Why did Mieszko abandon his ancestral paganism, the religion of the greater portion of his life, and adopt Catholicism?

The obvious answer would seem to be one involving religious conviction: Mieszko became a convert, because he was convinced Christianity was the true faith which would bring him eternal life. Yet oddly enough, this answer, strongly implied in the baptismal rite itself, has found little appeal among the chroniclers and historians who have adverted to Mieszko’s motivation.

Most writers, as a matter of fact, have been inclined, if not to deny, at least to dismiss the religious motive with silent disregard. Instead they have proposed numerous other reasons as the alleged motives of Mieszko’s decision to receive baptism.

Chief among these is the political motive: Mieszko is said to have agreed to be baptized because of political necessity or expediency. Some of the specific allegations include the desire to assure the independence of Poland by means of papal support, the wish to strengthen his own power in Poland with the help of the Church, and the hope of winning Christian Bohemia’s military support against the pagan Slavic Redar tribes that had been aggressive active against the Polanie.

Another frequently alleged motive is nationalism: Mieszko is said to have become a Christian, because he was anti-German or pro-Slavic in attitude. In this connection, the particular allegations aver that he wished to deprive the Christian Germans of the evangelizing pretext for waging war on pagan Poland; or that he wanted to avoid the incorporation of the Polanie into the sphere of German ecclesiastical jurisdiction; or that he envisioned a Christian Slavic empire composed of several Slav nations united by a dynamic Christian faith against the aggressive eastward encroachment of the Teutonic Holy Roman Empire.

The personal or human motive has also been advanced in a variety of forms.

Mieszko is said to have become a Catholic, because allegedly this was the essential condition laid down by his wife-to-be during the preliminary marriage negotiations; or because, after the marriage, he wished to please his wife, or to win her love, or to end her continued importunities; or because he was urged by missionaries—his wife’s chaplain, Bohemian priests, or Irish monks—to accept Christianity voluntarily rather than under compulsion resulting from comquest.

Obviously all these allegations cannot be true, since some contradict one another, some represent patent attempts to read the present into the past, and nearly all suffer from a common historical malady—primary source malnutrition. As is the case of the baptismal-certificate details, so in the matter of the baptismal motive no eyewitness account has survived to inform us of the truth.

The two earliest extant accounts bearing upon Mieszko’s motivation, written by strangers between fifty and 150 years after the baptism, have at least this thing in common: unlike modern historical reconstructions, they agree on attributing Mieszko’s acceptance of Catholicism to the same cause.

The Chronicle of the Bishop of Merseburg, written by Bishop Thietmar between 1012 and 1018 (or between forty-six and fifty-two years after Mieszko’s baptism), has this to say about the motivation of the incident: “She (Mieszko’s wife, Dobrawa) labored to convert her husband and merciful God heard her prayers. Through His infinite goodness, a zealous persecutor of God turned penitent, as he spat out the poison of his inborn paganism at the frequent urging of his beloved wife and washed away his original stain in sacred baptism.

The Chronicle of the Poles, written in 1112 and 1113 (or about 146 or 147 years after Mieszko’s baptism) by an anonymous monk later nicknamed Gall by historians, states: “In the end, he (Mieszko) asked for the hand in marriage of a very good Christian woman in Bohemia named Dubrouca. But she refused to marry him, until he gave up that sinful practice (polygamy) and promised to become a Christian. When he agreed to these conditions…that the lady came to Poland…And so the first price of the Poles obtained the grace of baptism through the intercession of his wife…”

Such is the testimony of the two earliest sources. They both agree in clearly and unequivocally ascribing the motive for Mieszko’s baptism to the influence of his Christian wife, Dobrawa. Aside from the influence of supernatural grace, it was Dobrawa, who, humanly speaking, brought about Mieszko’s conversion to Catholicism in 966.

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  1. The Significance

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If historians can not agree on the motive which led Mieszko to accept Christianity, they find it still more difficult to assess the historical significance of his baptism. After all, how important is the baptism of one man? For the recipient, it is all-important, because it opens the portals of heaven to his immortal soul. If he happens to be a princely leader of a pagan people, his baptism can also have far-reaching consequences for his followers and his neighbors, for his land and his church. Such was the case with the baptism of Mieszko.

Viewed through a thousand-year perspective, Mieszko’s baptism, even though it neither initiated nor climaxed the Christianization of Poland, brought in its wake profound religious effects. The Catholic Church came to Poland in western Latin garb with its scripture and tradition, its doctrine and discipline, its liturgy and ritual, its sacramental system and hierarchical organization, its religious orders of dedicated men and women, its missionaries and parish priests, its churches and schools, its saints and scholars, its catechism and mysticism, its ideals and exemplars to become the source of the nation’s supernatural strength in prosperity and partition. The creative forces of Catholicism transformed the pagan dwellers of the plains into Polish Catholics, members of a visible universal church and spiritual subjects of the kingdom of Christ.

The advent of Catholicism, in turn, opened a flood-tide of other influences, political and cultural, deriving from far-flung regions—Italy, France, Germany, Bohemia, Spain, Hungary, Belgium, and Holland. Gradually the loosely knit primitive tribes were consolidated into a closely integrated member-state of the western Christian family of nations, sustained by the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultural heritage of the past centuries. Working wiht myriad-handed prodigality, the Church wove its influence into the very texture of the nation’s history as it assisted Poland in developing a genuine Catholic culture.

Thus, Mieszko’s baptism made Poland the happy recipient of countless spiritual and cultural benefactions inspired by the Church’s faith and charity. Soon, however, the Polish nation itself became a contributor to the Church which had so handsomely endowed it, repaying at least in part its debt of gratitude.

During its thousand years of Catholicism, Poland has given the church millions of members, and hundreds of thousands of priests and bishops, monks and friars, nuns and brothers—its finest sons and daughters, the fairest flowers of the land. Outstanding among them are twelve native-born Polish canonized saints: Krystyn, matthew, Isaac, Andrew-Świerad, Benedict-Stojsław, Stanisław (bishop), Jacek, Jan Kanty, Stanisław Kostka, Andrew Bobola, Kazimierz, and Józefat. The last two, though born and reared in Poland, were not of Polish parentage.

The native born Polish Blessed number sixty-two persons who include Bogumił, Bronisława, Czesław, Jakub Strepa, Jan of Dukla, Jan Sarkander, Jolenta, Kinga, Ładysław of Gielniów, Melchior Grodziecki, Salomea, Szymon of Lipnica, Vincent Kadłubek, and Sadok and his forty-eight companion martyrs.  Native-born Polish candidates for beatification, whose processes are presently in various stages of progress, total thirty-three persons—twenty-two men and eleven women.

The Polish nation has given the Church seventy-six religious congregations of men and women, from the Knights of Christ in 1229 to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1959. It has won Lithuania to the Catholic Faith and brought the non-Latin Ukrainians and Armenians within its borders to the Petrine allegiance. It has defended the Faith against the Tartars in 1241, against the Turks in 1683, and against the Bolsheviks in 1920. It has supplied the College of Cardinals with twenty-one members, from Zbigniew Oleśnicki in 1431 to Stefan Wyszyński in 1953. It has sent Episcopal delegates to nine of the twenty-one ecumenical councils, and tis priests and nuns to all the continents of the globe.

Poland’s writers have produced a literature permeated with Catholic spirit one of whose major poetic chords is devotion to Mary, reflected also in some 670 Marian sanctuaries dotting the Polish land. Its scholars, like Paul Włodkowicz, have defended religious freedom or, like Kopernik, have scanned distant planets to extend the frontiers of knowledge. Its artists have freely used their talents to glorify God and his saints in music, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Its native treasury of piety, from the eleventh-century Book of Prayers of Gertrude(a great-granddaughter of Mieszko) to the 1959 Way of the Cross by Cardingl Wyszyński, speaks of the beloved Pan Jezus with tender Slavic affection in which a sad smile encounters a tremulous tear on page after page.

Thus since Mieszko’s baptism, the life of the Polish people has been intimately linked with the Catholic Church in a mutual exchange of devotion and service. Little wonder, then, that Polish Catholics look with grateful hearts to 1966.

Comments

  1. Dr. Stan Makewski says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post. Question: who was Boleslaw Chrobry in Polish History?

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