The ancient European world, centered largely around the Mediterranean Sea, scarcely knew of the existence of the Slavs, a huge Indo-European race that lived in the East, far removed from Greek and Roman contact.
With the great movement of peoples in the early Middle Ages, branches of this Slavic society moved west. A largely agricultural body, they settled down in three groups:
- The Eastern Slavs (Russians, Belarussians or White Russians, and Ukrainians);
- The Western Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, plus smaller groupings to the north);
- The Southern Slavs, mostly in the Balkan Peninsula (Bulgarians, Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenes).
All of these shared a common Slavic tongue, but it developed variant forms in the various groups.
Some of these Slavic names are very familiar to us today. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, many of the Slavic societies are today claiming political independence.
The Slavs gradually learned of the Christian message from two sources: the Latin West (through Irish, Frankish and Roman missionaries), and the Greek East (through SS. Cyril and Methodius, two Greeks who brought with them the Greek liturgy of Constantinople expressed in the Slavic vernacular). As a result, one part of the Christian Slavs ended up following the Latin Rite, the other part, the Greco-Slavic Rite.
Cyril and Methodius introduced the Greco-Slavic liturgy to the Czechs, with the approval of the Holy See. Eventually, however, western political pressures forced the followers of the two brother-missionaries to move east and south, so that the Czechs remained affiliated with the Latin Rite.
This is a long but necessary introduction to St. Adalbert of Prague. A Bohemian Czech of the Latin Rite (though not unfriendly to the Greco-Slav Rite), he was to further the apostolate widely among his fellow Slavs. Adalbert (baptized Vojtech) was a member of the Slavniks, an East Bohemian princely dynasty. Because of his piety and talent, he was chosen, in 982, second bishop of Prague, whose first bishop had been a German.
A man of zeal, Adalbert worked for the reform of the Czech church and the spread of Christianity among the non-Christian Bohemians and Hungarians. His high social status and his close friendship with Emperor Otto III made him a person of influence, but they also earned for him the hatred of extreme Bohemian nationalists, who were inclined to favor the old pagan traditions. Forced to leave Prague, Bishop Adalbert went to Rome in 990 and became a monk in a Benedictine monastery. In 992 he was persuaded to return to his diocese, but he had to leave again in 995 after the Bohemian king Boleslaus II massacred Adalbert’s family and their adherents.
Utterly unable to fulfill his duties in Prague, Adalbert got permission from Pope John XV to devote himself to the full-time apostolate of the more easterly Slavic nations. His friend, King Boleslaus the Great of Poland offered to sponsor a mission under his supervision to the pagan Prussians in Pomerania on the Baltic coast.
Adalbert and his companions made a few converts at Danzig, but the Prussians ordered the missionaries out of the country. Refusing to give up his mission, and remaining in Pomerania, the bishop was murdered by the pagans on April 23, 997. The martyr’s body was thrown into the water, but was eventually washed up on the Polish coast, acquired by King Boleslaus, and enshrined in the cathedral of Gniezno, Poland.
This Slavic bishop was an important figure in the Christian history of central Europe. An active promoter of monasticism, he founded monasteries in Bohemia and Poland. He influenced the conversion of Hungary (and was possibly the baptizer of Hungary’s apostolic ruler, St. Stephen). And he is considered the apostle of Prussia. Poland and Bohemia have both claimed him as their own.
–Father Robert F. McNamara