Queen St. Jadwiga of Poland

(1371-1399)

There are two Polish women of royal blood who have long been venerated by Polish Catholics. Up to 1997 they were referred to as Saint Jadwiga and Blessed Jadwiga (Hedwig is the form of their name in German.) Now both are called saints, for in June 1997, on a solemn visit to Krakow, where he had formerly been archbishop, Pope John Paul II canonized Blessed Jadwiga.

Jadwiga of Krakow was a ranking figure in the history of Poland and Lithuania. She was the youngest daughter of King Louis of Poland, the last member of the Piast dynasty. After Louis’ death in 1382, Jadwiga’s counselors urged the thirteen-year-old princess to accept the hand of Jagiello, Duke of Lithuania, who aspired to the Polish throne. Jagiello was still a pagan; but he was ready not only to become a Christian if Jadwiga would have him, but to bring all of Lithuania into the Church.

The princess faced a crisis of conscience. She would have preferred another suitor, yet this one presented great advantages both to the Polish nation and the Church. In her dilemma, it is said that she donned a black veil and walked to the cathedral of Krakow. There she knelt for three hours in prayer before the crucifix in a side chapel. Finally she decided to renounce her own will and accept the offer; and rising, she draped the crucifix with her veil as a symbol of her openness to God’s will. Even today, we are told, the veil covers “Jadwiga’s Crucifix” in the cathedral chapel.

Jagiello seems to have been sincere. He was baptized with the Christian name Ladislaus, and the wedding was celebrated, and he was crowned, thus beginning the Jagiellonian dynasty. He did indeed see to the conversion of Lithuania, which was thereafter united with Poland, extending its boundaries far to the east. The conversion of the Lithuanians was also slowly but effectively accomplished.

Jadwiga was not a mere queen-consort. She wielded a moderating influence on the governance of the turbulent double-kingdom, tempering her husband’s tendency to jealousy and extreme measures. The people found in her a protector, and the nation and the Church a far-sighted benefactor. She was a good wife to Ladislaus, who really loved her deeply but also looked upon her with a certain awe. Her only fault seems to have been a lack of prudence in penance and prayer.

Not content with expanding Poland and Christianizing it, Ladislaus II and Jadwiga made Krakow a leading intellectual center by refounding its university. The Jagiellonian University has since then made Krakow “a bridge between the Christian West and East.” So declared Pope John Paul, one of its most distinguished alumni. At the canonization he praised Jadwiga’s appreciation of the value of cultural institutions to both state and church.

The queen was long unable to bear a child to her husband. When she finally did conceive, Ladislaus made enthusiastic plans to surround the birthing with jewels and rich drapes. Jadwiga took no stock in such splendor. She had long since renounced the pomps of the world. Now she simply wanted to thank God for the gift of a child by making His will her own. She now revisited the Jadwiga chapel of the cathedral on the anniversary of her “great renunciation” and was discovered several hours later in an ecstasy or perhaps a swoon. The child, a girl, was born shortly afterward, but lived only a few days. Its birth also cost the Queen her life. However, her good influence on the King continued even after her death.

Devotion to their model queen inspired crowds to visit her tomb, and miracles were recorded through her intercession. Although the process for her beatification foundered, she was popularly referred to as “Blessed.” Pope John Paul II made her formal beatification unnecessary by canonizing her. Poland has had few more influential religious, political and cultural leaders.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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