Poland has given us two saints named Stanislaus. Of these, the better known is the young Jesuit saint, Stanislaus Kostka (1550-1586). But in Poland itself Bishop St. Stanislaus is a national hero. He headed the diocese of Cracow, a predecessor of Pope John Paul II.
The family name of Cracow’s Stanislaus was Szczepanowski. His parents were devout members of the nobility. They had been childless, but God finally rewarded their prayers for a family by sending them Stanislaus. From his birth onward, the grateful parents prepared him for the service of God. He was educated for the priesthood at Gnesen, in Poland, and perhaps also at Paris. Once ordained a priest of the Cracow diocese, Father Stanislaus won increasing fame as a preacher and spiritual director. His instruction and good example produced a body of persons, lay and clerical, who were outstanding for their Christian virtue. Therefore, when Bishop Lampert Zula died in 1072, the Catholics of Cracow agreed that Stanislaus should succeed him. Pope Alexander II concurred.
In those days, the king of Poland was Boleslaus II (1058-1080). Boleslaus was a man of ability, but he had grave flaws in character that eventually impaired his rule. At length, some of the chief Polish leaders, including Bishop Stanislaus and the King’s own brother, Prince Ladislaus, withstood him. The traditional life story of the Bishop says that when Boleslaus kidnapped the unwilling wife of a nobleman for his own pleasure, Stanislaus rebuked him, threatening excommunication. The King retaliated cruelly by killing the Bishop.
More recent historians say, however, that Stanislaus played an active role in a plot of the Polish leaders to remove their oppressive monarch from office. Learning of the plot, Boleslaus accused Stanislaus of treason and ordered that he be chopped to death, limb by limb.
Boleslaus was certainly responsible for the Bishop’s death – he himself slew him in the Church of St. Michael, Cracow. But since the King’s motives for the slaying might have been more political than theological, some have questioned whether the saintly bishop should be referred to as a martyr, which has hitherto been the practice. This is a technical matter.
A century after the brutal slaying of the Bishop of Cracow, Henry II, King of England, would incur responsibility for the execution of an equally forthright English bishop, St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury. In both the Polish and English cases, the victim won canonization, and the monarch had to eat humble pie. In Poland, Boleslaus faced such nationwide opposition that, after killing Stanislaus, he fled to Hungary, never to return; and his brother Ladislaus succeeded him. Stanislaus was hailed not only as a saint but as a national hero. In 1088 his body was enshrined in the Cathedral Church of Cracow, and in 1253 Pope Innocent IV named him to the honors of the altar. Ever since then, the Polish people have found inspiration in his heroic example whenever they have been imposed upon by rulers hostile to their nation’s civil and religious rights.
Fortunately for Boleslaus, he profited by his own humiliation. Taking up residence in the Hungarian Benedictine abbey of Osiak, he spent the rest of his life making amends for his sins. An eleventh-century list of saints and martyrs venerated by the Polish Benedictine monks even lists him as a near-saint: “Blessed Boleslaus, King and penitent.” Here was a wonderful exemplification of Christ’s parable of the Good Shepherd. Jesus has not hesitated to leave the 99 sheep – St. Stanislaus of Cracow among them – to seek out and bring back in triumph Boleslaus the stray!
–Father Robert F. McNamara