St. Wolfgang

(c. 934-994 A.D.)

We recognize at once that a St. Wolfgang must have been the patron saint of that great musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Not too many Americans, even those of German descent, have chosen to give their sons such a lupine baptismal name. Yet St. Wolfgang of Regensburg remains one of the truly great saints of medieval Germany, and the model of a reforming Bishop.

Wolfgang, the son of a nobleman, attended school first at the Benedictine monastery school of Reichenau, and then at the cathedral school of Wuerzburg. Because of his talent he was then invited to teach in the cathedral school at Trier. Although still layman, he fell under the spell of the great local Benedictine monastery of St. Maximin, and became a willing assistant to the reforming bishop of Trier.

After the death of this bishop, Wolfgang himself joined the Benedictines, although not at Trier but at Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Here he was ordained a priest in 968 by St. Ulrich, bishop of Augsburg.

Soon after ordination Father Wolfgang was sent to the present Hungary to preach the gospel to the pagan Magyars, who had only lately settled there. He did his best, but without any visible success. In 972 he was brought back to Germany and named bishop of Regensburg. (The church authorities, in promoting him bishop after his Hungarian “failure” must have thought no less of him on account of his missionary unsuccess. For his part, the failure was probably an incentive to greater humility and stronger effort as he took over his episcopal duties.)

It seems that the diocese of Regensburg at that point needed a thorough reform, and Bishop Wolfgang was the man to accomplish it.

What do we mean by necessary reform? Well, we are human beings, and it is all too easy for us to become relaxed in Christian practices through one bad influence or another. Then it is hard to return to the straight and narrow path. Catholics begin to go down hill particularly when the members of their religious orders enter a decline, for the religious orders are normally a major inspiration to high standards. Wofgang, therefore, focused his efforts particularly on jacking up two local monasteries of monks, that of St. Emmeram and that of Altach. There were also two monasteries of nuns that had become slipshod in observing the rule that was theoretically their key to holiness. These nuns he also brought back to good discipline.

Wolfgang’s method of reform was interesting. No doubt he lowered the boom when that was necessary. But he seems to have depended most on shaming people into better ways by good example. When he became bishop he did not assume the princely ways of his fellow bishops in the Empire (although like them, he was a civil as well as it church ruler). No, he continued to wear his monk’s habit and to follow the monastic austerities, and he saw to it that his household was free of worldly life style. Likewise, he corrected the nuns of the two rundown monasteries, less, it seems, by scolding them than by founding at Regensburg a convent that excelled in good example through its careful observance of the rule.

We may be sure, nevertheless, that Bishop Wolfgang gained enemies among the monks and nuns that he felt obliged to correct, and among the clerics and lay people to whom he laid down the law. No matter how highly placed a corrector, people who have fallen into waywardness of teaching or behavior simply do not like to be corrected. We have seen examples of this all-too-human trait in our own day. I am sure that Wolfgang felt pain at their resistance. Maybe that was why, at one point, he fled his diocese and tried to set up as a hermit on the shores of what is now called Lake St. Wolfgang. His escape didn’t succeed. A hunter discovered him and brought him back home to face once more the unpopularity that is the occupational hazard of a bishop or any superior who has the duty of enforcing the law.

But opposition to him was in the short run. In the long run, the religious and laity of the diocese of Regensburg came to appreciate the idealism and courage and holiness of their bishop. When he died in 994 while on a trip down the Danube, his body was brought back and enshrined in Regensburg. It quickly became a center of pilgrimage, and in 1054 the pope canonized St. Wolfgang as a model of the bishop who is ready to correct as well as direct the flock entrusted to him.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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