Father John Sarkander was to die rather than reveal the secrets entrusted to him in confession. In a priestly life made turbulent by war and interdenominational rivalries, this fact stood out as bright as the morning star.
Jan Sarkander was born in 1576 in Austrian Silesia, just over the border from Polish Silesia. His mother, widowed when he was 13, saw to it that he received a good Catholic education from the Jesuits at Olomouc and Prague. Although at first he felt he had a vocation to the priesthood, he eventually dropped his courses and married.
However, when his wife died one year later, he recommenced his priestly studies, deeply convinced now that God was calling him. Ordained in 1609, he began his ministry as a priest of the Diocese of Olomouc, now in the Czech Republic.
During the fifteenth century, a Czech reformist sect called the Unity of Brethren (Bohemian Brethren) had broken with the Holy See. After the Protestant Reformation, the Brethren allied with the Protestants.
The Brethren were quite strong in the area surrounding Olomouc. Around the time that Father Sarkander was ordained, a Baron Ladislaus Lobkowitz bought the extensive estates at Holloschau. Lobkowitz, a staunch Catholic, was determined to re-Catholicize his lands. He took the church and a college away from the Brethren and gave them to the Catholics. The local bishop then entrusted the college to the Jesuits and the parish church to Sarkander. Soon Father Sarkander, aided by the Jesuits, had reconciled over two hundred non-Catholics to the Catholic faith. But Lobkowitz’s non-Catholic neighbors, especially Baron Bitovsky (who was apparently a Lutheran), were angered by this trend, and determined to reverse it.
The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which set Central European Protestants against Catholics, played into the hands of Bitovsky. In 1619 Protestants gained possession of the government of Moravia and set about destroying the Catholic institutions. Father John, knowing that he was a potential target, left Holloschau and took temporary refuge in nearby Poland. He made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and spent a few months in Cracow. Then he returned home.
In February 1620, Polish Cossack troops, sent to the aid of the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria, swept over the Polish border into Moravia, pillaging as they advanced. Fr. Sarkander was prepared for them, however. When they approached his village, he met them in a procession, carrying the Blessed Sacrament. The Poles, being devout Catholics, dismounted and knelt. They promised him that the village would be spared destruction.
But Baron Bitovsky at once accused Sarkander of having plotted the whole Polish invasion while he was in Cracow. He ordered the imprisonment of the priest in Olomouc. There he was subjected to most cruel tortures to force him to admit that he had aided the political plot. Knowing also that he was Baron Lobkowitz’s confessor, his torturers demanded that he tell them anything about the alleged “plot” that he had heard in Lobkowitz’s confessions. Father Sarkander denied personal complicity in the invasion. As for anything relevant to it that Lobkowitz might have told him in confession, he replied, “I would choose, with God’s help, rather to be torn in pieces than sacrilegiously to violate the seal of confession.” For one month he survived the attempt to burn him alive.
His suffering finally ended on March 17, 1620. From the moment of his death, Fr. Jan was venerated as a martyr. Pope Pius IX declared him blessed in 1859.
When Pope John Paul II announced that he planned to visit the Czech city of Olomouc on May 21, 1995, and there to canonize Blessed Sarkander, Bishop Pavel Semetana, head of the Church of the Czech Brethren, urged that he not do so for fear of reopening old wounds.
The Pope replied to Bishop Semetana that he planned the canonization precisely to show that old injustices and uncharities on both sides should now be forgotten, and mutual pardons asked. At the canonization he declared, “Today, I, the pope of the church of Rome, in the name of all Catholics, ask forgiveness for the wrongs inflicted on non-Catholics during the turbulent history of these peoples; at the same time I pledge the Catholic Church’s forgiveness for whatever harm her sons and daughters suffered.”
There you have true ecumenism!
–Father Robert F. McNamara