In the heart of Catholic Bavaria, where I lived in the years of recent past, its little towns and villages, separated by acres of farmland and patches of forest, are connected by small, two-lane roads which wind and curve according to the path of least resistance. Although these roads are now paved and painted according to modern convention, the paths they tread are in fact as old as the farms and villages themselves, once dusty country routes carved into the earth by the feet of beast and man alike. I often wondered of the plight of these rural folk, deprived of GPS and the internal combustion engine, who either never left their little piece of the earth, or, for those who dared to migrate or embark on pilgrimage, the unfathomable uncertainty which lay beyond the horizon as they walked along these ancient paths, hoping that, after cresting the umpteenth hill, a glimpse of a church spire– and thus, another town– might pierce the rolling landscape.
Here, in this wild and vast terrain, human borders were for centuries an exercise in futility. The Bavarians and the neighboring Bohemians traversed to and fro across the countryside (in true “Bohemian” fashion), and, in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, the land between Prague and Regensburg constituted the melting pot of Czech-speaking Bohemians and the Bayerisch. What in one generation was a German town became in the next a Bohemian town. That status quo was a far cry from the artificial separation wrought by barbed fences and guardposts which later marked the Iron Curtain; and yet, even today, in towns on both sides the Czech-German border, bilingual road signs and restaurant menus indicate the historical interpenetration of two cultures which have always been bound together by the same Roman Catholic faith.
As I often drove or walked or jogged along these Bavarian-Bohemian country roads, similar sights appeared. Chapels-of-ease with outdoor viae crucis in the smallest farming villages and wooden crucifixes in far-flung sections of the route are common. Small statues of the Blessed Virgin, or of St. Christopher, or of St. Michael–ostensibly to aid those on journey– likewise overlook many of these roads. The very Catholic iconography which surrounded me was all too familiar, so these images inspired no particular curiosity in me– except for one.
Invariably, on any road trip I took in Bavaria, I would pass by a small statue of a priest, usually in choir dress (cassock, surplice, mozzetta, stole). Sometimes his cassock was red, sometimes black, but I figured he wasn’t a Cardinal, for he wore the biretta, not the galero, as was the custom in centuries past. In one hand he held a crucufix; in the other he held a palm branch. Around his head was a halo of five stars. Obviously, for the locals, the saint depicted was so important and needed no explanation; the caption for such displays were often simple and abbreviated, such as: Hl. Ioh. Nep. P.M. or, as on the statue built by Czechs in on the outskirts of my German town, Jan Nepom. P.M.
After months of driving or running past such statues, curiosity got the best of me. A quick internet search finally revealed the saint’s identity. In the old Roman Calendar, his feast is today, but in the Novus Ordo, it was transferred to the date of his death, 20 March. Outside central Europe, he is one of the lesser known saints celebrated today, thus, in the Martyrology, three saints precede him in the entry for 16 May, which reads (my translation),
Pragae, in Bohemia, sancti Joannis Nepomuceni, Metropolitanae Ecclesiae Canonici; qui, frustra tentatus ut sigilli sacramentalis fidem proderet, martyrii palmam, in flumen Moldavam dejectus, emeruit.
At Prague, in Bohemia, [the feast of] Saint John Nepomuk, a canon of the metropolitan Church: who, having been tempted to break the the faith of the sacramental seal in vain, was thrown into the Vlatva River and earned the palm of the martyr.
(Thus, “P.M.” as indicated above obviously means not pontifex maximus but presbyter martyr).
John, born in 1345 in the town of Nepomuk in the modern day Czech Republic, was a canon of the Cathedral of Prague (St. Vitus). He enjoyed an elite education, studying first at Prague, then earning a doctorate in canon law at Padua, returning to Bohemia as diocesan vicar-general and pastor of St. Aegidius, a beautiful parish in Prague, under Archbishop John Jenstejn. As the story goes, he became a popular confessor and preacher and earned the respect of commoner and noble alike. It seems that he was even confessor to Joan of Bavaria, a daughter of the mighty Wittelsbach family and first wife of Wenceslaus IV, King of Bohemia.
This was not the good Wenceslaus who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen,” but an unscrupulous successor who, like many tyrants before and after him, tried to muscle the Church into conformity with his sex-driven desires. Father John ran afoul of the king, and posterity has received two stories– one well-attested, the other more hagiographical– concerning his ultimate demise.
The first and better-attested story concerns the Benedictines at Kladruby, an abbey quasi-nullius whose territorial jurisdiction boasted many resources which Wenceslaus sought to control without ecclesiastical interference. The abbacy’s vacancy led to a disagreement between Archbishop Jenstejn and King Wenceslaus concerning appointment of the successor, and each claimed the right to select the new abbot. Consequently, two candidates emerged and Wenceslaus faced a crisis. Nepomuk, Jenstejn’s popular and much-beloved vicar-general, stood against secular encroachments on ecclesial matters and threw himself behind Jenstejn’s choice. As Nepomuk went, so followed the Bohemians, thus precipitating the despot’s ire.
The second story, far more popular but less attested in historical sources (although not improbable), concerns Joan, the king’s wife, to whom John was confessor and confidant. Although Wenceslaus was abusive to his wife and careless in his extramarital affairs, he held a paranoid suspicion that his wife conducted her own dalliances with other men. The king, enraged with jealousy at this mere thought, ordered the priest to reveal her confessions. John adamantly refused to violate the confessional seal; courageously he defied the king, and, “like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep before shearers, he remained silent and opened not his mouth”.
The story of martyrdom is largely consistent across all chronicles. The king’s men, having tortured the priest to no effect, dragged him to the Charles Bridge, and tossed his body into the Vlatva. Czech nobles and commoners alike arose in violent protest. Archbishop Jenstejn traveled to Rome, denouncing Wenceslaus to Boniface IX, and hailed his murdered vicar-general as a martyr.
John Nepomuk’s body was later recovered and interred in St. Vitus Cathedral, where today it lies in magnificent splendor. The tale of its recovery returns to haigiography, one that nonetheless explains some of the iconography surrounding his depictions. As it goes, on the night he was murdered, five stars hovered over the spot on the water where his body entered, assisting those who searched for the corpse, hence his halo of five stars in paintings and statues.
In both Bohemia and Bavaria, John Nepomuk remains among the most revered saints, hence his ubiquitous representations along roads, in churches, and in chapels of those places. Along Prague’s picturesque Charles Bridge, the parapet from which his body was thrown is marked with an inlaid metal cross and an ornate grate adorned with five golden stars, while from another parapet, his statue looks over his beloved city, a city that throughout its tumultuous history has seen its fair share of tyrants. It is almost as if he reminds the Czechs, as he reminds us all, that despite the torments unleashed upon us by this world, eternal memory belongs to those who hold fast to the Truth and suffer for it. In many other parts of the Czech Republic and Germany, John Nepomuk likewise watches over bridges and roads great and small, always reminding the nervous traveler (as he often reminded me) that, despite the treacherous winding roads and selve oscure of earthly life– in which we are all humble viatores— there is indeed a “beyond”, a final destination, a welcoming City where neither sin nor brutal tyrant can harm the souls of the just.