Born: October 3, 1458 in Krakow, Poland
Died: March 4, 1484 in Grodno, Belarus
Patron: Poland and Lithuania
If there was one country in the past century that nurtured saints that captivated the minds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, it was Poland. Whether it was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s zealous ministry and martyr’s sacrifice in Auschwitz, St. Faustina Kowalska’s writings on Divine Mercy or the papacy of St. John Paul the Great, Poland sent forth saintly men and women whose legacies will continue to impact the life and mission of the Church and the world for many years to come.
Alongside this illustrious list of contemporary Polish saints is a man of that noble nation who could very likely have lived a life of decadence and worldliness instead of becoming a saint. History could have remembered him as but another aristocrat who allowed his wealth and power to compel him to turn his back on Christ and the Church and forfeit the gift of eternal life.
Most Christians realize that becoming a saint is not for the faint of heart. It requires one to fall madly in love with God and the Church, to be on guard against the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, to spend your life in service to others, to struggle against one’s personal weaknesses and reject the lie that heaven is meant to be experienced in the here and now, as nothing awaits us at life’s end.
While each of us will have our struggles on the way of sanctity, the road to perdition is often much wider and easily trod for those who hoard wealth in this life, or who are given the responsibility to wield political power to justly govern their citizens but instead choose to serve themselves and their own ambitions.
Dante did not hesitate to fill inferno with kings, princes, political rebels and worldly bishops, abbots and popes, as he knew how easy it would be for them to gain the entire world, but lose their souls.
But not every king, president or Renaissance pope succumbed to these temptations. Many renounced the false riches of this life and were led by the grace of God and the sanctifying means of the Church to become heroic saints.
St. Casimir of Poland is one such example of a man who was born to become a king – with wealth, power and the chance for unbridled sensuality and corruption at his ready disposal – but instead chose to lead a life of sanctity and won for himself the crown of imperishable glory.
Casimir Jagiellon was born in 1458 in Krakow, Poland, the third of thirteen children born to King Casimir IV and his wife, Elizabeth of Austria. As a young child he was entrusted to the care of the priest and historian, Rev. John Dlugosz. Fr. Dlugosz would prove to have a major influence on Casimir, helping to form him into a Christian king – one who was not seduced by the trappings of the court, but dedicated to proclaiming the reign of Christ Our Sovereign King and caring for the needs of the poor and oppressed.
The young prince, from an early age, was known for his distaste for the luxury of courtly life. He instead chose a life of asceticism and devotion, embracing many penitential practices common to the 15th century, such as wearing plain clothes with a hair shirt beneath them, sleeping frequently on the ground, and spending much of the night in prayer and meditation on the suffering and death of Christ.[i]
As he grew older, Casimir’s life of piety and penitence would be put to the test by the pressures and temptations that came with being a prince. At the age of 13, a number of Hungarian nobles, unhappy with the rule of King Matthias Corvinus, asked that Casimir bring an army to their nation and take the crown of Hungary for himself.
There are conflicting accounts as to how Casimir reacted to this proposition. Some claim that his desire to defend Hungary from the advancing Turkish armies compelled him to seek the crown as a way to defend Christendom from an Islamic invasion.[ii] Others claim that he was uninterested in the crown but, out of obedience to his father, led the expedition. He was only too glad to listen to the advice of his military officers and return home when it was apparent that he would be unable to claim the Hungarian throne. (He was further relieved at the expedition’s failure when he discovered that Pope Sixtus IV had opposed it.) [iii]
Casimir’s failed expedition was met with disapproval by his father, and the young prince’s unwillingness to attempt to claim the Hungarian crown once again caused the king to banish his son to a castle in Dobizki in the hopes that he would change his mind. However, Casimir refused and returned to the tutelage of Fr. Dlugosz where he continued to be formed in both religious and political matters.
In 1479, Casimir’s father left Poland to attend to state business in Lithuania, leaving Prince Casimir in charge of the realm between 1481 and 1483. What was most notable about Casimir’s short reign was his unwavering conviction in the Gospel and his refusal to abandon the Christian principles and sense of devotion that he had acquired as a child.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Casimir’s reign was his decision not to marry and to instead embrace a chaste, celibate life. This was remarkable for a king in 15th century Europe! It was very much expected that a king or prince should not only marry but also have any number of mistresses in his wait, in spite of the inherent sinfulness of this adulterous behavior. In fact, after he contracted tuberculosis, it was recommended to Casimir that sexual relations with a woman (even a prostitute if need be) would help remedy this disease, a suggestion that the young prince admittedly refused to undertake. In no way would he seek to restore his physical health at the price of his eternal salvation.[iv]
By 1484, Casimir’s tuberculosis began to worsen, and at the age of only 26, he died after receiving the last rites of the Church. Some claim that Casimir contracted his lung disease after a particularly hard fast, or because he could be found kneeling by the church gates in the pre-dawn, waiting for a priest to open them.[v]
Devotion to Casimir began shortly after his death, and miracles quickly began to be attributed to his intercession. It was during the reign of Pope Leo X (a Medici prince who became pope and in many respects was the polar opposite of the ascetical Casimir) that Casimir’s cause for canonization began. He was raised to the altars in 1522 by Pope Adrian VI as Europe was being plunged into the chaos of the Protestant Reformation, much of which was caused by the many clerics who had succumbed to the lures of wealth and corruption when they should have been following the example of this humble prince who was now a recognized saint of the Church.
Many centuries later, St. John Paul II very beautifully summarized the life of his Polish compatriot in these words: “His witness of great faith and fervent piety continues to have special meaning for us today…he embraced a life of celibacy, submitted himself humbly to God’s will in all things, devoted himself with tender love to the Blessed Virgin Mary and developed a fervent practice of adoring Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament…To all, he was a shining example of poverty and of sacrificial love for the poor and needy.”[vi]
While St. Casimir will likely never have the devotional following of a St. Francis of Assisi or St. Therese of Lisieux, his brief yet saintly life is an inspiring example for our modern times.
St. Casimir showed that while you may be surrounded by abundant wealth, influential positions of power, and the opportunity for sensuality at your ready disposal, you can strive to keep your eyes fixed on Christ, realizing that true happiness lies in being detached from the things of this world and no longer being a slave to your passions.
His witness of living as a chaste, celibate man – though not as a religious bound to the vow of celibacy – shows that many are called to embrace this calling in imitation of Jesus Christ, and to do so by remaining among the lay faithful, generously giving of themselves for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Finally, St. Casimir shows us that one should not delay in discerning and then living to the fullest their vocation – no longer saying, “I’ll start doing so in the near future” that may never come to pass, thus allowing Jesus of Nazareth to pass by without following in His footsteps.
Fr. Nathan Siray