We are in the midst of a Year of Faith launched by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2012—an auspicious twin anniversary, marking 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and 20 years since the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It follows that we have been encouraged to re-read (or read for the first time) the Council documents and the Catechism, and to internalize them in a deeply personal way. But we can’t stop at reading. In fact, the beatification of a group of Franciscan martyrs just two days into the Year of Faith set the tone for the entire observance, underscoring the Pope Benedict’s call for an “authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord.”
Bohemia was a hotbed of popular unrest in the early 1600s, as Calvinists and followers of Jan Hus battled with the minority Catholic population for political and spiritual hegemony. Rudolf II, King of Bohemia and a nominal Catholic, sought to strengthen his hand by inviting the Order of Friars Minor to take over the ancient Church of St. Mary of the Snows in Prague. In 1607, Father Frederick Bachstein and a group of friars from all over Europe traveled to Prague and set about restoring the church and ministering to the Catholic population.
Through their preaching, refutation of heresy, and especially their charitable deeds, the Franciscans were able to strengthen the Catholic faithful and turn the tide of popular sentiment against the Calvinist and Hussite rebels. This precipitated a backlash, and the Protestant leaders stirred up resentment toward the expatriate friars and suspicion regarding their work.
On Shrove Tuesday, February 15, 1611, a violent crowd descended on St. Mary of the Snows intent on ridding the community of the meddling foreigners. Not content with destroying the church and its furnishings, the mob turned on the monastery’s inhabitants, showing no mercy. As the friars prayed and partook of the Eucharist, the attackers burst into the enclosure and used every kind of weapon to cut down the defenseless missionaries.
The attack took no more than three hours, but when it was done, the church and monastery were in ruins, and fourteen friars were dead. Their remains were left unburied by the crowd, but the local faithful returned to the church a few days later to reverently wrap the remains in canvas and bury them secretly in the transept.
Pope Benedict did not attend the beatification ceremony in Prague last October, but he called attention to it in his Angelus message the next day. “They were killed because of their faith,” he said. “They are the first persons who have been beatified in the Year of Faith, and they are martyrs: they remind us that believing in Christ also means suffering with him and for him.”
A version of this story was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.