AGNES OF PRAGUE - BOHEMIA
Agnes was the daughter of Premysl Ottakar I, who reigned from 1192-1230 and Constance of Hungary, who died in 1240.
The Premysl dynasty ruled Bohemia, (later Czechoslovakia) from 895 to 1306. It had a turbulent history, with violent struggles for succession, and a series of political marriages, and a curious mixture of saints and sinners: the two best known patron saints of Bohemia who belonged to this dynasty were murdered by members of their own family, for a mixture of religious and political reasons.
Saint Ludmilla who had been converted by Saint Methodius, was murdered in 921 trough the plotting of her daughter-in-law Drahomira (the mother of Wenceslaus), while Saint Wenceslaus himself was murdered in 929 at the age of 22, by his younger brother "Boleslau the Cruel", who reigned for the next forty years. But this was nearly 300 years before the birth of Agnes.
For the four centuries of its rule, the dynasty maintained an ambivalent position with regard to the (restored) Holy Roman Empire; much of the energy of its leaders was spent in now promoting, now checking, the growth of German influence in its territories. The Premysl rulers sometimes served as cup-bearer and elector to the Emperor, but strangely enough, no Emperor attempted to put a foreign ruler of his own choice upon the throne.
In 1198 Premysl Ottakor I (Agnes' father) received the royal title for himself and his descendants. This was confirmed by Frederick II in 1212 the year after Agnes' birth). The king's rights and obligations were reduced to a minimum, but as elector he was able to exercise considerable influence, enjoying first rank among the temporal members of the college of electors.
Under Ottakor I and his successors, Bohemia moved from depression to political prominence and economic prosperity.. There was a marked increase in population, with immigration from Germany, improved farming methods, the establishment of urban communities and the development of mining, especially of silver.
Further conquests, or 'colonization', took place. Under Premysl Ottakar II (1253-1278) Moravia and parts of Austria came temporarily within the power of Bohemia. Under Wenceslaus II (1278-1305) this power and influence spread as for as Silesia, Poland and Hungary. But war at home, occasioned by an invasion of powerful German princes, prevented the consolidation of these positions.
Wenceslaus II died in 1305, and, "with the assassination of his son Wenceslaus III on his way to Poland the following year, the long rule of the Premysl dynasty come to an end in 1306. It was succeeded by the Luxembourg dynasty, (1310-1437), beginning with John of Luxembourg who married Eliska, the second daughter of Wenceslaus II.
The earliest and principal source of information on the life and person of Agnes of Prague is found in the Legend entitled "Life of the Illustrious Virgin, Sister Agnes of the Order of Saint Clare, in Prague, Bohemia", written by a Friar Minor of Bohemia about 1328 (and discovered in 1896 in Milan by Achille Ratti). Further information about the family of Agnes comes from "The Major Chronicle of Bohemia', the work of a Franciscan chronicler of the 15th century. Also, some knowledge of Agnes can be gleaned from the four letters of Clare of Assisi to her, and from a series of Papal Bulls issued during the years 1234-1238.
In 1180 Ottakar married an Austrian, Adele of Meissen, the young daughter of Count Otto the Rich, by whom he had four children. The marriage was declared null and void by the Bishop of Prague when it was confirmed that they were second cousins and had married without due dispensation. Innocent III queried the annulment, and sent legates to Prague to investigate; the dispute dragged on, with Adele continuing to query the relationship, and the annulment, until her death in 1211.
Meanwhile, in 1201 Ottakar took as his second wife Constance of Hungary, the sister of King Andrew of Hungary, father of Saint Elizabeth. She, too, was to be haunted by the question of the validity of the Marriage until 1211. They had several children, of whom Agnes, born in 1211, is thought to have been the second youngest. (Another Agnes, born around 1205, had died in infancy. Hence perhaps the confusion as to the date of birth of 'our' Agnes.)
The Legend of Agnes is closely modeled on that of Clare. The pregnant Constance also had a dream, which proved to be a clear presage of what was to come. She seemed to enter a room in which her many costly regal gowns were kept; and she noticed amongst them a grey tunic and mantle and cord like those later worn by the Sisters of Saint Clare. She was astonished, and while she was wondering who could have put such a coarse garment among her precious gowns, she heard a voice which said: "Do not be surprised. The child whom you carry in your womb will one day wear that garment, and she will be a light to the whole kingdom of Bohemia".
But that was still a long way in the future - Clare would not to go to San Damiano until a year later in 1212, and Agnes' parents had far different plans for her, in the form of a politically advantageous marriage. In 1214, at the age of three, Agnes and her sister Anna (aged ten) were pledged in marriage to the two sons of the Duke and Duchess of Silesia, Henry and Hedwig (canonized in 1267). The girls were entrusted to the Cistercian nuns at the monastery of Trebnitz in Silesia, to be educated. Anna later married her Duke and became the Duchess of Silesia, but the younger brother Boleslas died unexpectedly in 1217, and Agnes returned home. She was entrusted to the care of the Premonstratensian nuns at Doxan, north of Prague for a year, "in order to deepen her moral education and , learn to read and write".
After a few years back in the royal Palace, Agnes was again promised in marriage, this time to Henry, son of the Emperor Frederick 1230.
So Agnes went into exile again, this time to the court of Leopold of Austria, in Vienna, to learn the German language and customs in preparation for her future. This cannot have been a happy time. Leopold was plotting to break up the engagement and marry his own daughter, Margaret, to the Emperor's, son. In 1225 he was eventually successful, and Agnes was once more sent home where she had to intervene to prevent an international incident due to her father's rage.
In 1231 Henry sought to divorce Margaret in order to marry Agnes, but with little chance of success. Long before this, it had become clear that Agnes had taken her destiny into her own hands, with the growing conviction that the Lord was calling her to religious life. But first there were two other proposals of marriage to be dealt with: from Henry III of England in 1228, and from Frederick 11 himself, after the death of his wife, Yolanda of Jerusalem.
With the death of Agnes' father in 1220, it was left to her brother Wenceslaus, with the help of Gregory IX, to negotiate with Frederick to ensure Agnes' freedom. The Legend tells us that he admitted defeat graciously: "if she had rejected me for another man, I would have made my vengeance felt, but I cannot take offence if she prefers the King of Heaven to myself". He was also reported to have sent her valuable gifts and many relics, and to have encouraged her enthusiastically to bring her resolve to a happy conclusion.
It is not clear when Agnes come to hear of Clare of Assisi and her sisters. The first friars came to Bohemia around 1224 while Francis was still alive. But their first real presence in Prague dates. from 1232. No doubt they would have told Agnes of the new groups of women throughout Italy.
Also, Elizabeth of Hungary, Agnes' cousin, died in 1231, with an extraordinary reputation for holiness. Renowned for works of charity, she had come under the direction of the Friars Minor in Thuringia in 1221, and had built a hospital in honor of Saint Francis for the sick, the poor and the outcast. She was canonized in 1235.
The influence of Clare and Elizabeth becomes more and more evident in the life of Agnes, as she discerned her own way of following the call of Christ in a Gospel life. Like Clare, she had already from her earliest years been much given to prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms for the care and the welfare of the sick.
Now, with the great personal wealth left her by her father she imitated her cousin, building a large hospital for the sick, under the patronage of Saint Francis, and endowing it with ample revenues and possessions. With the help of the friars she established the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star in Prague, and put them in charge of the hospital. In the same year, 1233, she built a house for the friars, dedicated to Saint Francis.
She sold all her precious objects and ornaments, as well as her gold and silver, and gave the proceeds to the poor, in order to serve the poor Christ in poverty and humility. Hearing more of the Gospel life of the friars and the Poor Ladies, she affirmed, like Francis himself: "This is what I desire and ardently long for with all my heart."
Her next move was to ask Pope Gregory IX to send a group of Poor Ladies to Prague. Although she knew of Clare by repute and wanted to share her way of life, the five sisters who came from Italy did not come from San Damiano but from the monastery in Trent, which had been in existence at least since 1228. Agnes had gathered seven young women from Bohemia ready to join the sisters on 1lth November 1233.
Her own entry into the community took place on Pentecost Sunday, l1th June 1234, "in the presence of seven bishops and the lord king, her brother, and the queen, with many princes and barons and an uncountable multitude of both sexes from different nations". How different was this public ceremony from Clare's secret flight by night to the Portiuncula! and how different from the entry of most of the poor sisters who have followed in their footsteps. In August of the same year, Gregory IX directed the Provincial of the Friars Minor in Saxony, John of Pian Carpino, to install Agnes as abbess of the monastery. Truly can Clare write around this time to Agnes that she has heard of her holy conduct and irreproachable life, known not only to Clare, but to the whole world. The Legend of Agnes corroborates this. statement and confirms that it was Clare herself who initiated this correspondence, and this profoundly affectionate and spiritual friendship: "Thus it happened that the fame of her marvelous holiness reached the ear of the most saintly Clare who, rejoicing in the thought that the daughter of a king had been made so fruitful by divine grace, praised the Most High. Then she maternally encouraged Agnes, deferentially and yet with profound affection, sending her frequent and loving letters and eagerly strengthening her in her decision.
That both Clare and Agnes frequently needed strengthening in their decision becomes abundantly clear in their long struggle to be able to serve the Lord in poverty and humility, while remaining faithful to the Church with its well meaning but uncomprehending prelates. We, could regret that none of Agnes' side of the correspondence has survived, and only four letters from Clare, the first three dating from these initial years for Agnes (1233-1238) and the fourth from the last year of Clare's life. But they are enough; they breathe the spirit of that early Gospel life, and epitomize the heritage left to us, as to Agnes, by Clare. They also allow us to glimpse the rare and beautiful friendship which existed between these two women.
It is not clear from the sources for how long Agnes held the office of abbess in her community. But it is abundantly clear that she understood and fulfilled the office as one of service, as did Clare. In his letter of 31st August 1234 to John of Plan Corpino appointing her as Abbess, Gregory IX ( had already written that Agnes had become "a servant instead of a queen, by dedicating herself by solemn vow to Him who humbled the loftiness of his divinity and took the form of a servant, and thus exalts the humble unto salvation."
The Legend further elaborates how Agnes carried out this service of love and concern: "Even though she was born of royal stock, she did not despise the duties of lighting the stove and of cooking for the whole monastery; with her own hands she prepared special foods which she sent to the sick and to the friars who were weak. Like Martha she was full of solicitude, and eager to serve Christ, ever busy to refresh Mm in his poor. Secretly she cleaned the sisters' cells and the dirtiest parts of the monastery, making herself the least of all for the love of Christ. ... In her exceptional humility she had brought to her in secret the clothing of the sick sisters and of lepers, repugnant with stench and filth. These she washed with her own hands which as a result, because of the strength of the bleach and soap, were often covered with sores. Besides washing these clothes, she would also mend them, though they were reduced to rags. She wished for no observer but God, to whom alone she looked for the reward of her labors.
Her days at home were occupied with such tasks, interspersed with long periods of prayer from which she drew her strength. Here she gave expression to her great love of the Lord in the mysteries of his Passion and the Eucharist.
But there was also an external struggle going on; this was a joint struggle with Clare, in their constant plea to be allowed to live the Gospel life without possessions and with the official approval of the Church. As Regis Armstrong expresses it: Agnes epitomizes the struggle of so many women, eager to express their dignity and unique vision, to resist the frequent meddling of men whose vision of society is easily threatened, and to establish new expressions, especially of religious life, that would touch on the very core of a person's commitments.
Perhaps Agnes was better placed even than Clare to carry out the public aspect of this struggle, on account of her connections with the Holy See, especially through her brother King Wenceslaus who took up her cause with Gregory IX. This is borne out by the fact that there were no fewer than 16 Papal Bulls issued by Gregory concerning Agnes' situation and that of her monastery in the four years from 1234 - 1238. Not all of these were to Agnes' satisfaction. Internal evi-dence from Clare's letters enables us to date them with probable accuracy, three of them within this same period.
We have already seen that the first letter was the result of Clare's initiative, a deferential and rather formal letter of congratulation and encouragement written around 1234. The person of Christ is at me very heart of this letter, with that God-centred poverty which he embraced on coming into this world.
The second letter was written during the Generalate of Elias, (1232 - 1239) - most probably in 1235 or 1236. Wishing to live the same gospel poverty as Francis and Clare, Agnes had asked to be able to separate the hospital from the monastery, and place it in the care of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, settling endowments on it, and ensuring that the sisters had no revenues. But Gregory's response meant the dashing of these hopes. In "Cum relicto saeculi" 18th May 1235 he states: ...the hospital (hospice) - with all that belongs to it - may not be separated from the monastery in any way, or for any reason. But an increase of its possessions may be granted for your use, and for those who succeed you, safeguarding always the authority of the Holy See."
Clare could almost have had a copy of this Bull before her as she wrote her second letter. In it she exhorts Agnes to live in a spirit of poverty and "as a poor virgin embrace the poor Christ", and "if anyone (does she have Gregory's statement in mind here?) should suggest something that would hinder your perfection or seem contrary to your divine vocation, even though you must respect him, do not follow his counsel".
No doubt both Clare and Agnes worked hard in prayer and supplication to have this situation remedied. Clare had obtained from both Innocent III and Gregory IX her "Privilege of Poverty" as a safeguard against being forced to receive possessions. However Agnes had no such guarantee, and had in fact been refused permission to follow Clare's community at San Damiano in this respect.
In the following years more hopeful responses were received from Rome. On 14th April 1237 in the Bull Omnipolens Deus Gregory relented; he entrusted the direction of the hospice to the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, which was at that time recognized as a religious Order. It later spread into Poland and other countries, providing a health care system rare, or unknown, for that time.
Then on 15th April 1238 in the Bull Pio credulitate tenentes the Pope in answer to repeated requests granted to Agnes and her community their own "Privilege of Poverty". He begins: "Overcome by your prayers and tears we grant, by the authority of these letters, that you are not to be compelled to receive any possessions against your will. And let no one attempt to abrogate this concession or rashly try to oppose it". Sabatier's words about Clare apply equally to Agnes: she was "victorious, not just victorious against anyone, against Gregory IX, or against Innocent IV, or against authority, but victorious with it and with them". But in other requests Agnes was not so successful. One month later on 11th May 1238 in Angelis gaudium Gregory refused to give her permission to adopt other features of the life at San Damiano, insisting that she continue to observe his own Constitutions, based on that of Benedict.
This situation is reflected in Clare's third letter written in 1238. Clare speaks of her joy in what has been achieved and in Agnes' progress in the spiritual life: "Your health and happy state and wondrous progress... fill me the more with such joy and gladness in the Lord as I know and see that you make up most wondrously what is wanting in me and all the other sisters in the following of the footsteps of the poor and humble Jesus Christ."
But Clare feels that Agnes needs encouragement in the struggle that is still hers, and she writes: "to use the words of the Apostle himself in their proper sense, I hold you to be a co-worker of God himself and a support for the frail and failing members of his glorious Body. Who shall say I do not rejoice over such enviable joys? Do you also, most dear one, rejoice in the Lord and let not sadness or gloom take hold of you. ...Love Him in complete surrender who has given himself up entirely for your love."
The struggle continued into the pontificate of Innocent IV. In the year of his election he addressed Agnes as his "spiritual daughter", but another four years of prayer and pleading were needed before the Pope in 1247 officially allowed the Clares to follow the Rule of Saint Francis rather than that of Benedict. Because of continued dissatisfaction with pre-scriptions of Innocent's Rule which were not in accord with the poverty of the Gospel as envisaged by Clare and Agnes and their sisters, on 6th June 1250 Innocent declared that no sister could be compelled to observe his Rule of 1247.
Clare's fourth and last letter to Agnes, written shortly before her death in 1253, (15 years after her third letter), is full of peace and joy in their shared Gospel life, which they can now follow without external let or hindrance. She writes to Agnes as 'half her soul and the shrine of her heart's special love... as her most dear mother and most favored daughter"; conscious of her approaching death, she bids Agnes a tender and touching farewell.
Just as Clare lived on for another 27 years after the death of Francis, whom she saw as "our pillar of strength and, after God, our only comfort and support", so Agnes was to survive Clare by about the some length of time. This separation from her sister and friend must have been painful for Agnes, as the separation from Francis had been for Clare.
Sister Death had stepped in to detach Agnes from strong family ties as well. Her father had died In 1230; in 1240 her mother Queen Constance, and in 1247 a nephew, the son of her favorite brother King Wenceslaus. Another was brutally executed in captivity in the following year, and Wenceslaus himself died in September 1253, just one month after Clare, while the son who succeeded him, Premysl Ottakor II would be treacherously killed in battle in 1278.
But in the midst of these events Agnes was growing more and more deeply into her relationship with the Lord and into her service of her sisters in the gospel way of life left to her by Francis and Clare. This was also her deep concern for the sisters of her community. The Legend records one of her lost exhortations to them: "My dearest daughters, guard your love of God and of neighbor with all your strength, imitate the humility and poverty which were Christ's, and which He taught you. Always show yourself obedient to the Church of Rome, following the example of our father Francis and of the venerable virgin Clare, who gave us our rule of life. We know with certainty that as our merciful Lord never abandoned Francis or Clare, his sweet clemency will not abandon any of us if we zealously follow their example."
And in following their example Agnes had the great joy and consolation of having the Rule of Clare approved for her monastery by Pope Innocent IV, and reconfirmed by Pope Alexander IV in 1260.
We know little of Agnes and her community for the next few decades, but we do know that Agnes' concern was not only for her sisters; many came to her in trouble and distress of one kind or another, and she had words of comfort for them all as she shared with them the wisdom the Lord had granted her so fully. We also know that she would share the alms sent to the monastery, arranging that part would be given for the adornment of local churches, part used for the needs of the sisters, and the rest given to the poor, to widows and orphans.
A succession of wars and continued unrest left the country in a very depressed state. In 1281, owing to unprecedented snowfalls and flooding, the crops failed, bringing a desperate famine on the land, with many people dying of hunger. In her solicitude for her sisters, Agnes deprived herself of food in order to help them. It was not long before she was overcome by weakness and confined to bed. The Legend notes: "On the third Sunday of Lent, sensing the approach of her happy departure from earth, she confided to a few of those most dear to her that the hour of death had come, With profound devotion she assured the safety of her journey by receiving the holy Eucharist and Anointing, in the presence of the friars and sisters... The following day, she was radiant with joy, a smile always on her face. As Mass was about to be celebrated by the at the ninth hour, she entrusted her soul into the hands of the heavenly Father. On the 2nd March 1281 she fell asleep serenely in the Lord, and was accompanied by an escort of angels to enter jubilantly into eternal joy."
The miracles attributed to the intercession of Agnes, both in life and in death, on behalf of her sisters and her people, including many members of the royal family, are too numerous to recount. Her biographer writes: "The omnipotent God, who in his merciful pity exalts his saints, has clearly exalted the blessed virgin Agnes, the little plant of Saint Clare in, the kingdom of Bohemia. He not only gifted her with a rich spiritual fife, He also granted many miracles through her intercession. He mercifully comes to the help of all who invoke the name of this servant when they are suffering or in danger.
Bonagrazia Tielci, Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, carried out Agnes' funeral rites on Palm Sunday, two weeks after her death. She was laid to rest in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin within the monastery, where she had attended Mass when she was ill.
At the time of Agnes' death there were three other monasteries of Clares in Bohemia, founded in 1242,1268, and 1274, the last one by her nephew Premysl Ottkor II. Other foundations followed in 1307, 1319, and 1361. All of these monasteries; as also those in Austria, were suppressed by the Emperor Joseph II in 1782, as being "dangerous to the state."
Only in our own century has there been a resurgence of Poor Clare life in Czechoslovakia, with the foundation of a community of Capuchin Poor Clares in 1914. Forced to go 'underground' during the communist regime, the community has now settled in Stenberk.
Another small group, helped by the Clares of Paderbom, Germany, have made a foundation in Brno. They had first thought of joining a community in the Western world, but decided with great courage: "We must remain in Czechoslovakia. our country needs us. It needs contemplative nuns, and Poor Clares". The first of these Clares made her solemn profession into the hands of the Minister provincial of the Order of Friars Minor on 2ne August 1986. Truly they are worthy daughters and sisters of Agnes, who knew, like them, that "those who sow in tears will reap rejoicing" (Ps 26).
By popular demand Agnes' cause of canonization was initiated by Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, in 1328, and a petition presented to Pope John XXII. In 1339 the friars of Bohemia made their own petition, but with the outbreak of the Hussite wars in 1419 the monastery was devastated, all records were lost and the cause was left in abeyance.
It was taken up again in the late 19th century, in 1872; Agnes' cult was confirmed, with her beatification in 1874 and the granting of an office and Mass in her honor. The process for canonization was continued, and the final stages of the work promoted and carried out by the Friars Minor Conventual. Her canonization took place in Rome on 12th November 1989. Her feast is celebrated on 2nd March.
Why did it take so long to proclaim the undoubted sanctity of this gospel woman? Why so long after Clare? Everything has its time and place.
The Primate and bishops of Czechoslovakia proclaimed the 1980's 'the decade of Saint Adalbert, putting forward an extensive program of spiritual renewal for the nation.
The first year of the decade was under the patronage of Agnes of Prague, and was called the year of respect for life; the faithful were urged to pray for the sick, and the elderly, for physicians, for all engaged in health services, and for all who care for the needy. In the course of the year people took up in a new way Agnes simple and quiet service of those in need, and her call to reconciliation, itself a forceful reminder that "to govern is to serve", or in Clare's words "it ought so to be, that the abbess is the servant of all the sisters".
The culmination of this decade witnessed the public protests of November 1989, which followed immediately after the canonization of Agnes on November 12th. The entire Politburo resigned on 24th November, and on 10th December a new government was sworn in, with non-communist majority. No one was killed in the revolution.
Oh 20th November Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek had sent his people this message: In this fateful hour in our history, no one of you dare stand aside. Raise anew your voice. ... The right to believe cannot be separated from other democratic rights. Freedom is indivisible. With God's help our fate now lies in our hands."
And on 22nd April 1990, President Havel in welcoming Pope John Paul II to Czechoslovakia commented: "Your holiness, dear citizens. I do not know whether I know what a miracle is. None the less, I dare to say that in this moment I am experiencing a miracle. In our land destroyed. by the ideology of hate comes a message of love; .... in a land until recently destroyed by the idea of confrontation and division, comes a message of peace, of dialogue, of reciprocal tolerance, respect... the preaching of fraternal unity."
And surely this is the message that Agnes proclaimed by her very life. So the new prominence of Agnes on the Czech scene should not be regarded as the culmination of efforts for her canonization, or the solemn recognition of a long overdue debt, but rather as threshold through which the Czech people enter a new era in their spiritual life" ( Petr Pifho).
Sr. Agnes van Baer osc, Campbelltown - Australia