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Saint Stanislaus - Jesuit Saint

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

You're probably wondering what saint are we having this time. I chose St. Stanislaus. He is the youngest of the Jesuit saints, born in Poland in 1550 and died in Rome on August the 15, 1568 at the age of eighteen. His father was a Polish senator by the name of John Kostka and he remained at home studying under tutors until the age of fourteen at which time they were sent by his father, along with his older brother Paul, into the company of a Dr. John Bolinski (who figures importantly in the saint’s life) to be their companion and tutor. They were sent to Vienna to the Jesuit college. Colleges in those days and even now outside the United States are often – correspond to our senior high schools and under-graduate colleges.

He was very devoted to his studies but also much given to prayer. Already by the age of fourteen he was known to be very sensitive to what people said, especially anything touching on chastity. Crude jokes – he not only did not appreciate but when the father entertained his political friends he would tell them, 'don't tell that story before Stanislaus, he's liable to faint', and he would. At first, the three of them, that is Stanislaus, his brother Paul and this Dr. Bolinski, lodged in one of the homes that the Jesuit's provided for their students, but the then reigning emperor took the property away from the Jesuits, which is almost part of Jesuit history and so they had to find lodging elsewhere.

In any case, they took lodging at a Lutheran family residence, which Stanislaus did not like, but Paul and the tutor insisted, and then began, which only can be described as a domestic persecution - especially from the older brother who would taunt his young brother with what he considered excessive piety, long hours in Chapel and more time in prayer, would ridicule him – we have no evidence he ever struck him, but he was very contemptuous. On one occasion Stanislaus told his brother, Paul ‘If you contend to this, you will find me running away and then you and Bolinski will have to answer to mother and dad.’

It is recorded by his biographer that he studied much, which is good to know. A student is supposed to study. He prayed fervently, he would receive Communion weekly which was the maximum in those days and – I like this – he hated dancing classes. Isn't that delightful? I could relate to that immediately. I never learned to dance, which I consider at least one of the preconditions from my vocation. This went on for two years and I suppose, partly the circumstances under which he lived and then his own frail health, at any rate, he became deathly sick and he asked for viaticum, he was that ill. But the Lutheran proprietor said: Not in my house. Not believing in the Real Presence, he refused a priest to come into his home. In desperation Stanislaus prayed to St. Barbara (it was the confraternity of St. Barbara at the college there), and all the biographers recall this – his prayer was answered with two angels appearing and giving him Holy Communion. And some of the early paintings picture his receiving Communion from the hands of two angels. During that same illness he had a vision of Our Lady who told him he would recover and he should enter the Society of Jesus. He did recover and promptly began asking for admission. Sixteen is a young age but, in more enlightened days youngsters were quite mature at sixteen. Canonically he could have been admitted but the provincial of Austria was afraid to accept him because of his father's strong opposition. So he figured the only thing to do is to go to another province. He found out that if one provincial turns you down, you can go to another. So he walked from Vienna in one country to Dillingham and then to Augersburg in Germany, about 350 miles on foot, - just recovered from an almost fatal illness. And there the provincial was St. Peter Canisius – that helped. Peter Canisius recognized the boy's sanctity – promised to look into the matter. In the mean time Paul and Bolinski went in fast pursuit, not on foot, but on horseback to find Stanislaus. But, when he had already begun to grow a little beard or he was just so ragged, they didn't recognize him and of course he was not going to tell him who he was – that's what they call a broad mental reservation. Canisius kept him for a little less than a month in Germany and told him to go to Rome and sent him with two companions, not this time on foot, to the general who happened to be another saint, St. Francis Borgia. All of that helped. During his stay in Germany, Stanislaus was put to do the most menial jobs, cleaning rooms, waiting on tables and was happy in doing these so-called menial tasks. Francis Borgia accepted him into the order at the age of seventeen, that would make it 1567.

In the mean time the father heard about it, wrote him, threatened that he would get the Jesuits suppressed in Poland. They had just been founded in 1540. In any case Stanislaus stood firm. He wrote back to his father protesting his love of his father and willingness to do anything the father asked except to contradict what he believed was the will of God. During the less than two years that he was in the novitiate, the reports were uniformly that his whole life seemed to be a continual prayer. The moment he entered Church or Chapel his countenance changed, he was often seen in ecstasy during Mass especially regularly after Holy Communion. It turned out that the next summer was one of the worst in the memory of man. His weakened health, the oppressive heat put him down once more and now for the last time. He was a novice for exactly nine months. From then ten days before the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, which would be the fifth of August, he made the comment to the infirmarian how happy the day for all the saints when the Blessed Virgin was assumed into Heaven. They were just thrilled; Heaven rang with Hosannas that Mary had joined them. And he said, I'm looking forward to celebrating her feast; I hope to be in Heaven on the fifteenth. Well, shortly after midnight on the fifteenth, he told those surrounding him that he saw the Blessed Virgin again with many angels. He died at three a.m. A month later his brother Paul arrived in Rome – didn't know that he was dead – with a very formal letter from the father insisting that by all manner of means if necessary physical force, Stanislaus must be brought back to Poland. By that time he was buried. The experience converted Paul and Bolinski. And again, biographers quote Bolinski as saying: The blessed boy never had a good word from his brother Paul, and we both knew how holy he was.

Years later Paul applied for the Jesuits and was admitted. Stanislaus was canonized in 1726. He is one of the patrons of his native country and for centuries has been a model whom the Church had recommended to the youth. So much for the biography.

Now some reflections on his spirituality. Evidently, dying at eighteen, he could hardly leave voluminous writings. He didn't live very long and even the virtues he practiced were not numerous or at least we have no long record of how he lived, but I would summarize his spirituality under seven categories. In other words, what does Stanislaus have to teach us?

The first lesson is that there can be great sanctity even in youth. In other words, God is not only no respecter of persons, he is no respecter of angels. The essence of sanctity is in the grace that he confers. My own experience along these lines was shortly after I entered the Jesuits. I've been in correspondence with the mother of a little girl that I have stood as Godfather for in her baptism – Jean by name. The father was a card-carrying Communist, the mother a Catholic – the mother would tell me about little Jean from a very a precocious age, say two and a half, whatever, began to tell her mother how much she loves God. By the age of four, she told her mother – have I ever told you this one – as she was going to bed, 'I love you, mother, very much, but I love God more', four years old, 'and Our Lord loves me so much, He's going to take me from you, soon' – perfect health. Jean died at the age of five – made her first Communion on her deathbed and I know over the years, she has helped me immensely. This is good to know. In other words, God gives His grace to whom ever He wishes, in what quantity He wishes and ours is to recognize His gift and not miscalculate. First lesson – there can be great sanctity in youth.

Second lesson: The ordinary providence of God in sanctifying a person is through opposition. In other words, there are people, plural, or a person, singular, who somehow caused this person trials, sometimes near anguish over their attitude, misunderstanding, you name it. And the key, but what a key this is, often people have the keys, a whole string of keys in their hands, they don't know which door to open. The key of opposition is a very precious key. It opens a treasure of sanctity and not to throw that key away. It doesn't make the criticism or persecution, as in Stanislaus' case any less painful, but, it doesn't make it more bearable and also gives us a motive, a reason, for bearing under opposition, we don't go around looking for it, some people are spiritive – all I'm saying in feature number two is that there are exceptions and there have been saints in Heaven who had this opposition, but by and large, beginning with Christ, who had His to the present day, holiness thrives on opposition and often from people that we may dearly love, maybe very close to us, members of the same family, members of the same community. All I know is, in an autobiography I will never write, that living among the Jesuits in these insane times, we try to live the spirit of Ignatius or here of Stanislaus, faithfully and not everybody appreciates it.

Third lesson: He had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and that on all three levels, the sacrifice of the Mass, Holy Communion, including some of the miraculous experiences we've described and whatever time he could spare if his novice master allowed him, before the Blessed Sacrament. It is almost as by a divine instinct, a soul that strives after holiness is drawn as by a magnet, by the Eucharist, which is good to know in our own lives and good for us to relate to others in whatever influence we can exercise over the lives of others.

If I may suggest, before September the third, we must make plans, Sisters, for getting more people to use your Chapel without interfering with your own life but, our Lord is here. There should be more people here. Do some thinking and praying and I'm scheming already. Today is August the 13th, Friday. Delightful, perfect day. Well, I've got eighteen plus maybe two and a half days – about three weeks, we've got to come up – do you agree, and we should ask St. Stanislaus to give us some ideas and to get people to worship Our Lord here.

Fourth feature: Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. As we are seeing from the present Holy Father, devotion to Our Lady is almost, you might say, a national trait among the Polish people. But in the Church of God, we recognize a true Catholic, by first of all that person's faith in Mary as the Mother of God, how the devotion to Our Lady that Stanislaus reflected in his life were shown first of all by her virtues being imitated, he wanted to become like her. I think it is one of the most neglected aspects of devotion of the Blessed Virgin. People will keep asking Our Lady, you name it, what? And not stop and ask themselves that maybe, just maybe, I should try to imitate Our Lady. And especially her deep faith. There are two virtues in Christ that we cannot imitate, because He never had them. And they were the virtues of faith and hope. Christ didn't have faith because He didn't need it, He had the vision of his father. He didn't need hope because He was already in possession. As a human being united substantially with the word of God, He didn't have to hope, He had it. But Our Lady, and this is a good distinction to make, there are two virtues for which the exemplar, the greatest model that God has given us to imitate is Mary – the virtues of faith and hope. On both levels, Stanislaus especially was devoted to Mary in striving to live by faith and to trust, as the record of his short life indicates, to heroism.

Fifth feature of Stanislaus spirituality – his courage in doing God's will. The modern world that talks about courage, unless a person has the faith, I mean the Christian faith, they can still talk about courage. Richard, the lion-hearted, all right, all right. But that in many cases, almost animal courage, the daring to undertake some difficult enterprise, climbing the tall mountain, swimming across the English Channel or Lindbergh on his solo flight, took a lot of courage to fly in that one-seater plane from New York to France. But courage is mainly the strength to endure. In other words, courage is the power of enduring. Stanislaus tells us what true Christian courage means. It means courageously, which means firmly, undergoing whatever trials or difficulties or sufferings God may send us and not flinching, not breaking under trial. The heart of Christian courage is in endurance. In other words, a person is firm in persevering in what He knows to be God's will in spite of whatever difficulties or hardships may be overcome. Christ spoke of His yoke and burden. Surely God's grace makes it more bearable but it takes courage to carry the yoke and to undergo the burden and not to be surprised, that by the way, why we receive the Sacrament of (very slowly) Con-firm-ation. It is a Sacrament of robuocial spiritualius, as we teach in Latin, of spiritual strengthening. It gives us courage; courage to live the faith; courage to profess the faith; courage to share the faith and if need be, courage to suffer and die for the faith.

Number six: Among the features of St. Stanislaus spirituality is a very salutary lesson about – how do you become holy, anyhow well, there's no doubt, God is the first one who must give us the grace; without Him we don't even start. On the other hand, we teach in theology that there are two elements that make for sanctity: one is God's grace and the other is the human will. On this level, therefore, we become as holy, first of all, as we have received grace from God and here God is master of His gifts, but, assuming that where Stanislaus is such a wonderful teacher, sanctity is due after God's grace to our free will. Who becomes holy? The person who wants to be holy. Are you serious – of course! Who are the saints? those who wanted to become saints. Who don't become saints – memorize this – those who won't become saints, who don't want to. Strength of will is co-essential with divine grace in the pursuit of holiness. In other words, what Stanislaus teaches us is that a young boy, by all standards, a child, manages in a very short time to become a great saint, because he used his will to cooperate constantly with the will of God.

And finally, and comfortingly, we don't know but I think we can safely say that Stanislaus would not be a canonized saint today unless he had spent at least nine months in a religious house. This is all part of providence. And even his strong desire for quite some time before he actually entered the Society of Jesus, his strong desire to become a religious should teach us that our religious vocation is that infallible means of sanctity, of why did we give ourselves as we should, to the vocation to which we've been called. In other words, religious life assures holiness, not as though just being a religious makes a person a saint, we know better, but provided a person has a generosity, religious life provides opportunities, sources of grace that cannot be found outside a religious institute. And Stanislaus' great desire to become a religious and then dying in the religious community should tell all of us that we have a grave duty to reexamine our own generosity in living up to our religious vocation. What we casually call vocation is really two things wrapped in one: it is a call from Christ; it is a commitment from ourselves. In other words, having a call from Christ is not enough to make us holy, we must respond and not just when we first entered or when we first pronounced our vows, we must keep responding that response, provided we are generous, the Church tells us, infallibly guarantees sanctity. St. Stanislaus Kostka, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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