16 November 2018
The Calendar of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church is a patchwork of the well-known, the obscure, the eccentric. St Peter, St John, and St Stephen, for example, are familiar enough. Even St Pancras has a London railway station named after him, and many of us will recognize the heroic flayed St Bartholomew, skin draped nonchalantly over one arm.
Despite Butler’s Lives and the like, the subject of this Commonplace is ill-served. Even if you read Polish or Lithuanian, details are scarce about this little chap.
I say “little” advisedly. He was of small stature and seriously handicapped from birth by lameness. He died in 1485, aged about sixty. When his coffin was opened in the early 17th century for re-burial at the Elevatio Ossium, his crutch was found alongside his bones indicating how necessary it was to him.
Blessed Michał (Michael) Giedroyć (pronounced GED-roi-ch) was born to a princely family in circa 1425 in Giedraiciai, roughly fifty miles north of Vilnius, Lithuania. His father bore the Christian name of Peter from birth; but his elder brothers had pagan and Christian names, meaning they were converts.
Michał, though delicate and sickly, showed great spirituality from his earliest years, and this holiness was noticed by the Prior of the nearby Augustinian monastery. Not only his piety but his intellectual potential convinced the Prior that the young man should be sent to St Mark’s in Krakow, the Motherhouse of the Order’s Province.
At that time, Krakow was the capital of the Polish Kingdom; a centre of intellectual and spiritual standing on a European level. The Jagiellonian dynasty controlled not only Poland and Lithuania, but also Bohemia and Hungary, and the atmosphere must have been charged with creative genius.
Michał probably studied at the University, taking a degree. He was a member of the circle Felix Saeculum Cracoviae; for this happy era in Krakow boasted many holy and clever men, including St John Kanty. Michał Giedroyć was the only ethnic Lithuanian among them.
Ordination to the priesthood was denied him, probably due to his physical maladies. Instead he took the lifelong monastic vows of a monk. Intellectual prowess and humility do not always go hand in hand, as many of us can witness. However, it is well-known that the humble Michał resisted the fame attached to the miracles ascribed to him: his knowledge of the future, and the fact that his prayers were answered – powers that were all attributed to him.
Michał eschewed company and relished silence; finding work in the sacristy of St Mark’s (he is a patron of the disabled, and also of sacristans) and in beautifying the church with his wood carvings.
The solitary monk developed his inner life of prayer and abstinence; it is said he lived on a daily ration of a few nuts. The chronicler Miechowita, writing in the early 16th century, records a number of miracles attributed to Michał. These included restoring life to the drowned and terminally ill, and extinguishing a great fire in Krakow by holding up the crucifix.
Michał was pronounced “Blessed” by popular acclamation when he died, and since then has always been pictured with a halo, and his cult never withered. On the 500th anniversary of Michał’s death, in 1985, his cult was endorsed in a formal letter addressed to the Archdiocese of Krakow by Pope John Paul II. This gave an extra boost to the Cause to canonize “Blessed” Michał Giedroyć .
Unsurprisingly the Cause was dear to the Pope’s heart since it concerned a fellow Krakovian and religious. In 1997, when visiting Poland, John Paul II invoked Michał in his address on the 600th anniversary of the foundation of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. He noted how Krakow was a veritable cradle of Saints:
“For the fifteenth century is, in the history of Krakow, the century of saints, and they too were closely linked to the Jagiellonian University. In those days St. John Kanty studied and later taught here; his mortal remains rest in this same University Collegiate Church of St. Ann. And besides him, various others who have the reputation of sanctity received their education here, like Blessed Stanislaus Kazimierczyk, Simon of Lipnica, Ladislas of Gielniów, Michał Giedroyć, Isaac Boner, Michal of Krakow and Matthew of Krakow. These are only a few of the multitude of those who, travelling the path of the search for truth, achieved the heights of holiness and form the spiritual beauty of this University.”
Encouraged by the Holy Father, Michał’s Cause was pursued by the Archdiocese of Krakow, and documents were lodged in the Vatican where the Positio Causae has to be submitted.
Pope St John Paul II was known, and indeed criticized in some quarters, for canonizing a great many new Saints. But there are thousands upon thousands of people (you and I could suggest one or two) who have not been canonized. The official and the unofficial are our role models and inspiration, and they surely draw us closer to the Throne where, one day, we hope to stand among them.
On November 8, 2018, Michał was officially confirmed as Blessed Michał Giedroyć, with his Feast Day fixed on May 4th. Always known as “Blessed” Mike in the family, the inverted commas can now be omitted. More correctly he should be referred to as Blessed Mykolas Giedraitis since he was wholly Lithuanian.
Hearty rejoicing echoes down the centuries to his descendants and among all those who have heard of, and love his intelligence and gentle virtues. His inspiring example of self-denial, humility and devotion to Christ will encourage the pursuit of his canonisation to sainthood.
Hopefully it won’t take another two or three hundred years.