THE EAGLE, November 2011
The Calendar of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church is a patchwork of the well-known, the obscure, the eccentric, and the almost incredible. 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.
Of the more extreme, St. Ursula, with her 11,000 virgin companions, possibly a fourth-century martyr, was hugely popular with artists, stained glass window designers, and embroiderers. (Her cult was finally suppressed in the reforms of 1969.)
Long-ago times, misty with distance, are not easy to visualize. But as we draw a little closer to today the focus becomes clearer and we can put faces and a way of life to many of the Saints whose lives we celebrate almost every day in the Church’s year. The app for your iPod (www.ipieta.com) is the latest way to access them. Or partially, at least.
Despite Butler’s Lives and the like, the subject of this article is ill-served. Even if you read Polish or Lithuanian, details are scarce about this little chap.
I say “little” advisedly. He was of very small stature and seriously handicapped from birth by lameness. He died in 1485, aged 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 Michael (Michal) Giedroyć (pronounced GED-roi-ch) was born to a princely family in circa 1425 in Giedraiciai, about 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.
Michael, delicate and sickly, showed great spirituality from his earliest years, and this holiness was noticed by the Prior of a nearby Augustinian monastery. In due course, 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 mother house of the Order’s Province.
At that time, Krakow was the capital of the Polish Kingdom and 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.
Michael 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. Michael, later Blessed Michael, 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. But it is well-known that the humble Michael 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. He 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 Michael. These included restoring life to the drowned and terminally ill, and extinguishing a great fire in Krakow by holding up the crucifix.
Today, in 2011, what can we learn from such a man, who lived all those years ago in such obscurity? And what can it be like to claim such a man as one of the family? Is it an impossible role to follow, or an inspiration, or merely an interesting area of research?
In fact, it is all those things. How do I know? Because I am married to a collateral descendant of the Beatus and have lived alongside “Blessed Mike” for more than fifty years. My husband is named after him, like many in his family and, indeed, our son. He prays to him at least once a day and has confined to his care many a grievous case of illness or distress, and can witness to his prayers being answered. His early researches into medieval Lithuanian history began with a hunt for Blessed Michael’s origins. And yes, like his namesake, intellectually he remains a humble man. We always celebrate May 4th, Blessed Michael’s Feast Day, as a high-holiday.
Michael was pronounced Blessed at his funeral, by popular acclamation, and since then has always been pictured with a halo. On the 500th anniversary of Blessed Michael’s death, in 1985, his cult was endorsed in a formal letter addressed to the Archdiocese of Krakow by Blessed Pope John Paul II. This gave an extra boost to the Cause to canonize Blessed Michael Giedroyć .
The Cause was dear to the Pope’s heart, not surprisingly since it concerned a fellow Krakovian and religious. In 1997, when visiting Poland, Blessed John Paul invoked Blessed Mike 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, or Michael Giedroyć, Isaac Boner, Michael 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, Blessed Mike’s cause is being pursued by the Archdiocese of Krakow, and documents have been lodged in the Vatican where the Positio Causae will be submitted.
Blessed John Paul 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.