8 - 11 minutes readMay 16 – St John Nepomucen, Martyr ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

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May 16 – St John Nepomucen, Martyr

To the Martyrs who were slain because they refused to adore false gods—to the Martyrs whose blood was shed by heretics—there is added today another brave soldier of Christ, who won his crown in a very different sort of combat. The Sacrament of Penance, whereby sinners regain the heaven they had lost, claims John Nepomucen as its glorious defender.

A holy secrecy shrouds the reconciliation made between God and the Penitent. This Sacramental Secrecy deserved to have its Martyr. When Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance—that second Baptism, wherein the Blood of our Redeemer washes away the sins of the Christian soul—he willed that man should not be deterred from confessing his humiliations to his spiritual physician, by the fear of their ever being revealed. How many hidden martyrdoms have there not been, during these eighteen hundred years, for the maintenance of this Secret which, while its gives security to the Penitent, exposes the Confessor to obloquy, injustice, and even death! But the Martyr we honor today was not one of these hidden sufferers. His testimony to the inviolability of the Sacramental Seal was public; he gave it amidst cruel tortures; it cost him his life.

All praise, then, to the brave and faithful Priest! Right worthy was he to hold in his hands the Keys that open or shut the gate of heaven! In this great fact of the observance of the Seal of Confession, on which depends the salvation of millions of souls, we have a permanent miracle. But there was one thing wanting to it—the glory of Martyrdom. The holy Priest of Prague gave it that glory; and he offers the fair Palm to our Risen Jesus, whom we have seen, during these days between his Resurrection and Ascension, mercifully instituting the Sacrament of Penance, wherein he communicates to men his own power of forgiving sin.

We subjoin the Lessons approved of by the Holy See for the feast of this great Martyr.

Joannes Nepomuci Bohemiæ oppido, unde Nepomuceni cognomen duxit, a parentibus ætate provectis, non sine futuræ sanctitatis præsagio, flammis supra nascentis domum mirabiliter collucentibus, ortus est. Quum infans in gravem morbum incidisset, beatæ Virginis ope, cui natum parentes referebant acceptum, e vitæ periculo evasit incolumis. Egregia indole, piaque institutione cœlestibus indiciis obsequente, inter sanctas religiosasque exercitationes pueritiam egit: nam ecclesiam frequenter adire, ac sacerdotibus ad aras operantibus ministrare in deliciis habebat. Zatecii politioribus litteris ad humanitatem informatus, Pragæ vero gravioribus disciplinis excultus, philosophiæ, theologiæ, sacrorumque canonum magisterium et lauream emeruit. Sacerdotio initiatus atque a scientia sanctorum ad lucra animarum rite comparatus, ministerio verbi Dei se penitus addixit. Quum igitur in vitiis exstirpandis, et revocandis in viam salutis errantibus, eloquentia et pietate uberes ederet fructus, inter canonicos metropolitanæ Ecclesiæ Pragensis cooptatus, mox sibi demandatam Evangelii coram rege Wenceslao Quarto prædicandi provinciam suscepit, eo successu ut Joannis suasu multa rex faceret, magnoque in honore ejus virtutes haberet. Conspicuas tamen, quas ille obtulit, dignitates Dei servus, ne a divini verbi præconio avocaretur, constantissime recusavit. John was born at Nepomuk a town in Bohemia (from which he took the name of Nepomucen), and of parents who were advanced in years. His future sanctity was foretold by the appearance of bright rays miraculously shining over the house wherein he was born. When an infant, he was seized with a dangerous illness; but was delivered from death by the protection of the Blessed Virgin, to whom his parents considered themselves indebted for his birth. He was blessed with an excellent disposition, and received a pious training, in keeping with the indications given from heaven. He spent his boyhood in the practice of religious exercises; among which it was his delight to be frequently at the Church, and serve the Priests when saying Mass. He went through his humanities at Zatek, and the higher studies at Prague, where he took his degrees in Philosophy, Theology, and Canon law. He was ordained Priest; and being, by his proficiency in the science of the Saints, well fitted for gaining souls, he devoted himself entirely to preaching the word of God. In consideration of the great fruits produced by his eloquence and piety, which extirpated vice and brought sinners back to the way of salvation, he was made a Canon of the Metropolitan Church of Prague. Being afterwards chosen as Preacher to King Wenceslaus the Fourth, he so far succeeded, that the King did many things through his advice, and had a great regard for his virtue. He offered him several high dignities; but the Saint peremptorily refused to accept them, fearing that they would interfere with his preaching the divine word.
Regiis illum ellemosynis in pauperes erogandis præfectum, Joanna regina conscientiæ sibi moderatorem adscivit. Quum autem Wenceslaus ab officio institoque decessisset, atque in vitia præceps abriperetur, piæ vero conjugis obtestationes et monita gravate ferret, contendere ausus est ut in sacramentali judicio sacerdoti credita reginæ arcana sibi a Joanne panderentur. At Dei minister, blanditiis primum, tormentis deinde et carceris squalore tentatus, nefariæ regis cupiditati fortiter obstitit. Furentem tamen Wenceslai animum quum ab execrando proposito nec humana nec divina jura deterrerent, supremum agonem, quem instare sibi athleta Christi noverat, populo in concione de impendentibus etiam regni calamitatibus admonito, non obscure prænuntiavit. Mox Boleslaviam profectus, ad beatæ Virginis imaginem antiquo cultu celebrem, cœleste præsidium ad certandum bonum certamen effusis precibus imploravit. Inde vespere revertentem in pervigilio Dominicæ Ascensionis, rex e fenestra conspicatus arcessit; quumque vehementius urgeret, et proximam in aquis, si obluctari pergeret, submersionem intentaret, Joannes invicta constantia terrores minasque refutavit. Itaque, regis imperio, in Moldavam, flumen Pragam interfluens, noctu dejectus, illustrem martyrii coronam est consecutus. He was entrusted with the distribution of the royal alms to the poor, and Queen Jane chose him as her own spiritual director. Wenceslaus having given himself up to vices, which disgraced both his kingly and christian character, and being displeased at the entreaties and counsels of his wife, he even dared to insist on John’s revealing to him the secrets, told to him as Priest, by the queen in the sacrament of Penance. The minister of God courageously resisted the King’s impious request, and neither bribes, nor tortures, nor imprisonment, could make him yield. Seeing that the King had got to such a pitch of rage that the laws of neither man nor God made him relent, the soldier of Christ plainly foretold in one of his sermons, his own approaching death, and the calamities that were to befall the kingdom. He then set out for Buntzel, where is kept the image of the Blessed Virgin that has been venerated for centuries: he there, in fervent prayer, implored heaven to grant him the assistance he needed, in order to fight the good fight. As he was returning home, on the evening before the Vigil of the Ascension, the King, who was standing at the palace window, saw him, and sent him word that he was to repair to the King. The King was more than ever urgent in his demand, and threatened John with immediate drowning, if he continued to refuse compliance. The Saint was not to be conquered, and showed the King that he was not afraid of his threats. Wherefore, by the King’s orders, he was thrown that same night, in to the river Moldaw, which flows through Prague; and John obtained the glorious crown of Martyrdom.
Sacrilegum facinus clam patratum et martyris gloriam insigne prodigium divinitus patefecit. Ubi enim exanime corpus secundo flumine vehi cœpit, ardentes faces aquis supernatantes et discurrentes apparuerunt. Quamobrem ex arena postridie mane corpus elatum cononici deinde, regis iram nihil timentes, in metropolitanam ecclesiam solemni pompa intulerunt, et sepulturæ mandarunt. Quum autem in dies invicti sacerdotis memoria miraculis et maxima fidelium, eorum præcipue qui fama periclitantur, veneratione cresceret, post annos demum amplius trecentos, in juridica recognitione corporis, quod sub humo tamdiu jacuerat, lingua ejus incorrupta et vivida reperta est: quæ, sexto post anno judicibus a Sede Apostolica delegatis exhibita, novo prodigio repente intumuit, et subobscurum ruborem in purpureum commutavit. His itaque aliisque signis rite probatis, Benedictus Decimus tertius, Pontifex Maximus, die decima nona mensis Martii, anno salutis millesimo septingentesimo vingesimo nono, primum hunc sacramentalis sigilli assertorem, arcani fidem sanguine obsignantem, sanctorum martyrum catalogo adscripsit. The sacrilegious crime, thus privately committed, was miraculously revealed, as was also the Martyr’s great glory. For as soon as life was extinct, and the corpse began to float down the stream, flaming torches were seen following on the surface of the water. The next morning, the Canons went and took the body from the sand on which it lay, and heedless of the King’s displeasure, they had it carried, with much solemnity, to the metropolitan Church, and gave it burial. The memory of this courageous Priest became gradually most venerable, both by the miracles that were wrought, and by the devotion of the Faithful—of those especially whose good name is injured by evil report. After upwards of three hundred years, a juridical examination was made of his body (which, during all that time, had lain under the ground) and his tongue was found to be incorrupt and as though it were that of a living man. Six hears later on, the tongue was shown to judges delegated by the Apostolic See; when, by a fresh miracle, it immediately resumed the fullness of life, and, from being of a brownish color, it became perfectly red. These and other miracles having been authentically approved, he was canonized by Pope Benedict the Thirteenth, on the nineteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord 1729, as the defender of the Sacramental Seal, and the first Martyr that had shed his blood for the maintenance of its holy secrecy.

How great, O glorious Martyr, was the honor reserved for thee by the Son of God, when he chose thee to be the one who was to attest, by laying down his life, the sacredness of the secret which protects the Sacrament of Penance! Other Priests, as well as thyself, have bravely suffered persecution for the sake of the secrecy of the mystery of Reconciliation; but thou wast the one chosen by heaven to give a solemn testimony of priestly discretion. Thy sufferings were known to more than to Angels: thy Martyrdom was a public one, and the Faithful honor thy courage as an eloquent proof of how truly our good Shepherd, Jesus, removes every difficulty that could deter the strayed sheep from returning to the fold.

We address ourselves to thee, O holy Martyr, on this the day of thy triumph, and we beg of thee to intercede for sinners. Admirable minister of the Sacrament of Penance! thou seest how many Christians there are who neglect to avail themselves of the means of salvation prepared for them by our Risen Savior. Instead of laying hold of this “second plank after shipwreck,” they let themselves be carried on to the deep abyss by the tide of their sinful habits. There are thousands who have turned a deaf ear, even this Easter, to the call of holy Church, who invited them, as an affectionate Mother, to approach the Tribunal of mercy and Reconciliation. We beseech thee, intercede for these blind, these unwary, these ungrateful men. Get them that grace which will lead them to the feet of the God of Mercy, who is ever ready to grant pardon.

There are others, again, who go to Confession, but who have not the dispositions requisite for receiving the grace of the Sacrament—the justification of their souls. Pray also for these, that they may see the danger they thus incur of profaning the Blood of Christ. Obtain for all them who approach the holy Tribunal, an honest avowal of their sins, and contrition of heart; that thus the life of our Risen Jesus may be imparted to them, and that they may never again lose it. By thy powerful intercession, raise up zealous and faithful ministers of this great Sacrament, of which thou wast the Martyr. Draw down on their arduous labor the blessing of heaven: then will the number of the children of God be increased, and the grace of the Holy Ghost triumph in souls that have long been dead in sin.

Cast, too, an eye of compassion on thy fatherland of Bohemia, where there are so many Faithful hearts that love and honor thee. Alas! there are tares which disfigure that portion of the Church. The enemy came, not many years after thy glorious martyrdom, and sowed the baneful weeds of heresy in thy native land. The good seed claims thy protection; but take pity also on the cockle, for even it may be turned, by the True Faith, into wheat, and be garnered into the House of our Heavenly Father. Secure to thy Bohemia the peace of which an ambitious diplomacy is now seeking to deprive her, and save her from the snares that are being laid for her.


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)