Past Martyrs and Modern Missionaries


Zielona Góra

The Deaths of Benedict, John, Mateusz, Izaak and
Krystyn, the First Polish Martyrs; painting in the
church of the Camaldolese monastery in Bieniszew


As I write this article for a special issue of „Nowe Życie”, it is November 13th. The Diocese of Zielonogóra-Gorzów, in which I live, is celebrating the feast of its patron saint. This is a commemoration of the First Polish Martyrs (Benedict, John, Mateusz, Izaak and Krystyn), who died on 11 November 1003 in the vicinity of Międzyrzecz. Two of these – Benedict and John – were Italians, the others – Mateusz, Izaak and Krystyn – were Poles. All were killed together at the hands of their attackers during an attack on the local population. The Italian monks had only been living in the settlement for a short time, and had been warmly welcomed by Duke Bolesław, later the first king of Poland. St Bruno of Querfurt, who described the life and death of the martyrs, testifies that Duke Bolesław, „according to his custom, accepted the servants of God with extraordinary courtesy and with great desire. And in all his actions showing them kindness, in a secluded hermitage with great readiness, he built a place that they themselves considered suitable, and provided them with all the necessary means to live.”
When, a few years earlier, Benedict and John had set out for the Alps, which constituted not only a geographic but also a cultural boundary, they had set out into a world completely unknown to them.
St Bruno eloquently writes about this: „And so they went under a common star to receive the Kingdom of God and their great fate in the land of the Slavs. […] Thus, having covered the road, long and winding, through the Alps, they completed this laborious crossing. They entered the land of the Polan, where an unknown language was spoken – and many such alien lands they had already journeyed through.” What did these monks from southern Europe expect? And why had they come here? The idea of sending missionaries to Poland was born at a meeting between the German emperor Otto and the Polish duke Bolesław, which had taken place in the year 1000 in Gniezno, then the capital of Poland. It was on the basis of this agreement that it was decided to send missionaries „to the country of the Slavs to build a monastery where a beautiful forest would be suitable for a hermitage, in a Christian country, near the border with the pagan.” The missionaries en route to Poland were great realists. They were aware that – as St Bruno relates – „preaching the Gospel to pagans” is a risk. This was a mission only „for those wishing to abandon life and to be together with Christ.” The beginnings were difficult. Poland had converted to Christianity only forty years before their arrival, i.e. in the year 966, during the reign of Prince Mieszko.
The Christianisation process had just begun, and around the Christian Polan there lived pagan tribes. The mission seemed destined not to be fruitful. The two Italians were joined by only two Polish novices – Izaak and Mateusz – while Krystyn was their serving boy. There were also not too many conversions. Is it surprising that discouragement and sadness overwhelmed them? Once again, St Bruno wrote thus: „Having left their homeland, they dared to enter a strange country lying under another sun, and with great difficulty they learned the unknown language. There was not even a trace of the brothers arriving, nor signs that they had dedicated themselves to Apostolic service.”
Instead of confreres and successors, they found a martyr’s death, following in the footsteps of St Wojciech, whom the chronicler called a „rare bird”, seeking thereby to emphasise the uniqueness of his character.
Why am I writing about this?

More than a thousand years have passed since the events described here. Probably hardly anyone coming to Wrocław for the European Youth Meeting organised by the ecumenical community of Taizé knows the origins of Christianity in Poland.
At the beginning of the faith of Poles stand the missionaries who came here from different parts of Europe: SS Benedict and John from Italy, St Wojciech from Czech, and St Bruno from Germany. They did not immediately see the effects of their missionary activity. On the contrary, they had the right to feel discouragement and sadness. In earthly terms, the martyr’s death which ended their mission prematurely was no success either. But as we know from Tertullian, sanguis martyrum, semen Christianorum, the blood of the martyrs is the sowing of Christians, as evidenced by the 1050-year-old history of Christianity in Poland.
However, it must be honestly pointed out that the religiosity of Poles has changed rapidly in recent years.
People talk of so-called creeping secularisation, i.e. one which progresses slowly but systematically. The number of those who are non-believers, non-practitioners, or who do not identify with the Church is growing. Are we becoming more like Western Europe, where secularisation and abandonment of faith and the Church have been happening for decades? Recent studies of the youngest generations of Poles, and therefore the Polish youth, are really disturbing. It is said that in their case it is no longer a creeping, but rather a galloping secularisation. Among young people, the decline in the declaration of faith and the practice of religion is greatest.
I am not writing this to complain, but to strengthen our missionary responsibility. The meeting in Wrocław is a stop on the missionary journey through the countries of Europe. Each epoque has its missionaries and its methods of proclaiming the Gospel. In a world of constant migration and travel, we are all and always will be missionaries, all the more so when attending a prayer meeting in Wrocław.
The presence of young people from Europe counters the stereotypical visions of the death of the Church in the Old World, which are frequently shown by the media. Perhaps Christianity is not so visible there, but when one looks carefully, very lively Church communities can be found.
When the missionaries from the south and west arrived here in the 10th and 11th centuries, they had the right to feel as if they were „under an alien sun” and the language barrier seemed to be insurmountable. Today – especially for young people – the world really has became a „global village”, it has shrunk, and everywhere we feel almost as if we are at home. For a few days, I myself hosted a traveller from France, who was travelling around Europe alone.
I was full of admiration for his courage and openness to the world and its people.
Arriving from different parts of Europe, you follow in the footsteps of the mission of Saints Benedict, John, Wojciech, Bruno, and Otto, who brought us the Gospel at the beginnings of Christianity. Fortunately, in our part of the world the missionary grain no longer has to be the blood of the martyr; rather, the word and a testimony of life is enough. And today this is very important for us Poles, especially for your peers. It shows that living the Gospel is still possible, even in this world which is so very different from the one we knew until just recently.