In 1995, Saint John Paul II canonized two very different saints from the Czech Republic. The first was Jan Sarkander, a Jesuit priest and martyr who was killed by militant Protestants in 1620, partly because he refused to reveal what he had heard in the confessional. The other person canonized in that ceremony was Zdislava (or Zedislava) of Lamberk, a wife and mother whose commemoration is celebrated on January 1.
Zdislava was born in the early part of the thirteenth century in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). There are stories about her piety as a child and of her desire to live a life of prayer and solitude. However, her family prevailed upon her to marry Count Havel of Lamberk, with whom she had four children.
Zdislava lived a life centered on prayer and charity. She was especially devoted to the Eucharist and received communion almost every day. (This was very unusual in an age when people received Holy Communion only once a year, at most.) Her acts of charity especially benefited the many refugees who were seeking shelter and protection after their lands were pillaged by Tartar invaders from Eastern Europe. Many people sought refuge in the castle of Gabel, where she and her family lived. Although Havel initially opposed his wife’s generosity and hospitality, he eventually experienced a change of heart. An ancient story relates that he was angered that Zdislava had given a fever-stricken beggar a bed in the castle. Prepared to throw the poor man out, Havel had a vision of the crucified Christ lying in the beggar’s bed. He was so moved by this vision that he allowed Zdislava to continue her charitable works and he supported her efforts to establish a Dominican convent in Turnov. For the rest of her life, she remained closely associated with the Dominican Order; she is often referred to as a Dominican Tertiary (lay affiliate) and depicted in art as wearing a Dominican habit. Following her death in 1252, she was buried in the convent she founded.
It was only in 1907 that Pope Saint Pius X approved devotion to Saint Zdislava in her native land. Finally, in 1995, Pope Saint John Paul II officially canonized her, more than 700 years after her death, recognizing that she is indeed a saint for the entire Church. In his homily for the canonization, he praised Zdislava as a witness to the “Gospel of Life” because of the eloquent witness of her charity and the importance she placed on family, openness to God, and openness to the needs of the poor.
In this Christmas Season, Pope Francis has asked us to remember, in a special way, the many refugees, exiles, and immigrants who have been forced to leave their homes and who are living without the basic necessities of life. Certainly our support of charitable organizations like Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org) and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (www.cnewa.org) give us opportunities to continue Saint Zdislava’s work of caring for refugees, but we are also challenged in these days of Christmas to recognize the presence of the One who is Emmanuel—God With Us—in the poor and needy:
While we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? ... More so, do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God. (Pope Francis in his Homily for Christmas 2014)
May the example of Saint Zdislava inspire you to recognize the presence of Christ in the poor, hungry, and homeless in your own communities and throughout the world. Pray about how, this Christmas Season, you can provide care for those who most need it.
A Prayer in Honor of Saint Zdislava +Faithful God, by her married life and works of charity you taught Saint Zdislava to pursue the way of perfection. By her prayers, may family life be strengthened and be a witness to Christian virtue. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer from the General Calendar of the Order of Preachers)
This reflection was originally prepared for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website the week of December 28, 2014.