Saint Stanislaus of Krakow, Bishop and Martyr

Stanisław Szczepanowski or Stanislaus of Szczepanów was a Bishop of Kraków known chiefly for having been martyred by Polish King Bolesław II the Bold. He is also the patron saint of Poland. There are few details known about his life.

According to tradition, he was born on 26 July, 1030, at Szczepanów, a village near the town of Bochnia in southern Poland, the only son of the nobly-born and pious Wielisław and Bogna. He received his education at a cathedral school in Gniezno (at that time the capital of Poland). Later, it is said he also studied in France, at Paris or Liège.

On his return to Poland, he was ordained priest by Bishop Lambert Suła of Kraków. On the bishop’s death in 1072, Stanislaus was chosen as his successor, but would only accept the post on the explicit command of Pope Alexander II. He was one of the very first native-born Polish bishops. Among his achievements was bringing a papal representative to Poland and the re-establishment of Gniezno as a metropolitan see, led by an archbishop. The latter was apparently a precondition for Duke Bolesław’s coronation as king in 1076. Stanisław encouraged the new King to establish Benedictine monasteries to promote the Christianisation of Poland.

Relations with the king, however, deteriorated over a land dispute, which was the origin of a strange story. The bishop had purchased for the diocese a piece of land from a certain Piotr (Peter). However, after Piotr’s death, the family denied the sale and claimed back the land. They were supported in this by the king. Stanislaus then asked the king for three days in order to produce the dead Piotr to testify that he had indeed sold the land to the bishop. The king and court were said to have laughed at the absurd request but the king granted the bishop three days. Stanisław spent the period in ceaseless prayer.

On the third day, dressed in full bishop’s regalia, he went to the cemetery where Piotr had been buried three years previously. Piotr’s remains were discovered and then, in sight of a crowd of witnesses, Stanislaus told Piotr to rise. And he did so. He was brought before the king to verify the bishop’s claim. Piotr then denounced his three sons and said that Stanislaus had indeed paid for the land. The king had no choice but to dismiss the case. When asked would he like to remain alive, Piotr declined, returned to his grave and was reburied.

Later, a more serious dispute arose between the bishop and the king and, in response, Stanislaus excommunicated Boleslaw. Stanislaus was then accused of treason and the king ordered the bishop to be killed. King Bolesław sent his men to execute Stanisław without trial but when they dared not touch the bishop, the king decided to kill the traitor himself. He is said to have killed Stanislaus while he was celebrating Mass outside the walls of Kraków. The bishop’s body was then hacked to pieces and thrown into a pool outside the church. According to legend, his members miraculously reintegrated while the pool was guarded by four eagles. The exact date of Stanisław’s death is uncertain. According to different sources, it was either April 11 or May 8, 1079.

The murder stirred outrage throughout Poland and led to the dethronement of King Bolesław II the Bold, who had to seek refuge in Hungary and was succeeded by his brother, Władysław I Herman. The cult of Saint Stanisłaus the martyr began immediately upon his death. In 1088, his relics were transferred to Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral. In the early 13th century, Bishop Iwo Odrowąż initiated preparations for Stanisław’s canonization.

On September 17, 1253, at Assisi in Italy, Stanisłaus was canonized by Pope Innocent IV. Pope Pius V did not include the Saint’s feast day in the Tridentine Calendar as a feast for the whole Church. Subsequently Pope Clement VIII included it, setting it for 7 May, but Kraków has observed it on 8 May, since 1254, the supposed date of the Saint’s death. In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church moved the feast to 11 April, also considered to be the date of his death in 1079.

As the first native Polish saint, Stanisław is the patron of Poland and Kraków, and of some Polish dioceses. He shares the patronage of Poland with Saint Adalbert of Prague, Florian, and Our Lady the Queen of Poland. Wawel Cathedral, which holds the Saint’s relics, became a principal national shrine. Almost all the Polish kings beginning with Władysław I the Elbow-high were crowned while kneeling before Stanisław’s sarcophagus, which stands in the middle of the cathedral. Each year on May 8, a procession, led by the Bishop of Kraków, goes out from Wawel to the Church on the Rock. The procession, once a local event, was popularized in the 20th century by Polish Primate Stefan Wyszyńsk and Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła. The latter, as Pope John Paul II, called Saint Stanisław the patron saint of moral order.

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