St. John Nepomucen, Martyr
St. John, whom, in our time, God has honored with many miracles, received his surname from Nepomuc, a small town two miles from Prague, where he was born. His parents were plain people and had lived many years without issue. After having made a vow, however, in honor of the blessed Virgin, whose miraculous picture is kept in a Cistercian convent not far from Nepomuc, St. John was born to them. At the time of his birth, several stars were seen which floated down from heaven and rested upon the house of his parents. This event was interpreted and admired as a prophecy of his future holiness. In his infancy, he fell dangerously sick, but recovered after his parents had consecrated him to God in the above-named place of pilgrimage. As he grew up, his greatest delight was to assist the priests at Mass, and he passed the whole forenoon in that sacred occupation in the Cistercian Church. In his studies he made such rapid progress that he became Doctor of Divinity and Canon Law. After being ordained priest, he retired one month from all intercourse with men, and prepared himself, by prayers, penances and purifying his soul, for the first holy Mass. Soon after, he was commissioned to preach at Prague in the Church of our Lady, in the suburb; and he did this with such eminent success, that the Archbishop raised him to the dignity of Canon and preacher of the Cathedral, which functions he discharged until his death.
Wencelaus, at that period king of Bohemia, attended his sermons frequently, with his whole court, and esteemed the Saint highly. He offered him the See of Leimeritz, and afterwards the rich provostship of Wissherad, but John refused both, hoping to do more good by preaching. Queen Jane, the wife of Wencelaus chose him for her confessor and almoner. In these offices he evinced great wisdom and ability, and the former of them became the means of his obtaining the glorious crown of martyrdom. The king, neglecting the affairs of the land, became, meanwhile, more and more, a slave to debauchery and drunkenness, and added to the scandal which this gave to his people, by acts of the most unheard of cruelty. Not able to alter his conduct either by exhortations or entreaties, the pious queen at last became silent, and endeavored by prayer and other virtuous exercises, to inspire her husband with better thoughts and the fear of God. She frequently received the holy Sacraments in order to give more power to her prayers, and to be strengthened in patience. The wicked king regarded her frequent confessions with mistrusting eyes, even suspecting that the queen might have been as faithless to him as he had been to her. Hence the desire to know what the queen confessed was awakened in him, and calling St. John into his presence, he, after long circumlocution, and giving some feigned reasons, informed him of his wish, promising him all possible favors and honors in case he satisfied his curiosity. The Saint was at first stunned at so sacrilegious a demand, and then explained to the king the greatness of the crime which a priest would commit if he revealed the least thing which had been told him under the seal of confession, adding that he would much rather die than become guilty of so terrible a crime.
The king dissimulated his anger at this reply, resolving to wait for another opportunity. He had not to wait long; for when, with unprecedented cruelty he had commanded that a cook, who had sent to the royal table a capon badly roasted, should be himself roasted alive on a spit, and no one dared to disobey the tyrant. St. John went to him and endeavored to dissuade him from such barbarity. But instead of listening to the Saint, he gave orders to cast him into a dark, horrible dungeon, and left him there a day without any food. After this, he sent the jailer to him with a message that he could save his life only by fulfilling the king’s desire. The Saint well understood the message, and replied that he remained firm in what he had already said to the king. In consideration of this constancy Wencelaus determined to have recourse to kindness. He had the Saint liberated, and informed that he repented of his harshness, and begged his pardon, at the same time requesting him to appear the following day at the royal table as a token of complete reconciliation. The Saint complied with the behest and appeared, but no sooner had the king arisen from the table, than he repeated his godless desire, pressing the holy man at first with great promises and afterwards with cruel menaces. Seeing that neither the one nor the other were respected by St. John, he commanded that he should be again dragged to the dungeon and stretched upon the rack. To add to his suffering, he was at the same time burned with torches. The brave martyr raised his eyes to heaven and only repeated frequently the sacred names of Jesus and Mary. When he had been long tortured, the king, who was present, left, and St. John was once more set at liberty.
He informed nobody of what had happened to him, but as soon as his wounds were healed, he discharged his functions as he had hitherto done. As it was, however, revealed to him in a vision that his silence would cost him his life, he bade farewell to his hearers on the Sunday before Ascension. His text was, “A little while and you shall not see me.” In this sermon he predicted the evils which would soon fall upon Bohemia in consequence of new heresies, and exhorted all to repentance and to constancy in the Catholic faith. On the day before the festival of the Ascension, he made a pilgrimage to Bunzel where a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin was honored. Arriving there he fervently recommended his approaching death-agony to the divine mother. At evening he returned to Prague. The king, leaning out of the window of his palace, saw him. Having given orders to bring the Saint before him, he addressed him with these shameless words: “Listen, parson! Thou wilt have to die, if thou dost not immediately tell me what the queen confessed to thee. I vow to God that thou shalt drink water!” The Saint repeated fearlessly his former words: “I will rather die a thousand times.” Hardly had this passed his lips, when the king commanded the holy man to be dragged into the adjoining apartment and kept there. As soon as night had come he was led to the bridge that unites the old and new portions of Prague, and from thence cast into the Moldaw, in the year 1383.
Heaven did not allow this crime to be concealed for one single hour. An uncommonly bright light in the form of many stars was seen, which seemed to float upon the water and accompanying the holy body, remained with it. All the people came running towards the river, but could not explain the prodigy. The king himself was called by the queen to witness the scene, and looked at it in fear and trembling. When the next day dawned, the waters of the river were divided into two parts and in the midst was seen, lying on the sand with a sweet smile upon his face, the body of the Saint. The Canons brought it at first into the nearest Church, but soon after transferred it witn imposing solemnities to the Cathedral. From that day date the honors which were paid to the Saint, and which God approved by numberless miracles which were wrought at his tomb.
After the expiration of more than 300 years, the holy body was exhumed, and the tongue of the Saint was found fresh without a sign of corruption. When, six years later, this tongue was shown to a deputation, sent by the Pope to verify the report, it suddenly swelled up before the eyes of all present and changed from dark red to purple, as though it were still, imbued with life. Remarkable is the fact that every one who approached the tomb of the Saint, irreverently was sure to be punished with some public derision. Many examples of recent date have verified this.
In conclusion, it is to be remarked that the intercession of Saint John Nepomucen may be requested with great benefit by those whose good name has been tarnished or who are in danger of a public disgrace as also by those who feel difficulties in confessing their sins. In our times this glorious Saint has become particularly renowned, not only on account of the incorruption of his tongue and the many miracles which have taken place at his shrine, but also on account of the many graces and benefits which the Almighty has bestowed upon those throughout the whole Christian world, who with confidence ask his intercession. Many books are filled with the relation of these facts.
St. John spoke fearlessly when to speak was a duty, as when he endeavored to dissuade the king from his cruelty. But he also knew when to be silent, when silence was a duty, as when he would reveal nothing of what the queen had confessed, although the king was determined to know it and tried to force him with terrible tortures and even menaced him with death. To speak and to remain silent at the proper time and place is a great art, which we must acquire if we would attain heaven. Numberless sins are committed by speaking where we ought to keep silence, or by being silent when we ought to speak. Let your own conduct on this point be an example to you. You slander your neighbor and reveal his secret faults to those who need not know them. You lie, curse, dishonor the holy Sacraments, murmur against God and man, seek to revenge yourself on your enemies, hold unchaste conversations, speak insultingly of holy religion, the true Church, and its ministers. These are all sins which you commit by speaking what you ought not to speak. You are, however, silent when others converse in a godless, impure manner, when the honor of a neighbor is traduced, and when holy religion and the Church are outrageously spoken of. You are silent to the faults of those under you. You are silent in holy confession, and do not reveal all you ought. You are like a dumb brute when you ought to defend the honor of God and protect your neighbor. These are all sins which you commit, because you are silent when you ought to speak. Ah! open your eyes and recognize the necessity of following the example of St. John, not to speak when and where you ought to be silent, and to remain silent only at the right time. “There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak,” says the Holy Ghost (Eccl. iii.). “We must, however, take heed,” says St. Gregory, “to distinguish well the time, and therefore bridle our tongue when it is time to be silent; but when it is time to speak, not restrain it, as otherwise we shall sigh one day, as he did, who said: “woe is me, because I have held my peace” (Isai. vi.). Hence, David requested of God to put a guard to his mouth and a door before his lips. The guard allows not everybody to leave the house or fortress, neither does he allow any one to leave at all hours. The door does not remain always closed. One opens and shuts it. Hence, David asked God for the grace to speak at the right time and place, and also to keep silence when and where it was necessary. “Set a watch, O, Lord,” said he, “before my mouth: and a door round about my lips” (Psalm cxl.). In reference to these words St. Chrysostom writes: “Let us constantly guard our mouth. Let us use reason as a key, not to keep it always locked, but to open it at the proper time. For sometimes, keeping silence is better than speaking, just as at other times speaking is more needful than silence. Therefore, the Holy Ghost says, through the lips of the wise man: “There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” If it were intended that the mouth should always be open, the Creator would not have provided it with a door. If it should always be locked we needed no guard. There ought to be a proper time for everything.” Thus teaches St. Chrysostom in reference to this point. Pray to God that he may give you grace to live in accordance with such important teachings.
St. John revealed nothing of what he had heard in holy confession, although he drew upon himself the disfavor of the king and even death. What this Saint did is the duty of every priest. He is not allowed to reveal the least word of what is told him under the seal of confession, should it even cost him his life. There is no authentic example that a priest has ever departed from his duty on this point. God has taken care to keep the seal of confession intact. He himself has ordered that it should be so, that no penitent should have reason to feel ashamed in the confessional, and hence conceal some sin. Those that are not Catholics and are requested by their ministers–as is often done in some places–to practice oral confessions, are to be excused if they conceal their greatest sins, partly, because it is of no advantage to them to confess to their minister, partly, because they have to fear that their sins are not kept secret, but will be revealed to others. What, however, can you, Catholic Christian, say in your excuse, if you voluntarily conceal something in the confessional, as you know that your confessors never dare reveal what you have told. Never let shame prevail on you to conceal, voluntarily, a mortal sin. If it is a hard task to confess your faults openly and truthfully, say to yourself: “It is for the welfare of my soul; I myself will be benefited by it.” “For thy soul, be not ashamed to say the truth,” says the wise man. “For there is a shame which bringeth sin, and there is a shame that bringeth glory and grace.” The former of these is when we conceal a sin out of shame; the latter when, conquerin this weakness, we confess truthfull and thus make ourselves ashamed by our self-accusations before priest.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.