Exercising humility: St Stanislaus Kostka SJ
Dries van den Akker SJ reminds us that there is more to St Stanislas Kostka than meets the eye.
Stanislaus was scarcely eighteen years old when one early Sunday morning he fled from the city of Vienna to meet Father Peter Canisius in Augsburg. This was a walk of about 300 miles. It took him almost fourteen days. He was disguised as a beggar to avoid being recognized and - to be honest - also in imitation of Christ. That disguise was the worst aspect of this venture for his father in Poland, when he heard about this later on. His own son had disgraced the nobility of the Kostka family by begging his way along the roads through Europe!
What had happened? Three years before, Stanislaus was sent from Poland to Vienna where Peter Canisius had just founded a Jesuit College. He was accompanied by his brother Paul, scarcely a year older as he was, by their private teacher and their servants. With them there was also a group of rich boys. They were meant to receive a well-founded Catholic education. That was important in a time that the influence of the Reformation was still growing.
To become a Jesuit
In the beginning they were boarded in the same house as the Jesuits. Stanislaus was impressed by the way of life of the fathers: the atmosphere of cordiality and cheerfulness; their elegance and courtesy. So different from what he had lived at home. There they tried to imitate the nobility of two hundred years ago with genuflexions and rehearsed manners, with rules, customs and protocols. Here there was more spirituality to it. Not only in the way they prayed, but also in the way they treated each other, the way they treated the pupils and the way they treated the study in the classrooms.
To live like them: that was what Stanislaus wanted for himself. After half a year a part of the school buildings were requisitioned by the emperor. The pupils couldn’t stay. Paul found some accommodation for the whole Polish group. But they had to be careful: the landlord was a Protestant. Stanislaus continued the way of life which he had seen among the Jesuit fathers. But that collided regularly with the ideas of Paul and the other boys. Paul arranged dance lessons, which were ordered by his father. Stanislaus participated reluctantly. But for the rest he withdrew as much as possible from the social life of the group: ‘I have been born for something better.’ They started to bully him: ‘You Jesuit!’, they said. Stanislaus responded by polishing the boots of Paul: exercising humility. Paul was furious. That was not the behaviour of a man of the nobility; but servant’s work.
Around Christmas time in the last year Stanislaus fell seriously ill. He was abandoned by the physicians. For fear of the Protestant landlord, Paul didn’t have the courage to call a priest for the last rites. Their private teacher sat up at night with the patient. In later times he would tell people that Stanislaus was suffering an ice fever and cried when he had to kneel, for there was Saint Barbara bringing him Holy Communion from heaven. And look! the Holy Virgin with the little child Jesus. She laid the child down in his arms. That is how it feels to be with Jesus. The morning after this, Stanislaus was healed. The physicians couldn’t explain it. This confirmed once more that Stanislaus should become a Jesuit.
He expressed his desire to join the Society to the rector of the College. The Rector answered that he was very welcome into the Society of Jesus, but that he needed the agreement of his father. Stanislaus realised that his father never should agree. ‘But we don’t want to upset your father. He could harm the recently opened Jesuit houses in Poland.’ It had been Father Rector himself who had founded these houses.
Then the new father confessor of the Empress arrived at the court in Vienna, Cardinal Commendone. Stanislaus knew him, for in his time in Poland Commendone had visited Stanislaus’ parents’ castle several times. The cardinal advised him to go to Father Canisius. He would know how to manage this situation. Commendone wrote a letter of recommendation for him. Stanislaus asked a tailor to make a beggar’s duffle coat for him ‘for the feast of carnival’. Immediately after the end of the classes Stanislaus fled from Vienna.
At many places on his way to Augsburg the churches had fallen into ruins because of the invasions of the Mohammedan Turks in past years. Where they were still in use in many cases they turned out to be taken over by Protestant vicars, mostly former Catholic priests. And in the midst of this Stanislaus was a fugitive. With only one goal before him: to become a Jesuit.
Father Canisius was not at home. He was in Dillingen, another 30 miles walk. He held the boy with him for three weeks. That was enough. He sent him to Father General in Rome with two other Jesuit students and with a letter of recommendation. Again, a distance of more than six hundred miles of walking. But it brought him nearer to his goal. At 28th October 1567 he was admitted into the Jesuit Order. Scarcely a year later he died in the summer heat of Rome: 15th August 1568. His feast is celebrated on the 13th November.
In 1962 the Jesuits of the college of Saint Stanislaus in Delft, Netherlands, asked the famous sculptor Albert Termote to make a statue. His first draft was a traditional Stanislaus: in a cassock and with the child Jesus in his arms. This is the way he is pictured in a stained glass window in the central Catholic Church in Delft:
But the Jesuits had something different in mind. The result was the statue which now can be found in each of six localities of the College. The reader can guess in what way the Jesuits of Delft wanted Stanislaus to be pictured...
St Stanislas is patron of students, young people, and Jesuit novices, and particularly venerated in Poland.
Fr Dries van den Akker SJ