October 4, 2004
Thirty years ago, for the first time, I visited Prague, the capital of what was then called "The People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia. The Soviet army occupied the land, and the Soviet government was siphoning off whatever resources it could in order to sustain its tottering empire. Nonetheless, Prague retained much of its traditional charm. With a modicum of effort one could look past the general disrepair of things and imagine quite well what this celebrated capital of Bohemia had once been and what it might one day be.
Eight years ago, I returned to Prague, the capital of what had come to be known as "The Czech Republic. With friends I once again explored the ancient Cathedral of St. Vitus, the massive Hradcany Castle, and the splendid Strahov Abbey. We ate Bohemian strudel in the Town Hall Square. We even heard an opera by Mozart in the little theater in which the composer first conducted it. For me, however, the highpoint of the visit was a brief encounter on the Charles Bridge, which spans the Vlata or Moldau River, dividing the city in two.
The Charles Bridge was constructed in the second half of the 1300s by Charles IV, King of Bohemia and later Holy Roman Emperor. It is 570 yards long and 33 feet wide, closed to vehicular traffic, and adorned with 30 huge statues of saints, 15 on either side.
In front of each of the statues, artists have set up stands at which they hawk paintings, etchings and engravings of Prague and especially of the Charles Bridge. On a cool, cloudless morning I stood before the statue of St. John Nepomucene, bargaining in my faltering German over a small, colored engraving of the Cathedral of St. Vitus.
An American man of perhaps 40 years of age tugged at my sleeve. "When you’re finished, he said, "would you mind asking the lady how much she wants for this engraving? I did as he requested. She responded 170 korunas or about $6.50, the same price she was asking of me. I suggested that she make it 150 korunas if we each bought one. With some hesitation and at least feigned disappointment, she agreed.
As our purchases were being wrapped, first in very thin cellophane and then in heavy blue paper, the man shouted to his son on the other side of the bridge not to stray too far. He was a boy of 9 or 10 in baggy pants, running shoes, and a baseball cap with its peak turned toward the back.
"I wonder who that is, the man said to me, pointing toward the statue in front of us.
"St. John Nepomucene, I replied, "the patron saint of confessors, that is, of priests who hear the Confessions of the faithful.
"I bet you’re a Catholic priest, he observed with a knowing smile.
"Yes, I responded. "And you, are you a Catholic?
"Well, sort of, he answered, "but I’ve not been much into Confession of late.
"You ought to buy an engraving of the statue and take it home with you, I observed. "St. John Nepomucene will help you ease back into the Confession habit.
My new acquaintance was clearly uncomfortable with this last remark. He turned toward the lady who was laboriously wrapping the engravings, urged her on with a gesture of his hand, and turned back to me.
"Why is the saint carrying a palm branch? he asked in an evident effort to change the direction of our conversation.
"Because he was martyred, thrown into the river from this very bridge by the son of Emperor Charles IV, when he refused to reveal what had been told him in Confession, I explained. "He wasn’t officially enrolled among the saints until the mid 1700s after five extraordinary miracles attributed to him and symbolized by the five bronze stars attached to his halo.
"Really, the man exclaimed, looking again impatiently in the direction of the lady still engaged in wrapping our engravings. "And why the oversized crucifix in his arms?
"Because, I replied, "the artist is anxious to make it clear that the priest in Confession does not act on his own. Far from it! The forgiveness comes from the Lord, who simply uses the priest as an instrument of his grace. It is the crucified Savior who in the final analysis does the forgiving.
"Yes, of course, the man interjected, "but it is hard for most ordinary folk to see it that way.
"Well, I insisted, "buy the engraving of the saint, bring it back to the States, and let Father John Nepomucene help make everything clear.
The man laughed nervously. "That would take another miracle, I’m afraid, and a big one at that, he said. "I better not get the saint involved and then disappoint him.
The lady finished her work. The man shook my hand and in a flash headed across the bridge toward his son, the elegantly wrapped engraving protruding from a side pocket of his windbreaker.
I continued my stroll along the Charles Bridge, stopping for a prayer before each of the remaining statues and casually inspecting the wares of the artists at their stands. As I was about to leave the Bridge for the Old Town Tower where I had agreed to join my friends at noon, a boy of 9 or 10 in baggy pants, running shoes, and a baseball cap with its peak turned toward the back ran up to me.
"This is from my dad, he announced, panting. "He told me to tell you that he had bought one just like it for himself. Before I was able to say "thank you, he scooted off toward the center of the bridge. I could see my friends outside the Old Town Tower waving anxiously in my direction. Nevertheless, I carefully undid the blue paper and cellophane wrappings from the object in my hands. As I had hoped, it was an engraving of the statue of St. John Nepomucene. My friends were now shouting to gain my attention. Thus, I could not return to the statue on the bridge. All the same, I was quite sure that if I had, I would have found another star on its halo.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York