September 27 – Fr. Peter Skarga: Court Preacher

September 25, 2014

Fr. Peter Skarga

Theologian and missionary, born at Grojec, 1536; died at Cracow, 27 Sept., 1612.

Photo of Fr. Peter Skarga taken by Mathiasrex of an 18th century painting.

Photo of Fr. Peter Skarga taken by Mathiasrex of an 18th century painting.

He began his education in his native town in 1552; he went to study in Cracow and afterwards in Warsaw. In 1557 he was in Vienna as tutor to the young Castellan, Teczynski; returning thence in 1564, he received Holy orders, and later was nominated canon of Lemberg Cathedral. Here he began to preach his famous sermons, and to convert Protestants.

Skarga's Sermon, by Matejko, 1862. Fr. Skarga (standing, right) preaches, while King Sigismund III Vasa sits in the first row, left of center. Painting by Jan Matejko

Skarga’s Sermon, by Matejko, 1862. Fr. Skarga (standing, right) preaches, while King Sigismund III Vasa sits in the first row, left of center. Painting by Jan Matejko

In 1568 he entered the Society of Jesus and went to Rome, where he became penitentiary for the Polish language at St. Peter’s. Returning to Poland, he worked in the Jesuit colleges of Pultusk and Wilna, where he converted a multitude of Protestants, Calvinism being at the time prevalent in those parts. To this end he first published some works of controversy; and in 1576, in order to convince the numerous schismatics in Poland, he issued his great treatise “On the Unity of the Church of God”, which did much good then, and is even now held in great esteem. It powerfully promoted the cause of the Union. King Stephen Báthori prized Skarga greatly, often profited by his aid and advice, took him on one of his expeditions, and made him rector of the Academy of Wilna, founded in 1578. In 1584 he was sent to Cracow as superior, and founded there the Brotherhood of Mercy and the “Mons pietatis”, meanwhile effecting numerous conversions.

Fr. Skarga's scepter of the rector of Vilnius University.

Fr. Skarga’s scepter of the rector of Vilnius University.

He was appointed court preacher by Sigismund III in 1588, and for twenty-four years filled this post to the great advantage of the Church and the nation. In 1596 the Ruthenian Church was united with Rome, largely through his efforts. When the nobles, headed by Zebrzydowski, revolted against Sigismund III, Skarga was sent on a mission of conciliation to the rebels, which, however, proved fruitless.

Fr. Piotr Skarga's tomb in Saints Peter and Paul church in Kraków. Photo by Janmad.

Fr. Piotr Skarga’s tomb in Saints Peter and Paul church in Kraków. Photo by Janmad.

Besides the controversial works mentioned, Skarga published a “History of the Church”, and “Lives of the Saints” (Wilna, 1579; 25th ed., Lemberg, 1883-84), possibly the most widely read book in Poland. But most important of all are his “Sermons for Sundays and Holidays” (Cracow, 1595) and “Sermons on the Seven Sacraments” (Cracow, 1600), which, besides their glowing eloquence, are profound and instructive. In addition to these are “Sermons on Various Occasions” and the “Sermons Preached to the Diet”. These last for inspiration and feeling are the finest productions in the literature of Poland before the Partitions. Nowhere are there found such style, eloquence, and patriotism, with the deepest religious conviction. Skarga occupies a high place in the literature and the history of Poland. His efforts to convert heretics, to restore schismatics to unity, to prevent corruption, and to stem the tide of public and political license, tending even then towards anarchy, were indeed as to this last point unsuccessful; but that was the nation’s fault, not his.

S. Tarnowski (Catholic Encyclopedia)

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