Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to the Czech Republic will include a special visit to the image of the Holy Child Jesus in Prague — one of the most venerated and visited religious images in the country – on September 26, 2009.
The Prior of the Carmelite monastery of the Holy Infant of Prague, Father Petr Sleich, spoke last week to international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the Pope’s forthcoming visit to the Czech Republic. Its aim, he said, is to focus people’s hearts and minds on Christ again.
The fact that the first stop on his scheduled program for his trip to the Czech Republic is the Shrine of Our Lady of Victories in the Mala Strana district of Prague, where the image of the Holy Infant Jesus has been venerated ever since the 17th century, is “the most powerful expression of this intention,” he added.
During his visit Pope Benedict XVI will solemnly crown the image of the Holy Infant Jesus, which is revered by Catholic faithful from all over the world and to which numerous miracles and answers to prayers have been attributed. This is the highest honor that Western Christianity can accord such an image of Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary, the 41-year-old Carmelite explained.
A Genuine Encounter with Christ and a Symbol Everyone Can Understand
Father Sleich emphasized the longing that people have for a tangible and visible image of Christ. Images such as that of the Infant Jesus were a great help, he said, comparing them with family photos that help us to feel close to those we love. However, the difference between such family photos and religious pictures and images lies in the fact that the representation of Jesus Christ can lead to a “real encounter,” he emphasized.
The Infant Jesus of Prague is at once both King and Child, he explained, adding that the human heart is responsive to the image of the Christ Child. Even in the Czech Republic, which is regarded as the most atheistic country in Europe, Christmas is still held dear among people who in other respects show little sign of faith.
“When people come here to our church and see God as a Child, they have no fear of him. On the contrary, he is a child who needs our love, our hearts, our hands, our help,” Father Sleich stressed.
At the same time, this Child is also portrayed as a King. The orb held in his left hand symbolizes the entire universe, which stands beneath the symbol of the Cross and rests in the hand of the Child Jesus. Father Petr said, “I sometimes say, half jokingly, that the left hand of the Child Jesus is enough to sustain the entire universe. But of course it is no joke, but the truth. Meanwhile, with his right hand, the Divine Child blesses mankind.”
This is a symbol, the priest added, that is easily intelligible to people without a great deal of reflection, and “the most effective symbols are precisely those that do not require us to think long and hard about them.”
The fact that the Christ Child is represented as a King goes back directly to the Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy, tracing Jesus back to the tribe of King David, and only shortly after his birth, men came from afar to pay homage to the newborn King, said Father Sleich.
Near the end of his life, when Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem on a “little donkey,” he is acclaimed as King by the multitude, and he is likewise crucified as a King, for the sign that Pilate has affixed to his cross has the letters “INRI” engraved on it, meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” In these ways the motif of royal kingship stands both at the beginning and at the end of the Gospel, forming as it were, a frame, the Carmelite Prior explains.
The Infant Jesus of Prague Inspired the Book The Little Prince
Not infrequently, groups of French schoolchildren come to visit the church. Father Petr finds that they quickly grasp the message of the Infant Jesus, even though France — just like the Czech Republic — is a highly secularized land. All these children know the book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. But “only a few people know that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was very familiar with the veneration of the Infant Jesus of Prague.”
Father Petr continued, saying, “The book is read in schools because it is not a religious book, and yet at the same time it is highly religious. It was directly inspired by the Infant Jesus of Prague. A child comes from Heaven, offers his friendship, dies and returns to Heaven again –– Jesus would say, to the Father, but Saint-Exupéry was not quite sure enough of his faith. The children who visit the Infant Jesus appreciate that the Christ Child is not merely some kind of strange Catholic custom; rather they understand the true message!”
Hope for an Atheistic Country
Although, according to the statistics, barely a quarter of the Czech population describe themselves as “believers,” the Prior of the Carmelite monastery in Prague is remaining optimistic. Jesus himself started with only a handful of disciples, he observed. One of these betrayed his Lord and hanged himself, yet with the remaining handful a great part of the world has been converted.
Father Sleich himself was only baptized at the age of 20 after having found his way to faith through friends while a student of mathematics. Today almost his entire family is Catholic. His decision to become a priest was “not easy,” he acknowledges, yet he was “very happy” once he had taken this decision.
He conceded that there continue to be few vocations in the Czech Republic, but, he added, things can change very quickly, as we all saw 20 years ago with our own eyes, when the Iron Curtain fell.” Father Petr regrets the fact that “we do not read the Gospels attentively enough.”
The priest also said that he is not sure it is even true that as many people in the Czech Republic are nonbelievers as is claimed. He pointed out, “Many people are uncertain when it comes to God, but I wouldn’t say that they have no faith. And incidentally, even many Czechs who describe themselves as nonbelievers still love the Infant Jesus of Prague. I am certain that many of them will yet become his friends!”
The Turbulent History of the “Little King”
The image has suffered a turbulent history through the centuries. It is believed to have been a gift from St. Teresa of Avila to a Spanish noblewoman that found its way to Prague as a wedding gift for her daughter. Since 1628 it has been venerated in the Carmelite church.
During the Thirty Years War it was desecrated by German Protestants from Saxony, who hacked off its hands and threw the image onto a pile of rubbish behind the altar. The Carmelite Fathers were also expelled from their monastery. Some years later the image was rediscovered by Father Cyrillus a Matre Dei, a Carmelite priest from Luxembourg who had a particular veneration for the Infant Jesus of Prague.
According to the legend, the Child Jesus pleaded with him to repair his hands, promising, “The more you honor me, the more I will bless you!” Subsequently the veneration for the Infant Jesus of Prague began to flourish anew and eventually spread around the world.
There are now many shrines to the Infant Jesus of Prague in India, another is in the Italian town of Arenzano, near Genoa, and there are many others on almost every continent. Over the course of the centuries millions of the faithful all over the world have found consolation and help through this Little King.
The Carmelite Fathers of Prague were later forced once more to leave their monastery around the beginning of the 19th century in the wake of the secularization by Kaiser Joseph II. It was not until 1993, after the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, that they were able to return once more to the Mala Strana in Prague. Today there are five Carmelite Fathers caring for the shrine. Two are Czechs, two are from India and one is Italian.
The image of the Infant Jesus of Prague in the Church of Our Lady of Victories in Prague’s Mala Strana is visited by up to a million pilgrims from all over the world every year. Many come from America or from the Philippines, where the veneration of the Infant Jesus is especially vibrant.
Among those who had a great devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague were St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Edith Stein. The famous French poet Paul Claudel devoted a well-known poem to the Infant Jesus. Just recently the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, declared the pilgrim church of the Infant Jesus of Prague as the second most important shrine in the Czech Republic, after the St. Vitus Cathedral.
A Prayer that has Traveled the Globe
The following prayer, written by Father Cyrillus a Matre Dei, has since become famous around the world: