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St. Casimir (March 4)

March 4, 2005

The setting is Crakow, Poland, in the year 1458.
The Renaissance, which has been building in Italy for a few years now
not yet reached the federal union of Poland and Lithuania
but privileges granted to the nobility
are paving the way for the development of a parliamentary government.
The king, Casimir IV, has been extending the realm, which by the end of his reign (in 1492)
will be one of the largest in Europe,
extending from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
St. John Kanty, the professor of Crakow whom we honored in Advent,
is in his late 60’s, well-known and honored among rich and poor alike
for his holiness, generosity and simple lifestyle.

The event is the birth of the patron saint of Poland and Lithuania.

St. Casimir was the third of thirteen children born to King Casimir IV
and his devout wife, Elizabeth of Austria.
Devout from his early years, Casimir especially benefited from the holy example of his beloved tutor,
Canon (priest) John Dugloss, an outstanding Polish scholar
who was also well versed in matters of government and international politics.

In his personal life, Casimir strove for holiness and simplicity.
He was always cheerful and approachable for all, the poor as well as the wealthy.
He dressed simply, slept on the floor (when he slept at all),
and generally abhorred the “softness” of a life of luxury.
He gave his possessions and he gave himself to the poor,
meeting their needs whenever he could and quietly bringing their concerns to his father’s attention.
He often spent entire nights in prayer, especially in meditation on our Lord’s Passion.
He was accustomed to visit shrines and churches in the quiet of the night, kneeling in front of the doors.
He was often found there, lost in prayer and heedless of the weather,
when those doors were opened in the morning for the recitation of the Divine Office.
In addition, he dedicated himself to celibacy, steadfastly resisting pressure to marry
and adhering to the principle “I prefer to die than to be defiled”.

Casimir also had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin,
which had been passed down to him through Polish culture.
A century before, Casimir the Great had obliged his bride, Mary,
to take a different name out of reverence for the Mother of God,
and from that time on it became the custom that no Polish woman should bear the name of Mary
(_Butler’s Lives of the Saints_).
The name was considered to be too holy for common use.
Every day, Casimir honored Mary by singing the long medieval hymn, “Omni die dic Mariae”,
part of which has been translated for us in the song “Daily, Daily Sing to Mary”.
He loved this hymn so much that he asked to be buried with the copy that he had written out himself.
It was associated so strongly with him that some came to think he’d written it.

When he was about thirteen, the nobles of Hungary, dissatisfied with their ruler, Matthias Corvinus,
appealed to Casimir’s father for a replacement.
Since Elizabeth, his mother, claimed the right of succession to the Hungarian throne,
Casimir was (rather unwillingly) sent with a small army to take over.
As he neared the Hungarian border, however,
he discovered that Matthias was prepared to resist him with a comparable army.
Furthermore, Casimir’s soldiers were deserting him because they couldn’t get their pay,
and his own generals were advising retreat.
In the meantime, Pope Sixtus IV had expressed his opposition to the takeover.
Casimir turned back, despite his father’s displeasure,
and could never be persuaded to take up arms again.
He was especially disturbed by the fact that such internal conflicts weakened the country
against the invasion of the Moslems, who were enough of a threat as it was.

A few years later he began traveling with his father to various meetings and diplomatic missions
to gain experience in government,
and was gradually given a more active role in administrative, judicial, military and financial affairs.
From 1481-83 (when he was in his early twenties), he filled in as ruler of Poland
while his father took care of business in Lithuania.
During those years he paid off the mortgages on his father’s castles, replenished the treasury,
stamped out open banditry in the provinces,
improved the tone of the royal palace by removing unsuitable courtiers,
and strengthened relations with the Holy See.
His emphasis on justice won for him the nickname “defender of the poor”.

Soon after this, Casimir’s health failed, possibly because of his austerities
and/or his work among the poor.
He died of a lung disease, commonly thought to have been tuberculosis,
on this date while on a visit to Lithuania.
He was in his mid-twenties (sources vary on whether he was 23, 25 or 26).
When his tomb was opened 120 years after his death,
his body was found to be incorrupt and sweetly fragrant,
the text of his favorite hymn, “Omni die dic Mariae”, near his head.

St. Casimir, lover of holiness, pray for us, that we might use our authority for the benefit of others
as humbly and capably as you used yours.

For those who are unfamiliar with St. Casimir’s favorite hymn (I include myself in this number),
here is the English version of part of it:

Daily, Daily, Sing to Mary

Daily, daily sing to Mary,
Sing, my soul, her praises due.
All her feasts, her actions worship*
With the heart’s devotion true.
Lost in wond’ring contemplation,
Be her Majesty confess’d.
Call her Mother, call her Virgin,
Happy Mother, Virgin blest.

She is mighty to deliver.
Call her, trust her lovingly.
When the tempest rages round thee,
She will calm the troubled sea.
Gifts of Heaven she has given,
Noble Lady, to our race.
She, the Queen, who decks her subjects
With the light of God’s own grace.

Sing, my tongue, the Virgin’s trophies
Who for us her Maker bore.
For the curse of old inflicted,
Peace and blessing to restore.
Sing in songs of peace unending,
Sing the world’s majestic Queen.
Weary not nor faint in telling.
All the gifts she gives to men.

All our joys do fall from Mary;
All then join her praise to sing;
Trembling sing the Virgin Mother,
Mother of our Lord and King.
While we sing her awful glory,
Far above our fancy’s reach,
Let our hearts be quick to offer
Love alone the heart can teach.

*The use of the word “worship” with regard to Mary has caused some confusion.
This is a translation, made when the word “worship” (“worth-ship”)
was commonly used as a term of honor for anyone held in high esteem.
Judges were addressed as “Your worship”, and in the wedding Mass,
the bridegroom said to his bride, “with my body, I thee worship”.
The use of “worship” for adoration due to God alone is relatively recent.

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