A man who never lost hope – exile of the Benonites and further fate

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 The purpose of the missionary work –
A man who never lost hope – exile of the Benonites and further fate


On June 9, 1808, Clement’s dream about the foundation in Warsaw ended. Benonites were accused of being crypto-Jesuits hostile to the empire (and especially reluctant to Napoleon), among which Clement was considered the worst. The monks were banished from Warsaw. The church was surrounded by the army, so that even people who wanted to defend Redemptorists could not do it. Forty priests and brothers were crammed into one room and subjected to many hours of interrogation. Finally, on June 20, they were taken from Warsaw on carts in various directions.

Everyone met in the Kostrzyn fortress, where they spent some time there. Then, according to the decision of the authorities, they were sent two confreres each to their countries of origin. Clement despaired that he would not be able to make his days among his brothers; anyway he never saw most of them again. Together with his religious brother and cleric Martin Stark, they were sent to Vienna as subjects of the Habsburg monarchy. Along the way, there were numerous more or less happy adventures (including even life-threatening). At some point, Martin lost his passport. Monks detained at the border by police were suspected of being spies, for which they even faced the death penalty by shooting. Fortunately, the commander sent a question to the fortress in Kostrzyn; having received a response, he released the prisoners.

Clement came to Vienna, the city of his youth. It was not, however, another “love at first sight” because it encountered an unusual welcome committee. During routine inspections liturgical parameters were discovered in his luggage and immediately there was a suspicion that they were ordinary thieves escaping with their prey. Father Hofbauer was arrested. It was only after three days spent in the cell that he was released due to the intervention of the Archbishop of Vienna.

From a religious point of view, the modern capital of the Austrian Empire represented a rather complicated reality. Theoretical 97% of its inhabitants were Catholic, but in fact few of them practiced their faith. Moreover, in this great European city, enlightenment thought currents, hostile to traditional religion, were spreading. In addition, the Habsburg monarchy was dominated by the ideology of Josephineism, which assumed the desire to subordinate all church activity and all manifestations of religious life to the state. Police controls were organized, sermons were kept to a minimum, and their contents were written down. Even the confession was checked: who confesses with whom. Clement found himself in a situation of pastoral unemployment in Vienna. We can only guess what a great pain this man must have after been so active all his life. Fortunately, friends from his studies at the University of Vienna came to help him.

Clement received the position of pastoral assistant in the Franciscan church. He was to be the pastor of the Italian community that gathered in this temple. Unfortunately, according to the custom of the time, all his activities could be reduced to celebrating mass and preaching from time to time. For Father Hofbauer, this was definitely not enough. So he undertook an activity in which he could be more fulfilled: he went out to people, met with them and talked. He began to spend more and more of his time in the confessional. After four years, in 1813, a kind of salvation came: Clement received his own place. The Archbishop of Vienna entrusted him with the position of chaplain in the monastery of the Ursuline Sisters. The tireless Redemptorist also got a larger flat, larger than the previous one (two-room), where his three confreres lived. He could finally bring in another, Father Sabelli, who served him as a personal secretary (and it is known that Clement kept abundant correspondence to maintain contact and unity with his brothers scattered all over Europe).

And here Clement, animated by the same spirit that chased him throughout his life and inspired him to act, devoted himself entirely to the ministry. He presented an attitude of freedom from ossified accepted forms of pastoral care, sought new initiatives that would meet the needs of people, time and places in which he found himself. He spent long hours in the confessional, conducted many conversations, received other people, went out to them, and above all devoted himself to preaching. Let’s look at these dimensions of Father Hofbauer’s activities.

Let’s start with preaching. An anecdote is the fact that when Clement appeared in the church of Saint Ursula, he immediately asked sister sacristan: “How is the matter of sermons?” Astonished, she answered: “Sermons? Sermons are preached only on great holidays, not on regular Sundays, and there is no one to talk to in this church.” Without bothering about it, or actually neglecting the applicable laws, already on the first Sunday Saint Redemptorist entered the pulpit and began to speak to several people who were gathered in the temple. The news spread all over the city. Mouth-to-mouth news spread that in the church of St. Ursula, God’s word is preached by an extraordinary preacher and soon the church itself, though small (like that of Saint Benon in Warsaw), began to burst at the seams.

What was the preaching phenomenon of Saint Clement? According to witnesses, he was not an excellent speaker. His German apparently left much to be desired – the religious spoke with a strong accent. What’s more (which today is unthinkable), his sermons often lasted an hour. From the report, we learn that the listeners, however, remained silent, grabbing his every word and afraid to move or cough. Why? According to preserved accounts, Clement’s sermons differed significantly from what was a kind of standard of the era. They did not consist in philosophizing and rational reflection on the morality that is to serve society, which was almost the rule of the time. It was then thought that religion, if it was to exist, was to be useful. First of all, Clement preached the doctrine and kerygma: he spoke of the truths of faith, being convinced that this should precede moral teaching. Otherwise, it would become only a set of artificial rules imposed on man, which sooner or later people would reject. Above all, however, Father Hofbauer’s sermons were saturated with biblical content, because, as he often said, “The Gospel must be preached anew. Keep coming back to it.” The very preparation of Clement for the homily was characteristic. When someone once asked him about that, he replied: “The sermon is being prepared on knees.” According to the Saint Redemptorist, the Gospel should be proclaimed to embrace the whole person in all its dimensions, which is why his sermons were not mental speculations. Sometimes he lost threads, sometimes individual thoughts were not related to each other, but were deeply saturated with emotions. Above all, they were the personal credo of the apostle of Warsaw and Vienna – and that was what appealed to human hearts. Unwavering faith gave Clement the power of preaching. As one of his listeners said, “His whole sermon was one great act of faith.” Even police reports written by spies sent regularly to the church of St. Ursula stated that Father Hofbauer is a religious fanatic who, although in good faith, tries to base religion on Revelation and lively contact with Jesus Christ. It is appropriate to quote the words of Saint John Paul II, who said that people need witnesses of faith more than their teachers – this sentence is valid not only for our time, but for all times. Certainly Saint Clement spoke this way – miracles of conversion were carried out anyway.

Here comes the second dimension of Father Hofbauer’s activity, namely his service in the confessional. Penitents spoke without hesitation about his extraordinary abilities and the gift of penetration of human hearts and love with which he treated all who came to him like a real father. He tried to understand them, listen to them, comfort them, give them advice; he was even called the escape of sinners. His recommendations were usually short, very specific and relevant to life. One of the women confessing him said that when she complained about her relationship with the children, Clement had as a whole teaching to tell her only: “You know, mother sometimes helps children more when talking to God about children than with children about God.” An anecdote is also mentioned when a man had difficulty forgiving himself for his sins. Saint Redemptorist straight from the confessional led him to his apartment and there he threw a stone into a bucket of water standing in the well. “See – just as this stone disappeared in the water, so do your sins disappear in the oceans of God’s mercy,” he said. Clement spent countless hours in the confessional. In winter he even got up between three and four o’clock in the morning. He walked on foot to the small church, where those who had to start work at dawn were waiting: servants, workers … He confessed them and then returned to the church of Saint Ursula, where there were more penitents. His name was passed from mouth to mouth as one who is always ready to receive the sinner and give advice regarding both spiritual and everyday life.

With the ministry of reconciliation, Clement also hurried to the sick and dying, to their homes and to hospitals. He always took some little things with him, even flowers, to make the sufferer a little happy. During his twelve years in Vienna, Father Hofbauer prepared about 2,000 people for death.

Clement was especially interested about young people and taking care of them, especially academic ones, who at the time were religiously neglected. His apartment has always been open to students. Something like informal evening meetings was formed: young people came and tackled various topics. There was no fixed order of these discussions, their issues were brought from life. Sometimes the truths of the faith were discussed, sometimes the situation of the Church; sometimes it was a biblical hour, sometimes it was a time spent in prayer. Participants of these meetings mentioned that each time they knocked on the door of a tireless preacher, he opened them by giving the impression of someone who was waiting for them. For his part, Clement saw an extremely important element of this activity: he knew that these people were returning to their homes, where they often nestled for a dozen or so people and passed on what they experienced there, thereby making the Gospel available in those places and allowing what says the religious, get to where he could not go.

Of course, these relationships and communion with a real saint also affected vocations. When the first Redemptorist community in Vienna was opened shortly after Clement’s death in Vienna, more than thirty candidates approached, most of whom were just participants in the evening meetings. The phenomenon of Father Hofbauer’s character consisted, inter alia, in the fact that he was an apostle for both the poor and the rich. In his apartment, people from the highest classes of society at that time met: people from politics, science and art. It is enough to mention people such as Friedrich Schlegel (called the prince of the romantics), Clement Brentano (poet of German Romanticism and personal secretary of Blessed Catherine Emmerich) and Joseph von Pilat (personal secretary of Chancellor Metternich) and many others. The group was called the “Hofbauer circle” or “circle of romantics”. According to experts, it had a great impact on the culture of those times. At this point, it is worth adding that when in 1815 in Vienna an international congress was held, which was to bring order after the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, some of its participants came to Clement’s apartment, brought there by members of the mentioned group. Among them was, among others heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Bavaria. The acquaintance and friendship of Father Hofbauer with the young prince later made it easier for Redemptorists to set up many institutions in this country; the saint, however, did not live to see this.

He was actually on his deathbed when he received the news that the emperor had given permission to open a Redemptorist monastery in the capital. However, he was not able to see it and experience the realization of his big dream. Being (as for those times) an elderly man, exhausted by numerous journeys, the effects of enduring inclement weather, sometimes eating and sleeping, he fell ill in early spring. His health deteriorated significantly: numerous bleeding and fever exhausted him, making the last weeks of his life actually been a huge pain band for him. On March 15, 1820, when the bells rang at noon, Clement told the people around him (and it is worth saying that there was no Redemptorist with him – everyone was somewhere else, sorting out some matters): “They are calling the Angel of the Lord, let us pray”. When those present (six lay people) said prayers and rose from their knees, Father Hofbauer was already dead. The confreres could not take care of the funeral (they were absent), but soon someone got a casket and someone else got a caravan. Twelve Clement’s students were drawn by a cart with the body of a holy monk. Gradually more and more people were coming – someone took care of the candles that were distributed in the crowd and the funeral procession became a procession of lights. When the conduct arrived at the cathedral of St. Stephen, someone opened the main entrance – a huge door opened only for crowned heads and for special occasions. – The poor Redemptorist’s casket was brought into the temple, which was immediately filled with people so that some had to stay outside. From there, Clement’s body was moved to the so-called Romantic Cemetery, then outside the city borders. There, the apostle of Vienna and Warsaw rested until his remains were transferred in connection with the beginning of the beatification process.

The seed thrown into the soil died away and soon yielded an abundant crop. Missionaries from the first Redemptorist community in the Austrian capital soon spread throughout Europe. So many volunteers reported to the congregation that already twenty years later the Pope had to divide it into six provinces outside the Alps. Only twelve years after the death of Clement (in 1832), the spiritual sons of Saint Alphonsus Liguori crossed the Atlantic and founded the first communities in the United States of America. In this way, Warsaw and Vienna became, along with the Italian Scala, the true cradles of the international congregation, and the man whose all efforts were unsuccessful became (alongside St. Alphonsus), as many Redemptorists believe, a co-founder of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer.

Saint Clement Maria Hofbauer is a man who never lost hope and had the courage to start over again. More than once he prayed with these words: “I am going forward, You lead high.” He was a missionary deeply believing that as long as there are people who need the Good News, there is hope for the congregation and its mission. As long as the future is for us, as long as, like our holy brother, we will have the courage to read God’s voice to us through the cry of the poor. If we have the courage to give up our favorite but unnecessary forms and structures, we will answer the true pastoral needs of the Church. This is the heritage of Saint Clement, this is our call.


Author: fr. Jacek Dembek CSsR

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