The cathedral of Gniezno is ranked among the most popular sanctuaries of Poland. It receives more than 1 million visitors and tourists every year and has served as the ultimate destination of pilgrimages for the past millennium. Inside is the elaborate tomb of the sacred relics of St. Adalbert — one of Poland's patron saints.
St. Adalbert was born of nobility in Bohemia in 956. From his earliest years, he was a child of extreme piety and saintliness and during his youth, he spent much of his time not only educating himself, but also performing works of charity such as secretly making visits to the poor and sick. Heeding God's call to enter the religious life, Adalbert entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 983.
In the same year, at the age of 27, Adalbert was named archbishop of Prague. The prelate traveled from church to church proclaiming the mercy of God and spent much of his time visiting the poor and prisoners. Asked about his grueling schedule and steadfast dedication, the prelate would simply respond: “It is an easy thing to wear the miter and a cross; but it is a most dreadful circumstance to have to give an account of a bishopric to Christ — the judge of the living and the dead.”
Despite his never-ending work of spreading the Gospel, much of his diocese continued to dabble in exercises of idolatry and paganism. So, finding the people fixed in their ways, Adalbert decided to renounce his position as bishop and subsequently traveled to Rome to ask the Pope to release him from his duties. His request was granted and Adalbert entered a monastery.
Five years later, however, at the demand of the archbishop of Mentz, the Pope ordered him to return to his bishopric.
The young man agreed to go after the Pope gave him the freedom to leave a second time. Adalbert returned to Prague where the people received him with great joy. But the people continued in their ways and once again, Adalbert exercised his license to leave and traveled to Hungary where he tutored the future king of the country, St. Stephen.
Adalbert later traveled with two companions to Poland and Prussia and all three evangelized the local people.
Despite their great success, there was also much suffering. The men were physically beaten on several occasions and ultimately killed. On April 23, 997, Adalbert died of stab wounds to the heart.
When Boleslas, the duke of Poland, heard about the martyrdom of Adalbert, he ordered that the corpse be brought to the abbey of Tremezno.
A year later, with great pomp and ceremony, Boleslas transferred the sacred relics to the cathedral in Gniezno. In 999 Pope Sylvester canonized the martyr. Thereafter, miracles at the tomb of the celebrated saint became commonplace and it quickly developed into one of the greatest religious sites in the country.
Today, the shrine is visited by pilgrims and tourists from Europe and abroad.
One of the sanctuary's most recent extraordinary moments occurred in 1997, when Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the cathedral in Gniezno to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the saint's martyrdom.
The cathedral lies in the heart of the city of Gniezno and is also home to some of the most magnificent art and architecture. Inside the cathedral, near the high altar, is the sanctuary's most prized possession — the elaborate silver reliquary of St. Adalbert.
Another precious object is the cathedral's 12th-century bronze doors in the back of the right-hand aisle, at the entrance from the porch. Depicting 18 scenes from the life of St. Adalbert, the doors are one of the best examples of Romanesque art in Europe. Information phones are also available inside the shrine and provide an excellent, but brief, description and history of the pilgrimage Church in various languages (including English).
Guided tours are usually conducted in Polish but arrangements can be made at the chapel next to the bronze doors for tours in English (or other languages).
Another nearby attraction in Gniezno is the archdiocesan museum which features a number of sacred objects from the past — including a 10th-century chalice believed to have been used by St. Adalbert himself.
Kevin Wright, author of Catholic
Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.