Whenever I visit the homes of Catholics with a devotion to the Infant of Prague, my thoughts go back to my sainted grandmother.
She had a great devotion to the Infant of Prague and spent many hours sewing and embroidering beautiful gowns for the statue in her bedroom.
“The more you honor me, the more I will honor you” was a phrase I heard from my earliest childhood.
Those memories and that phrase came back to me when I found myself in Prague in the Czech Republic — and in a totally unexpected way.
It won’t be so for Pope Benedict XVI this week, as his visit to the country has been meticulously planned for months. The Pope will pay homage to the Infant of Prague when he visits the Church of Our Lady Victorious in the city Sept. 26.
I was there on my European lecture tour and book signing some time back and already planned a very tight schedule of visiting as many pilgrimage sites as I could between lecture stops. But I had overlooked the Church of Our Lady Victorious — until I met another pilgrim staying in the same hotel as I was. We shared our respective pilgrimage experiences over breakfast. I was planning on going to Bratislava later in the day, and I had already taken in most of Prague in the past few days.
As we sat and sipped coffee, she told me of her experience of visiting Our Lady Victorious.
I was interested and asked her what was so special about the church. She looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head and that second head had said something scandalous.
“Surely, you came to Prague to see the Infant, didn’t you?” she asked, presuming a positive response.
It was then that the gears in my brain shifted and locked into place, and I realized I had only a few hours to correct a very bad mistake. I didn’t know when I would next be in Prague, so if I didn’t visit the church now, there was no way of knowing when I would.
Quick Change of Plans
I quickly checked the time of my train, got directions from the pilgrim, and made my way to the Malá Strana neighborhood and asked around for the Church of Our Lady Victorious (Czech: Kostel Panny Marie Vítezné). The church is Prague’s first Baroque building and was designed by Giovanni Maria Filippi in 1613.
Unless one has experienced firsthand an example of Baroque architecture, one really is at a loss for understanding how it can affect the senses. Baroque art in general, and sculpture and architecture in particular, is the very definition of dynamic extravagance and dramatic display of power and grandeur.
Devotion to the Christ Child had been popular throughout Christendom since its inception.
One early example is a statue of the Holy Child carved in 1340. Mateo Ricci, the Italian missionary to China, offered a statue of the Holy Child to Chinese officials, as the crucifix seemed odd to them. St. Francis of Assisi was also devoted to the Christ Child as a symbol of the perfect innocence and humility of the Incarnation.
The church has a fascinating history, starting in the 17th century, when a statue of the Infant Jesus was brought into Bohemia by Princess Maria Manriquez de Lara of Spain, who received it as a wedding present. The princess donated the Infant Jesus of Prague (Czech: Pražské Jezulátko) to the Discalced Carmelites in Prague when she came to the city to marry Czech nobleman Vratislav of Pernstyn.
The wooden statue is 18 inches tall and coated with wax. The statue’s left hand holds a tiny globe surmounted by a cross. Its right hand is held upwards in blessing. Atop its head is a red velvet-and-gold crown. The Infant of Prague’s gowns are based on the liturgical colors of the current season.
The Carmelites placed the statue in their oratory and offered devotions to Jesus twice a day until the Thirty Years War began. On Nov. 15, 1631, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden’s army plundered Prague’s churches, including the Carmelite friary. The statue was thrown into a pile of rubble behind the church’s altar, where it lay for seven years. Father Cyrillus of the Mother of God recovered it in 1637 and placed it in the church’s oratory, despite it being badly damaged. He attributed his relief from his spiritual trials to the grace he received from his devotion to the Infant Jesus.
‘The More You Honor Me’
One day, while praying before the statue, Father Cyrillus heard a gentle voice say, “Have pity on me, and I will have pity on you. The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.”
Realizing that the statue’s hands had been broken off when the Swedish army raided the church, Father Cyrillus took it upon himself to see to the statue’s repair. He asked his prior for the money to repair the statue, but the cost was too high. Just when he was about to give up hope that the statue would ever be repaired, he heard the same voice telling him to place the statue at the entrance of the sacristy. Soon after he did so, a stranger approached him and offered to take on the cost to repair the statue.
As soon as the statue was returned to the pedestal, the prior fell seriously ill as a pestilence swept through Prague. He promised God that if he and his friars were spared, he would direct his community to devote itself to the Infant of Prague. God in his mercy granted the prior’s request and since that moment the devotion to the Infant of Prague grew.
The current chapel was consecrated on Jan. 3, 1644, on the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, the principal feast day associated with the Infant of Prague. The other major feast is held every year in the third week of May.
The altar dedicated to the Infant of Prague is on the right-hand side of the church. It’s an enormous Baroque affair that fits exactly with the style of the rest of the church. The statue is kept behind glass and is dressed in an elaborate gown. The statue has 380 different gowns that are changed daily by Carmelite nuns.
Standing before the Infant of Prague in the middle of this glorious and sometimes overwhelming church, I recalled the smaller version of the statue that sat on my grandmother’s dresser. I prayed for her, a woman who taught me how to pray and to love God.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
The Church of Our Lady
118 00 Prague, Malá Strana
(420) 257 533 646
Planning Your Visit
Mass is celebrated at 8 a.m. and noon on weekdays and at 9 and 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday and Sunday.
The Museum of the Infant of Prague is located in the attached monastery. It describes the history of the church and the devotion to the Christ Child. The displays contain about 80 ornate gowns. The gowns are presents from the faithful in appreciation for graces and miracles received. One embroidered dress was handmade by Holy Roman Empress Maria Teresa (1717–1780). The museum is open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-6 p.m.