The Holy Infant of Prague is the object of one of the most popular devotions in the Catholic faith. It stems from one particular statue of the Christ Child, housed in the church of Our Lady of Victory in the Czech Republic. Millions of the faithful every year make a pilgrimage to the holy image, to honor the Infant and the “wonder of the Incarnation.” Countless replicas of the statue are found in homes and churches throughout the world.
According to tradition, the statue is of Spanish origin, and was first given to a Spanish princess by her mother as a wedding gift. It was later brought to Prague by the bride, Maria Manriques de Lara, after her marriage in 1556 to a Czech nobleman. In later years, the statue was given as a wedding gift to Maria's daughter, Polyxena.
On being widowed in 1628, she donated the holy statue to the Discalced Carmelites of Prague and the Church of Our Lady of Victory. When the novices of the Carmelite monastery received the new statue, they quickly became devoted to it. One of the novices, Cyril of the Mother of God (1590-1675), eventually began a great apostolate of the Infant Child.
When the Thirty Years' War broke out and the monastery's novitiate was moved to Germany in 1630, devotions before the statue were discontinued. In the ensuing years, troubles continued as King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden took possession of the Prague churches, ransacked the Carmelite monastery and disposed of holy images. For the next seven years the statue lay forgotten until Cyril, now an ordained priest, returned to Prague in 1637.
With hostile armies still in control of the city and the monastery suffering setbacks, the prior of the community called the monks together to offer prayers. Upon hearing his request, Father Cyril remembered the favors received through the intercession of the Infant, and asked permission to search the monastery in hopes of finding the lost statue. Eventually, he found it behind the main altar, amid cobwebs and scattered debris. The statue had suffered little through the years —except for the Infant's hands, which were missing. With great sorrow, Cyril then placed the dusty image on an altar in the oratory where the long-forgotten devotions were renewed with vigor.
One day, while kneeling before the statue in prayer, Father Cyril heard these words: “Have pity on me, and I will have pity on you. Give me my hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.” At that moment, Father Cyril looked up and noticed for the first time the Infant's missing hands. Later, the holy priest begged the prior to fix the statue, but to no avail.
In time, a wealthy and pious man who had fallen gravely ill came to Prague and offered financial help to restore the statue. Rather than fixing the old statue, however, the prior used the man's funds to buy a new one. On the very first day though, the new statue was shattered by a falling candlestick. This incident was an indication to Father Cyril that the wishes of the Infant must be fulfilled literally. Subsequently, the original statue became the object of veneration again. However, when funds for the necessary repairs proved to be in jeopardy again, Father Cyril heard the words: “Place me near the entrance of the sacristy, and you will receive aid.” When this was done, the full cost of the repairs was almost immediately received.
Years later, when a pestilence was raging in Prague, the prior himself almost died. After making a promise to spread the devotion of the Infant if he were cured, the prior began to experience a miraculous recovery. Upon returning to good health, he ordered a general devotion to the Infant, which won the hearts of the Carmel of Prague.
The 17th century proved to be a very favorable one for the holy image. In 1641, a magnificent altar to the Blessed Trinity was built to serve as the first home of the miraculous statue. Three years later, a new chapel for the Infant was blessed on the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (which has remained the principal feast day of the miraculous Infant ever since). In 1648, the archbishop of Prague gave the first-ever ecclesiastical approval of the devotion, when he consecrated the chapel and gave permission to priests to say Mass at the chapel altar. Finally, in 1655, the statue was solemnly crowned.
Almost 100 years later, the statue was moved to a magnificent chapel inside the church of Our Lady of Victory. Over time, a traditional practice of clothing the statue several times each year in the proper liturgical color developed. During the Christmas season, for example, the statue is clothed in a dark green robe made of velvet and richly decorated with golden embroidery.
Today, the Discalced Carmelites (both sisters and brothers) continue to serve as the custodians of the shrine. Inside the church of Our Lady of Victory, pilgrims will find the statue situated on the Marble altar to the right in a crystal box in the middle of the church. The sanctuary is open every day of the year, and daily Mass is celebrated. On weekends, in addition to the regular Czech Masses, Masses in Spanish (Saturday at 7 p.m.), English (Sunday at noon), and Italian (5:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. in the summer) are celebrated.
Arriving at the Church of Our Lady of Victory in downtown Prague is rather easy, as it is located on the much-traveled Karmelitsk Street. The nearest metro station to the church is Malostransk. Take tram no. 12 or 22 to arrive at Malostransk. The shrine is within close walking distance of the metro station. Other Catholic sites of interest in Prague include St. Vitus Cathedral and the Loreta.
For more information on making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Victory Church, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or contact the shrine's pilgrimage office at: Bos Karmelitni, Klster Prazskèho Jezultka, Karmelitsk 9, 11800 Prague, Czech Republic; tel 011-42-0-2-530-752, fax 011-42-0-2-9002-2435, email: pragjesu@login.
Kevin Wright, author ofCatholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.