The Little King - Infant of Prague
by Plinio Solimeo
The Infant of Prague is perhaps the most famous representation of the Child Jesus, eliciting devotion throughout the Catholic world. Nevertheless, it seems that few Catholics know very much about the history of the statue and the invocation. One of our correspondents who visited Europe, including Prague, sent us this enlightening account of the Infant of Prague, beginning with its origins and tracing its story up through the time of the Nazi and Communist invasions of Prague.
Devotion to the Infant Jesus
Shortly after the Church’s founding, many saints, notably Pope Saint Leo the Great, had already spoken of the Child Jesus and His birth. But devotion to the Infant Jesus truly began to flourish in the Middle Ages, thanks to the ardor of various saints. Saint Francis of Assisi was moved while meditating on the fact that God became a child and was laid in a manger. It was he who set up history’s first nativity scene to represent this divine mystery. Saint Anthony of Padua, following the example of his founder and master, likewise marveled at the Infant-God, and was often granted the privilege of holding Him in his arms, this being the way Saint Anthony is generally depicted. Other saints have also received this ineffable favor.
It was in Spain in the 1500’s, Spain’s “Golden Century,” that the Child Jesus began to be depicted standing, rather than laying in a manger or in Our Lady’s arms. The great Saint Teresa of Avila introduced this devotion into her convents. From there it spread throughout Spain and the world. Her disciple and co-founder of the reformed branch of the Carmelite Order, the great Saint John of the Cross, bore such enthusiasm for the mystery of God-made-man that he often carried the image of the Child Jesus in procession during the Christmas season and composed touching poems about the Nativity. Many invocations of the Child Jesus thus began to circulate in the Carmelite houses, such as “the Little Pilgrim,” “the Founder” and “the Savior.”
Devotion to the Child Jesus was not limited to the cloister. For example, Ferdinand Magellan had with him an image of the Child Jesus when he discovered the Philippines. This very same statue is venerated to this day on the Philippine island of Cebu.
Nevertheless, it would fall to a daughter of Saint Teresa to be both a propagator of the devotion to the Child Jesus and His confidante.
Venerable Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament (1619-1648) was a Carmelite in the King of Glory convent in Beaune, France, having entered the convent as a boarder when she was eleven. She enjoyed great familiarity with the angels and saints and the privilege of participating in the great mysteries of Our Savior’s life. Hers was the special mission of venerating and propagating devotion to the infancy of Christ. As she prayed before His image in her convent, the Infant God spoke to her, “I choose to honor you and make visible in you My infancy and innocence as I lay in the manger.” She received many extraordinary graces by which the Child Jesus gave her a deeper understanding of this mystery.
Among her other apostolic labors, Sister Marguerite founded the “Family of the Child Jesus,” inviting all to fervently celebrate the twenty-fifth of every month in remembrance of the Holy Nativity and to pray the “Little Crown of the Child Jesus” — three Our Fathers and twelve Hail Marys — in honor of the first twelve years of Our Lord’s life.
Centuries later, another Carmelite, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, honored the Child Jesus in a special way, not only choosing this as her name in religion, but also by initiating the way of “Spiritual Infancy.” It was, she said, on Christmas night of 1886 that she received the greatest grace of her life, the grace of forsaking childish immaturity and entering the great way of the saints. She abandoned herself to the Child Jesus with all docility, like a ball in the hands of a child. When she received the responsibility of dressing the convent’s little image of the Child Jesus, she did so with true devotion. She also enjoyed prolonged colloquies with the image of the Infant of Prague in the choir of the novitiate.
The Infant of Prague
Prague is rightfully considered one of the most beautiful capitals of Europe. Those who visit her never tire of strolling her streets, always discovering new features and unexpected marvels. Her topography contributes greatly to her beauty, and the Moldau River, which divides the city, is almost legendary. Her various historical periods are reflected in her architecture, from Romanesque foundations to beautiful examples of religious and civic Gothic architecture , to buildings of the Renaissance, the Baroque and Classical styles, all the way to an example of Modern “art,” a concession to the spirit of the times.
Among the innumerable buildings worthy of interest in this privileged city is the church of Our Lady of Victory, the first Baroque sanctuary of the locale, built between 1613 and 1644. Belonging to the Discalced Carmelites, it shelters the great marvel of Prague, the charming statue of the “Little King,” as the Infant of Prague is known.
How the devotion began
Venerable Brother Dominic of Jesus Maria, prior-general of the Discalced Carmelites, had distinguished himself in exhorting the Catholic armies in the Emperor’s victory over the Elector Palatine, the Calvinist Frederick V, in the bloody Thirty Years’ War. In 1624, as a gesture of gratitude, Emperor Ferdinand II called the Carmelites to Prague and gave them a church that was renamed Holy Mary of Victory in recognition of Our Lady’s help during the battle.
In 1628 Brother John Louis of the Assumption, prior of the Carmelites of the city, communicated to his religious an inspiration he had felt that they should venerate the Child Jesus in a special way. He assured them that if this was done, the Child Jesus would protect the community and the novices would learn from Him how to be “like little children” to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Almost simultaneously, Providence inspired Princess Polyxena of Lobkovice, a widow who was retiring to the castle of Roudnice, to donate to the monastery a wax-covered statue of the Child Jesus. He was represented standing, vested in royal garments, holding a globe in His left hand while giving a blessing with His right. The statue had been a wedding present to her mother, Maria Manriques de Lara, when she married Vratislav of Pernstyn, and she had in turn presented it to her daughter as a wedding gift.
On presenting the statue to the prior, Princess Polyxena said to him, “I offer you, dear Father, what I love most in this world. Honor this Child Jesus and be certain that as long as you venerate Him you will lack nothing.”
Brother John Louis thanked her for this present that had so miraculously come to fulfill his desire and ordered that it be placed on the altar of the novices’ oratory. There the Carmelite friars assembled every day to praise the Divine Infant and recommend their needs to Him.
In time, after an initial period of prosperity in Prague, the friars were reduced almost to misery. The prior and his subjects had recourse to the Child Jesus, and their prayer was soon answered. Emperor Ferdinand II, king of Bohemia and Hungary, knowing the hardships of the Carmelite community, granted them an annuity of a thousand florins, as well as assistance from the imperial income.
Shortly thereafter, another extraordinary event took place that provides a measure of the Infant of Prague’s unfailing assistance to those who turn to Him. There was a vine in the convent garden that had long been barren. Suddenly, in a most unforeseen manner, it began to flower and bear the sweetest and most splendid fruit one could imagine.
The apostle of the Child Jesus
In this convent there was a young priest, Friar Cyril of the Mother of God, who had left the relaxed branch of the Carmelite order to embrace Saint Teresa’s reform. Rather than finding the peace he had so hoped for, however, he felt like a reprobate suffering the pains of Hell. Nothing consoled or appeased him.
The prior, seeing him sullen and depressed, asked what was wrong. Friar Cyril opened his heart and told him of all his pains. “As Christmas approaches,” suggested the prior, “why not kneel at the feet of the Holy Child and confide all your sufferings to Him? You will see how He will help you.”
Obeying the prior, Friar Cyril went to the image of the Child Jesus. “Dear Child, behold my tears! I am at Thy feet; have pity on me!” At that very moment he felt as if a beam of light had penetrated his soul, dispelling all his anguish, doubts, and sufferings. Moved and extremely grateful, Friar Cyril resolved to become a true apostle of the Divine Infant.
Besieged by heretics
Meanwhile, the Protestants regrouped and in November of 1631, under the command of the Prince Elector of Saxony, besieged Prague anew. Panic gripped the imperial troops, and many of the city’s anguished inhabitants fled.
Friar John Maria prudently sent his friars to Munich, remaining with just one friar to look after the convent.
Prague surrendered. The Protestant soldiers invaded churches and convents, profaning and destroying the objects of Catholic worship. They imprisoned the two Carmelites and began to loot the convent. Seeing the statue of the Child Jesus in the oratory of the novitiate, they began to ridicule it. One of the soldiers, wanting to impress the others, severed the little hands from the image with his sword, and then cast the image amidst the rubble to which the altar had been reduced. There the Child Jesus remained, forgotten for many years.
When a truce was signed in 1634, the Carmelites were able to return to their convent. Friar Cyril did not return at this time, and no one else remembered the image of the Child Jesus. When Friar Cyril finally returned three years later, he quickly noticed its absence. He searched for the precious statue, but in vain.
Unfortunately, the peace was not lasting. The Swiss, breaking the accords, again besieged Prague, burning castles and villages as they came. The prior advised his friars to pray, seeing that prayer alone could save them this time. Friar Cyril suggested that they recommend themselves to the Little King, and he renewed his search for the image. After much effort, he found it, dusty and dirty, and joyfully took it to the prior. The friars prayed fervently before the handless image for the salvation of the city. Their prayers were heard; the Swiss raised the siege.
When the image was newly enthroned in the oratory of the novitiate, the benefactors of the convent, who had disappeared in those years that the image was missing, returned and renewed their assistance.
Despite his fervor, Friar Cyril had not noticed that the hands of the Child Jesus were missing. One day, as he prayed before the Infant on behalf of the community, the statue said to him sadly, “Have pity on Me and I will have pity on you. Return my hands that the heretics cut off. The more you honor Me the more I will favor you.”
Friar Cyril immediately ran to the prior to tell him what had taken place. The prior seemed not to believe and, because of the privation the convent was enduring, said that it was necessary to await better days before making the restoration, since there were more pressing needs.
Profoundly afflicted, Friar Cyril asked God to provide the means to restore the statue. Help came in an unexpected way. A foreign noble, having asked Friar Cyril to hear his confession, told him, “Reverend Father, I am convinced that the good God led me to Prague to prepare me for death and to do you some small favor.” He then gave Friar Cyril an alms of a hundred florins.
The friar sought out the prior and handed him the alms, requesting at least a single florin for the restoration of the statue. Despite this small miracle, the prior still replied that the restoration was not so important and could wait. To make matters worse, he commanded Friar Cyril to remove the statue from the oratory and take it to his cell until it could be repaired. Friar Cyril, not without sadness, obeyed his superior, asking the Little King to pardon his disbelief. The Most Holy Virgin then appeared to Friar Cyril and gave him to understand that the Child Jesus ought to be restored as soon as possible and exposed for the veneration of the faithful in a chapel dedicated to Him.
Favorable circumstances arose when a new prior was elected shortly thereafter. Friar Cyril renewed his request, to which the prior replied, “If the Child first gives us His blessing, I will have the statue repaired.” Soon there was a knock at the door, and an unknown lady handed Friar Cyril a sizable donation. Yet the prior allowed him only a half florin for the restoration, saying that it must suffice. That insignificant amount was soon augmented by a generous donation from Daniel Wolf, a court official who had received a favor from the Child Jesus.
At last, the little statue was refurbished. It was then placed in a crystal urn near the sacristy, thus fulfilling the express desire of Our Lady that the Child be exposed for public veneration.
A miraculous cure and the growth of the devotion
Another unexpected event greatly influenced the devotion rendered the Little King. One day in 1639, Friar Cyril, already considered a saint by many, was sought out by Henry Liebsteinski, Count of Kolowrat, whose spouse was gravely ill. The count asked the Carmelite friars to take the statue to the bedside of the sick woman, a cousin of the Princess Polyxena who had given the statue to the convent. As various physicians already considered her case lost, her sole remaining hope was the Holy Child.
Friar Cyril could not help but answer such a just request. When he arrived at the bedside of the dying woman, her husband said to her, “My dear, open your eyes. See, the Child Jesus is here to cure you.” With much effort the sick woman opened her eyes and her face lit up. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “the Child is here in my room!” She raised her arms toward the statue to kiss it. Seeing this, her husband exclaimed jubilantly, “A miracle! A miracle! My wife is cured!”
Hardly had she been restored to health when the countess went to the convent and offered the Child a crown of gold and other precious objects in gratitude. This is one of the most celebrated miracles attributed to the Little King.
Knowledge of this prodigy soon spread beyond the court, reaching the people of the city and the surrounding area. An ever greater number of pilgrims from all locales began to come to see the Child Jesus. Such was His renown that one rich lady of the court, moved by imprudent zeal, made off with the statue. God punished this sacrilege, however, and the Little King was returned to the Carmelites.
With the faithful giving many monetary and other offerings in gratitude for graces received from the Divine Infant, it was finally possible to construct a chapel specifically for the miraculous statue.
The Archbishop of Prague, Ernst Cardinal Adalbert von Harrach, was invited for the solemn consecration in 1648. He granted the friars the more ample faculty of celebrating Mass in the Holy Child’s chapel.
This solemn episcopal confirmation transformed the chapel of the Little King of Peace into a place of official devotion, and it was visited extensively.
A new trial, and a definitive altar
In 1648, during another battle of the Thirty Years’ War, Swiss Protestant troops invaded the city once again. This time they transformed the Carmelite convent into a field hospital, but none of the 160 wounded soldiers treated there dared to ridicule the Holy Child. On the contrary, during an inspection, the commander of the invaders, General Konigsmark, prostrated himself before the miraculous statue and said, “O Child Jesus! I am not Catholic, but I also believe in Your infancy, and am impressed seeing the faith of the people and the miracles You perform in their favor. I promise that, inasmuch as I find it possible, I will end the billeting of the convent.” And he gave the friars a donation of thirty ducats.
Shortly afterwards, the Swiss occupation of Prague ended, and everyone attributed the return of peace to the Little King.
With the return of normality, the Superior General of the Carmelite Fathers, Friar Francis of the Most Blessed Sacrament, arrived in Prague in 1651. He approved the devotion to the Divine Infant and recommended that the friars spread it to the Carmelite houses in Austria and among the faithful. In recognition of the legitimacy of devotion to the hallowed statue, he had a letter affixed to the door of the Child Jesus’ chapel.
In 1655, thanks to a contribution of the Baron of Tallembert, the miraculous image was placed upon a magnificent altar in the church of Our Lady of Victory and solemnly crowned by Archbishop Joseph von Corti of Prague.
To this day a solemn memorial of this coronation is celebrated on Ascension Day.
Devotion to the Divine Infant continued to spread throughout every social level. In 1743 the great Empress Maria Theresa of Austria herself aspired to make a rich garment for the Little King with her own hands.
In 1744, Protestant troops, this time Prussian, once again surrounded Prague.
The city authorities hastened to the Carmelite convent to ask the prior to carry the Little King in solemn procession throughout the city in order to free it from the onslaught of the heretics.
An honorable surrender, without any battles, was achieved; a few months later the Prussians left Prague, and the residents of the city hastened to Our Lady of Victory to thank the Child Jesus for yet another grace.
Not long thereafter, yet another and even greater danger threatened devotion to the Divine Infant. In 1784, Emperor Joseph II, disdainful of monastic life and especially of contemplative life, suppressed the Carmelite convent, as he did many others, and gave the church of Our Lady of Victory to the Order of Malta.
Without the continued dedication of the Carmelites, devotion to the Child Jesus declined.
In the twentieth century, during the Second World War, the Nazis occupied Prague, after which the scourge of Communism fell upon the country for almost 50 years. Neither one nor the other enemy of the faith of Christ, however, made any attempt against the miraculous statue itself, which remained upon its throne in the church of Our Lady of Victory.
The Communists prohibit the devotion in Prague
The communist regime in Czechoslovakia’s capital forbade the free exercise of the devotion as they propagated State atheism. In the “Prague Spring” of 1968, an attempt by the people of Czechoslovakia to free themselves from the impious regime was bloodily suffocated.
Devotion to the Child Jesus continued to be restricted to the church where the statue was exposed. The Carmelite friars, expelled far from Prague, continued their apostolate by making prints of the Holy Child and sending them clandestinely to other European convents.
Finally, in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia fell and the country was divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Religious and civil liberties were reestablished in the Czech Republic, and the new Archbishop of Prague, who had also been a victim of the communist repression, decided to give a new impulse to the devotion of the Child Jesus. At his invitation, two Carmelite friars went to Prague to reopen the convent and stimulate devotion to the Divine Child Jesus.
Devotion to the Child Jesus had already extended from Prague to the rest of Europe. From there it spread to Latin America, India, and elsewhere. In the United States the devotion owes much to that great apostle of the immigrants, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who wanted a statue of the Little King in every house of the institute she founded.
Efficacious prayer to the Holy Child Jesus
O Child Jesus, I have recourse to Thee by Thy Holy Mother; I implore Thee to assist me in this necessity, for I firmly believe that Thy Divinity can assist me. I confidently hope to obtain Thy holy grace. I love Thee with my whole heart and my whole soul. I am heartily sorry for my sins, and I entreat Thee, O good Jesus, to give me strength to overcome them.
I firmly resolve never to offend Thee again and to suffer everything rather than displease Thee. Henceforth, I wish to serve Thee faithfully. For love of Thee, O divine Child, I will love my neighbor as myself. O Jesus, omnipotent Child, I entreat Thee again to come to my assistance in this necessity. (Here mention the necessity.) Grant me the grace of possessing Thee eternally with Mary and Joseph, and of adoring Thee with Thy Holy Angels and Saints. Amen.
Prayer from a revelation said to have been made by the Blessed Mother to the Ven. Servant of God, Father Cyril of the Mother of God, who died in the odor of sanctity in 1675.
(*) The author is indebted to the excellent work El Pequeno Rey, by Sorella Giovann della Croce, C.S.C.
DAILY QUOTE for January 29, 2020
SAINT OF THE DAY
St. Gildas the Wise
Many centuries ago, three young nuns lived together in a convent. Day after day, they took their meals together, they went to chapel together, and they prayed and sang together.