Truth Prevails

March 12, 2007

The third of a series from Paul’s time to today via the Moravian church, in preparation for the Festival of the Nations in Herrnhut, May 25-28, 2007

The crowd packed into the Bethlehem Chapel listened in rapt silence to the clear, authoritative voice of Jan Hus. He was reading the Bible and preaching in their own mother tongue. The Church of Rome strongly disapproved of any departure from latin liturgy. But Hus, Rector of the University of Prague, had emerged as a champion for Church reform and Biblical authority. The cavernous ‘chapel’ in the town centre, able to seat 3000, had been built by Jan of Milheim to be used for worship on one condition: that services be held in the Moravian language.

Young Bohemians studying at Oxford in England had brought back to Prague John Wycliffe’s teachings that the Bible had authority over church tradition. This early English reformer (d.1384) had bravely overcome much opposition to give the English people the Bible in their own language.

Wycliffe’s teachings resonated with Hus who knew well the long spiritual history of his own people reaching back to the pioneering efforts of Cyril and Methodius. Since the ninth century, however, Rome’s policy had been to impose the Latin liturgy and to forbid worship in the local languages. Religion for ordinary people had remained mystical and unintelligible. (Hence the phrase ‘hocus pocus‘, corrupted from: ‘hoc est corpus meum‘ -‘this is my body’.)

Hus believed much more needed reforming in the church of the day. In 1411 the new Pope John XXIII had introduced the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, in order to finance his wars. Almost every church in Prague had large chests to collect indulgence monies. But not the Bethlehem Chapel. Instead, quoting Scripture and foreshadowing Luther, Hus expounded: “A man can receive the pardon of his sins only through the power of God and by the merits of Christ.”

The Church, Hus preached, had become corrupted by wealth and power. Three rivals claimed to be pope-one was suspected of having another murdered. A general council was called for in the free city of Constance, today on the border of Switzerland and Germany. Hus was soon to receive an ‘invitation’ to attend this council.

Born into a peasant family from Bohemia-the southwestern part of today’s Czech Republic-Hus had studied for the priesthood. He was chosen to become a professor. At the age of thirty-three, he became rector of the University of Prague! That same year he was chosen to be the preacher in the Bethlehem Chapel.

Queen Sophia often worshipped at the chapel and King Wenzel ordered papal agents to let him preach in peace. But that didn’t prevent Hus from being placed under the ‘ban’ and soon being excommunicated by the pope. Church officials publicly burned two hundred volumes of Wycliffe’s books. Protestors were beheaded in the street. Forced out of the city, Hus began preaching throughout the countryside to large crowds, for a year and a half. The peoples’ hope for reform rose.

When news of the council in Constance reached Prague, the king’s son, Sigismund, suggested Hus should present his case for reform there. Many warned him not to go, but the prince guaranteed his safety. In November 1414 Hus arrived at the ‘Holy Synod of Constance’, a colourful and festive event with cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, electors, princes, dukes, counts, barons, musicians and entertainers, plus a crowd of 50,000-and of course, Pope John XXIII.

Responding to a summons to meet with some cardinals, Hus was promptly thrown into a dungeon-despite all guarantees to the contrary. Appeals from nobility back in Bohemia fell on deaf ears: the cardinals replied that promises to heretics didn’t need to be honoured.

After a month of trials, Hus was charged on thirty counts of heresy. A thousand soldiers guarded the great procession as Hus was taken outside the city, and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

A week before his death, Hus wrote from jail to the masters, bachelors and students of Prague University: “Stand on the recognized truth which prevails over all and retains its power until the end of time.”

In 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, a symposium was held in the Vatican on ‘Master Jan Hus’, which led to his reinstatement and an official Catholic apology for his execution. Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, said: ‘For hundreds of years, the name of master Jan Hus has been inscribed in the mind of the nation especially for his deep love of truth.’ Hus’s motto, Veritas omnia vincit (Truth prevails), had become the national Czech motto, Pravda vitez. That motto, continued Havel, became the cry of the Velvet Revolution which brought down the communist regime.

Today in the Old Town Square of Prague, the bronze figure of Hus stands tall as a modern Czech hero. But the story does not end here. In 1467, fifty years before Luther’s Reformation, Hus’ followers organised themselves into the first truly Protestant church, the Unitas Fratrum.

And when the Reformation did break out across Europe, both Luther and Calvin recognised the trailblazing work of Jan Hus. ‘If only we had listened to the Bohemian doctor!’ lamented Calvin.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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