The Stirring of Reforms in Prague

This is part of an ongoing series of posts about the 16th century Reformations that shook Christianity and civil society. If you would like to “catch up” on the series, you can see all the posts here.

The knowledge of Wycliffe and the Lollards reached deep into the Holy Roman Empire and found a home among Jan Hus, a Czech priest, philosopher, reformer, and master at Charles University in Prague. It was there that he came into possession of the banned works of Wycliffe which Hus translated into the Czech language. 1408, Pope Gregory XII warned Archbishop Zajic of Prague that the Church in Rome had been informed of Wycliffe’s heresies and of King Wenceslaus’ sympathies for non-conformists. In response, the king and University ordered all of Wycliffe’s writings surrendered to the archdiocesan chancery for correction. Hus obeyed, declaring that he condemned the errors in those writings. Yet at the same time, disavowing himself of the theological errors, Hus tried to reform the church by delineating the moral failings of clergy, bishops, and even the papacy from his pulpit. Archbishop Zajíc tolerated this, and even appointed Hus as preacher to the clergy’s biennial synod.

Jan Hus Czech ReformerAll this took place in the midst of the Western Schism. King Wenceslaus’ sympathies were with the pope in Avignon because he believed it was with the anti-pope that the King stood the better chance of becoming Holy Roman Emperor. However, he also directed Charles University to remain neutral in such things. For reasons not clear, Wenceslaus made decisions about the structure of the university that lead to the en masse departure of about 10,000 thousand foreign doctors, masters, and students. These academics dispersed across Europe and carried with them rumors of Hus, now Regent of the university, and the King’s sympathy with Wycliffe. And in the time their whispers were true.

The king and Hus openly declared for the anti-pope Alexander V. Archbishop. Zajíc did the same under pressure from the King at Hus’ insistence. The archbishop then filed charges against all Wycliffites with the anti-pope. On 20 December 1409, Alexander V issued a papal bull that empowered the archbishop to proceed against Wycliffism in Prague. All copies of Wycliffe’s writings were to be surrendered and his doctrines repudiated, and free preaching discontinued. After the publication of the bull in 1410, Hus appealed to Alexander V, but in vain. The Wycliffe books and valuable manuscripts were burned, and Hus and his adherents were excommunicated by Alexander V.

By this time, Hus’s ideas had become widely accepted in Bohemia, and there was broad resentment against the Church hierarchy. The attack on Hus by the Pope and Archbishop caused riots in parts of Bohemia. Wenceslaus and his government took the side of Hus, and the power of his adherents increased from day to day. Hus continued to preach in the Bethlehem Chapel. The churches of the city were put under the ban, and the interdict was pronounced against Prague. To protect the city, Hus left and went into the countryside, where he continued to preach and write.

Alexander and Zajíc died. The new anti-pope, John XXIII (yes, John the 23rd), launched a crusade against the Pope and his allies in Naples. Needing money in 1411 the antipope authorized the preaching of indulgences to raises funds to finance the war efforts. Hus returned to Prague and in his preaching asserted that no Pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the Church; he should pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him; man obtains forgiveness of sins by true repentance, not money.

1412 was a turbulent year in Prague. Several lay people were beheaded for denouncing the sale of indulgences; the university issued 45 theses condemning Hus and his followers whose positions were those of Wycliff. Despite attempts by King Wenceslaus to reconcile all parties, Hus was condemned as a heretic by the direction of antipope John XXIII and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

Responding with horror to the execution of Hus, the people of Bohemia moved even more rapidly away from Papal teachings, spurring an announced crusade against them. The Western Schism ended with the election of Pope Martin V who issued a Papal bull that all supporters of reformers like Hus and Wycliffe be slaughtered. The crusaders lost, as did the second and third crusades that followed. A century later, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation as much as ninety percent of the Czech lands still followed Hussite teachings.

To some, Hus’s efforts were predominantly designed to rid the Church of its ethical abuses, rather than a campaign of sweeping theological change. To others, the seeds of the reformation are clear in Hus’s and Wycliffe’s writings. In explaining the plight of the average Christian in Bohemia, Hus wrote, “One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.”

Nearly six centuries later in 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted” on Hus. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of the Czech Republic was instrumental in crafting John Paul II’s statement

The Reformation in Germany is still 100 years in the future.

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