For Greater Things: The story of Saint Stanislaus Kostka
by William T. Kane, S.J.
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He was perfectly happy, entirely confident that he was doing God's will. As for the work, he chuckled to himself at the idea that Canisius thought this a test! He would willingly do a thousand times harder things than that for Almighty God. And after all, he said, it really was not so hard. Many a better man than he had to work much harder, at much more unpleasant tasks. And what would it matter in eternity, if he scrubbed pots and pans and floors and windows all his life? The only thing that mattered was to please God, and just now this sort of work was what pleased God.



Canisius kept Stanislaus at his work in the kitchen and about the house for a couple of weeks. He noted his cheerfulness, his love of prayer, his readiness to do any sort of work, and best of all, his simplicity, his entire lack of pose. He saw that this Senator's son made no virtue of taking on himself such lowly tasks, and he knew, therefore, that he was really humble.

Then he called the boy to him. He said:

"If I admit you into the Society here, your father may still annoy you. It is better you should go to Rome and become a novice there. I shall give you a letter to the Father General, Francis Borgia. In a few days two of ours are to go to Rome. You can go with them."

Stanislaus was delighted. He was come into quiet waters at last. But Canisius spoke further:

"First, however, you must get some decent clothes. Your old tunic," he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "might do well enough for a noble, but not for a future Jesuit."

So the college tailor made Stanislaus a simple, neat suit of clothes. And about September 20th he set out for Rome. He went on foot, of course; in the company of Jacopo Levanzio, a Genoese, and Fabricius Reiner, of Lige.

They struck south through Bavaria to the Tyrolese Alps. By what pass they crossed the Alps we do not know. But Stanislaus saw first from afar the white peaks, with their everlasting snows, shining in the sun. Then he went up and up, into cooler and rarer air, where one's lungs expand and one's step is light and buoyant, but where one gets tired more easily than in the plains. High up in the passes he felt the cold of Winter, although it was as yet early Autumn.

Then he came down the southern slopes of the great mountain-wall that locks in Italy, and with him came the headwaters of great rivers. He came down through bare rocks, then through twisted mountain-pines, then through green and lovely valleys, and so into the plains of northern Italy. He saw the mountain torrents leap and flash, and grow always bigger and stronger. He saw them slack their speed and widen their beds in the upland valleys. He saw them grow sluggish, tawny with mud, in the plain.

He saw the many spires of Milan's wonderful cathedral as they drew near the city. And when they tarried there a little while for rest, he saw the famous armor made there, hung up for show in little shop- windows. He passed great cavalcades of nobles and soldiers, and marvelled at their straight, slim rapiers, so different from the heavy Polish saber. He heard Italian speech for the first time, and tried to get at its meaning through his Latin.

But he and his companions had not over-much time for observing. They were traveling pretty swiftly. From Dillingen to Rome is a matter of about eight hundred miles. They left Dillingen September 20th; they reached Rome October 25th. That figures out to an average of about twenty-two miles each day. Then, if you remember that they had to climb mountains the first part of the way, that there were delays entering towns, delays of devotion when they came to great churches, you can see that many a day they must have equaled or surpassed Stanislaus' thirty miles a day from Vienna.

But it was pleasanter. for Stanislaus than his first great tramp. Now he had two good companions, with whom he could speak easily and familiarly of the things nearest his heart. He had none of the uncertainty about the result of this journey which he had had about his former journey. He found shelter and friendship in many Jesuit houses on the way.

As the three went on they lightened the road with pious songs, they heard Mass and received Holy Communion whenever occasion offered, they knelt by many a wayside shrine, a crucifix, or statue of our Lady, scattered everywhere through Catholic Italy.

It did not take the two Jesuits long to appreciate Stanislaus and delight in his company. He was so light-hearted, so merry in all the discomforts and hardships of the long road, so thoroughly and simply good. They wondered at his physical endurance, at the ease and buoyancy with which the lad of seventeen kept up that hard march, day after day.

The grasses of the Campagna were brown and brittle, the trees sere and yellow in the Autumn, when they came to the Eternal City, the center of the world then as now. The saintly General Francis Borgia, busy as he was with the cares of the widespread Society, found time to welcome the three travelers, and to hear Stanislaus' wonderful story in full.

And this time there was no hesitation or delay. Stanislaus entered his name in the book containing the register of the novices, on October 25, 1567. Three days later he received his cassock and entered at once upon his noviceship.

There were so many novices in Rome then that no single house of the Jesuits there could hold them all. So they were scattered through three houses, each one spending a part of his two years' noviceship successively in each house. Stanislaus went first to the Professed House, then called Santa Maria della Strada, and afterward the site of the famous Gesu, one of the notable churches of Rome. From there he passed in time to the Roman College, then to the Noviciate proper at Sant' Andrea.

The Society of Jesus was then in its early youth, in the midst of that first brilliant charge against the ranks of heresy without, and against the huge sluggish inertia so striking within the Church itself.

He was fellow-novice with Claude Acquaviva, son of the Duke of Atri, and afterwards one of the greatest Generals of the Society, which he ruled for thirty years. With him were also Claude's nephew, Rudolph Acquaviva, who died a martyr; Torres, a great theologian; Prando, the first philosopher at the University of Bologna; Fabio de' Fabii, who traced his descent from the great Roman family of that name; the Pole, Warscewiski, formerly ambassador to the Sultan and Secretary of State in Poland, who first wrote a life of Stanislaus; and many more, distinguished for birth, learning, holiness.

Most of these were a great deal older, too, than Stanislaus. Many of them had already made their names familiar to men. Yet the boy of seventeen, who came quietly and modestly amongst them, was somehow soon looked up to by all. They felt the force of something in him which made him their superior. Heaven was wonderfully near him. He was not old-fashioned; he was always a boy, unconscious of anything unusual in himself; not solemn nor impressive nor austere in manner. All that he did, he did with perfect naturalness; for to him the supernatural had become almost natural.



Most of us, perhaps, think of the saints as men and women who accomplished visibly great things. Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Patrick, Saint Theresa, Saint Philip Neri, Saint Francis Xavier: such names as these come first to our minds when we think of "a saint." Yet the fact is that the greater number of saints are men and women who never did anything that the world would consider great or striking. Saint Joseph was of that sort. Even the Blessed Virgin lived and died in obscurity, made no stir in the world.

Sanctity is measured not so much by what one does as by how one does all things. Externally a saint may not differ at all from other people. It is his soul that is different.

And so, a visitor to the Professed House in Rome in 1567, meeting Stanislaus Kostka, would see a handsome, pleasant-looking Polish boy of seventeen, with his sleeves rolled up above his elbows, with an apron over his cassock, carrying wood for the kitchen fires, washing dishes, serving at table, sweeping corridors and rooms.

He got up at half past four, or five o'clock, every morning. He spent half an hour in meditation, in thinking over some incident in our Lord's life or some great truth, as that death is near to each of us, that this life is only the vestibule of eternity, that our whole business in life is to do what God wants us to do, or the like.

After that came Mass and, once or twice a week, Holy Communion and his thanksgiving. Then breakfast, taken in silence. He read in a spiritual book for half an hour or so after breakfast, then went to the kitchen or the dining hall or the scullery, where he set to work under the orders of the cook.

In the course of the morning there might be a talk or instruction from the priest in charge of the novices. There surely would be one or more visits to the chapel. When the hour for dinner came, Stanislaus probably served at table, taking his own meal later. After dinner there was an hour for recreation, when the novices walked and chatted in the garden or about the house.

The afternoon, like the morning, was taken up with lowly work, with prayer, and a little reading or instruction. Toward evening, he again spent half an hour in meditation. Then came the evening meal, another hour of recreation, a little reading in preparation for next morning's meditation, and examination of conscience as to how the day had been spent, and then bed.

Two or three days a week, this routine was broken. Sometimes the novices walked out into the country to a villa, where they had games and ate their dinner. At other times they left their work to go with one of the Fathers to some church or other, upon business.

It was a quiet, humble life, full of peace, near to God, hidden away from men. In this life the novices had to continue for two years, before they took upon themselves the obligation of vows, and before they began the long studies that prepare a Jesuit for his work. During those two years they tested their vocation, making sure that God really called them to that life; and they tested their own wills to see if they were ready to endure what such a life demanded of them.

Stanislaus did just what the other novices did, did nothing out of the ordinary. Yet, of course, he was different from the others; he was a saint. What was the difference? Just this: they did things more or less well; he did things perfectly. If he prayed, he put his whole mind and soul into his prayer. If he worked, he obeyed orders absolutely, because in doing so he was obeying God.

There is in the Jesuit noviciate at Angers a series of paintings portraying incidents in the life of Stanislaus. In one he is shown carrying on his arm two or three bits of wood towards the kitchen. Underneath is written, "He will err if he carry more."

The painting commemorates an occasion when Stanislaus and Claude Acquaviva were put by the cook to carry wood and told to carry only two or three pieces at a time. Acquaviva, when the two came to the wood-pile, said laughingly:

"Does the cook think we are babies? Why, we can each carry twenty or thirty of such little pieces of wood."

"To be sure we can," Stanislaus answered. "But do you think God wants us to carry twenty or thirty pieces now? The cook said two or three, and the cook just at present takes the place of God to command us."

And so it was in everything. He studied singly to see what would please God most, and no matter how trifling seemed the command he did just that, with all his heart.

No one ever heard a sharp word from him, or saw him take offense at anything, or act in the least way out of vanity or selfishness.

And, of course, he was entirely unconscious that he was different from the rest. He knew he was trying to do his best in everything, but he supposed every one else was doing the same. And with all his earnestness and exactness, he was as simple and boyish as he had ever been.

One day Cardinal Commendoni, the Legate to Vienna, and a great friend of Stanislaus, came to Rome and hurried over to the Roman College to call upon Stanislaus. Stanislaus, as soon as he heard of his arrival, ran off to meet him just as he was, sleeves rolled up, apron on, straight from the scullery - just as any boy would do.

He was in everything perfectly at ease; content in his little round of little tasks; going ahead toward heaven without any show or heroics. He was doing just exactly the little things that God wants us to do, and he was entirely happy in so doing.

It is true he had never been really unhappy in his whole life. People who keep close to God never are. They have hard things to put up with; they may be poor, or fall sick, or lose their relatives or friends by death; they may have to fight very strong temptations. They feel all these things as keenly as others feel them. But they do not become unhappy. We may say they have a world of their own to live in, that their inmost lives are spent in that world, very little touched by the changes and accidents of the outer world. They see that there is an outer world, but they choose deliberately to ignore it; they will not go into it.

You know that if you go down deep into the sea, as men go in submarines, you find calm there always, even though a storm be raging up above and the waves toss with angry violence. So if you once get inside your life, under the surface, in the heart of life where God is, you will find calm there also and a certain peace which is as near as we can come to entire happiness in this world.

But though Stanislaus had learned this secret, and had therefore always kept his soul merry, he was happiest of all during the time of his noviceship. The very air around him breathed of God and heaven. His life there was really an unbroken prayer. He was like a swimmer who has been fighting his way through nasty, choppy, little waves, going ahead surely, but with great difficulty, and who comes at last into long, quiet, rolling swells, where his progress is delightful, where he can make long, easy strokes and feel pleasure in the very effort.

And as he was young and ardent, he was in danger of overdoing things. Prayer, even when it is a joy, is always hard work for us poor mortals. Stanislaus gave himself so heartily now to praying that he ran risk of losing his strength and health. So his superiors, being sensible men, stepped in and moderated his energy. He was made to work more and pray less, told to be prudent, to husband his strength for future work. And, of course, he did as he was told.

But God had special designs on Stanislaus. He was never to use his health and energy in work as a priest or teacher. Indeed, his work was nearly over, though it had been so brief. He had no long career before him on this earth; he was going home, and going soon.



When Stanislaus had been a novice nine months, Peter Canisius came one day to Rome on business. At this time Stanislaus was living in the noviciate proper, Sant' Andrea on the Quirinal. Of course the novices were all keen to see and hear the great Canisius, the man who had done such superb work in Germany. And whatever curiosity they had was satisfied, for Canisius came to the community at Sant' Andrea and gave a little sermon or talk.

It was the first of August, the month always most dangerous to health in Rome. Just for that reason, perhaps, the old Romans had made the beginning of that month a time of feasting and boisterous holiday. And an old proverb had come down, "Ferrare Agosto - Give August a jolly welcome"

Canisius took this proverb for his text, but turned it to say, "Give every month a jolly welcome, for it may be your last."

After the talk, the novices, according to custom, discussed amongst themselves what had been said. It came Stanislaus' turn to speak. He said:

"What Father Canisius has just told us is a holy warning for all, of course. But for me it is something more, because this month of August is to be really my last month 'upon earth."

To be sure, no one paid special attention to this strange remark. Novices often say things that will not bear too much analysis. Particularly no one would look seriously upon what Stanislaus had said, since he was at the time in perfect health.

Four days later, the feast of our Lady of the Snows, Stanislaus had occasion to go with the great theologian, Father Emmanuel de Sa, to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. For there the beautiful feast is kept with singular ceremony, as that church is the one connected with the origin of the feast. Each year, during Vespers on August 5th, a shower of jasmin leaves sifts down from the high dome of a chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, to commemorate the miraculous snow in August which marked out the spot where the church was to be built.

As they went along, de Sa turned the talk to the coming feast of the Assumption of our Blessed Lady. Stanislaus spoke with delight, as he always spoke of our Lady.

"When our Lady entered paradise," he said, "I think God made a new glory for His Mother, and all the saints made a court about her and did reverence to her as we do to a king. And I hope," he added; "that I shall be up there myself to enjoy this coming feast."

Again his words were not taken at their face value. Father de Sa thought he spoke of being in heaven in spirit for the feast.

The practice, now common, was new then, of alloting to each in the community as special patron some particular saint whose feast occurred during the month. Stanislaus had drawn Saint Lawrence for his patron. The feast of the Saint is celebrated on August 10th. Stanislaus, who had clear intimations of his quickly approaching death, and was eager to go to heaven, asked Saint Lawrence to intercede for him that his home-going might be on the Feast of the Assumption. He got permission to practice some penances in honor of the Saint. He prepared for the feast with unusual devotion. On the morning of the 10th when he went to Holy Communion, he carried on his breast a letter he had written to our Lady. It was such a letter as a boy, away from home, and homesick, might write to his mother, asking her to bring him home.

After breakfast, Stanislaus, still in entire health, was sent to work in the kitchen, where he spent the rest of the morning, washing dishes, carrying wood for the fire, helping the cook generally.

But by evening he was decidedly unwell. To the fellow-novice who helped him to bed he said quietly, "I am going to die, you know, in a few days."

Claude Acquaviva hurried to him as soon as he learned he was ailing. Father Fazio, the novice-master, also came. Stanislaus told each of the favor he had begged from our Lady, and that he hoped strongly his request would be granted.

That was on the evening of Wednesday, the 10th. He appeared to be no better or worse on Thursday and Friday. But Friday evening he was moved from his ordinary room to a quieter place in a higher story of the house. Those who went with him noted that before he lay down, he knelt on the floor and prayed a while and made the sign of the cross over the bed, saying, "This is my deathbed."

Now they began to believe him and were frightened a little. So Stanislaus added, with a smile, "I mean, of course, if it so please God." He continued in about the same condition until Sunday, August 14th. That day he said to the laybrother who was taking care of him:

"Brother, I'm going to die to-night."

The brother laughed at him, and said:

"Nonsense, man! Why, it would take a greater miracle to die of so trifling a matter than to be cured of it."

But by noon of that day Stanislaus became unconscious. Father Fazio was with him at once and administered restoratives. Very soon Stanislaus was himself again, bright and smiling as ever. Father Fazio began to joke with him.

"O man of little heart!" he said. "To give up courage in so slight a sickness!"

Stanislaus answered, "A man of little heart I admit I am. But the sickness, Father, is not so very slight, since I'm going to die of it."

And, indeed, he began to fail rapidly. By evening the death-sweat stood out upon him, the vital warmth little by little withdrew from hands and feet to the citadel of his heart. When the last light of day was gone from the sky, he made his confession and received the Holy Viaticum. A great many of his fellow-novices were present, and some wept. He was a good comrade, they did not want to see him depart from them.

Then he received Extreme Unction. He made the answers to the prayers himself. Afterward he confessed again, in order to receive the plenary indulgence granted for the hour of death. And after that he talked for a little time, kindly and cheerfully, to those about him, and bidding them good-by, turned his mind and his heart to heaven.

Three Fathers stayed with him through the silence of the night, when the rest had gone to bed. Most of the time he prayed, either aloud with his watchers, or silently by himself. He left messages to his more intimate friends, and asked the Fathers to beg pardon for any offense he had given.

During the evening he had begged to be laid on the bare ground, that he might die as a penitent. Toward midnight, as he still asked it, they lifted him on the little mattress of his bed and placed him on it upon the floor. There he lay, very quiet, whilst midnight tolled from the great churches of the city. The Fathers knelt beside him, praying silently with him, or giving him from time to time the crucifix to kiss.

At length, about three o'clock in the morning, he stopped praying, and a great joy shone in his face. He looked about him from side to side, and seemed with his eyes to ask his companions to join him in reverencing some one who was present.

Father Ruiz bent over and asked him:

What is it, Stanislaus?

"Our Lady!" he whispered. "Our Lady has come, just as in Vienna."

Then he seemed to listen to voices they could not hear. His lips moved silently, forming inaudible words. His eyes were bright and joyful. He stretched out his arms, fell back, and died with a smile upon his lips. Our Lady had come for him, and with her he went home. Dawn was breaking on the Feast of the Assumption, 1568.



Stanislaus lacked six or eight weeks of being eighteen years old when he died. He had not been a preacher or writer or engaged in any public work. Only a handful of people in Rome so much as knew of his existence. Yet no sooner was he dead than crowds flocked about him as about a dead saint.

The General, Francis Borgia, ordered the body to be put into a coffin, which was an unusual thing at that time, and to be buried at the right hand of the high altar in the church.

Meantime the Lord John Kostka still raged in Poland. He had written a most severe letter to Stanislaus shortly after Stanislaus arrived in Rome: a letter full of threats and anger, to which Stanislaus had replied kindly and affectionately, explaining to his father that he had to follow God's call at any cost

But the Lord John was not to be so easily put off. He ordered his eldest son, Paul, on to Rome, with power to bring back Stanislaus to his home at Kostkov.

Paul traveled in some state and with no great haste. He reached Rome in the middle of September, 1568, to find that God had been beforehand with him, and that Stanislaus had indeed already gone home, to heaven.

He had been greatly impressed at the time of Stanislaus' flight from Vienna, by the incidents which seemed to show God's direct guidance and protection in regard to his brother. Now, when the Fathers led him to the still new tomb of Stanislaus, he broke down utterly and cried like a child. He stayed a time beside the tomb, and when he came forth he was a different Paul.

Every one was talking with admiration of Stanislaus and of the marvels that had surrounded his life and death. Paul hurried back to Poland with his story, at once sad and joyful. The heart of the old Castellan was moved. He had lost a son, but he had gained a saint.

A year later appeared two short Lives of Stanislaus, one in Polish by Father Warscewiski, his fellow-novice, another in Latin. All through Poland the devotion to the young novice spread rapidly. Soon authoritative "processes" toward his beatification were drawn up under the care of the bishops of various places in which Stanislaus had spent his short years.

Thirty-six years after his death, Pope Clement VIII issued a brief (February 18, 1604) in which he declared Stanislaus "Blessed" and granted indulgences on the anniversary of his death.

But long before this the Lord John had died, and his youngest son, Albert, struck by sudden congestion of the lungs before his father's body was laid to rest, died also, and was buried in the same grave with him.

Of the four sons only Paul was left. From the day he stood by the tomb of Stanislaus, he had changed entirely. Bitter remembrance of his harshness and brutality to the dead saint was with him always and urged him to a life of penance and prayer. He never married, but passed his days largely at the castle of Kostkov in retirement with his widowed mother.

He busied himself in constant works of charity, spending his great fortune in helping the poor and in establishing hospitals and building churches. He wore himself out in prayer and labor and fasting. Men marveled at him, and many sneered at him, as he had once sneered at Stanislaus.

But those long, hard years were not unhappy for him. He and his mother, Margaret Kostka, had learned Stanislaus' secret of happiness, and lived in spirit in that bright home to which Stanislaus had gone.

Then Margaret died, and Paul was alone. He had wished to withdraw from the world altogether. But he felt unworthy to ask admission into a religious order. However, realizing at length that his death could not be far distant, and that he could at worst be a burden for only a very short time, he wrote to Claude Acquaviva, who was then General of the Society of Jesus, and begged that he might at least die in the Society to which Stanislaus had belonged. Acquaviva readily dispensed with the impediment of age and ordered the Provincial of Poland, Father Strinieno, to receive him.

Paul hastened to the royal court, then at Pietscop, to settle his worldly affairs before taking up his residence in the noviceship. But scarcely had he completed his arrangements, when fever seized him, and he died after a few days' illness. He died November 13, 1607: the very day of the month afterwards fixed as the feast of Saint Stanislaus.

Bilinski, too, the tutor of Stanislaus, showed in after life the fruit of Stanislaus' prayers. He became Canon of Pultowa and Plock and lived holily. It was his privilege to bear testimony to many events in the life of Stanislaus, and he was a very valuable witness in the "processes" for his pupil's beatification. When death came, Stanislaus appeared to him in vision, consoling and encouraging him, and he died in great peace.

All this time the people of Poland had been eager in their devotion to the Blessed Stanislaus. Many cures and miracles had been wrought through his intercession. In 1621, under the Polish king, Sigismund III, and again in 1676, under Yan Sobieski, the Poles won pronounced victories over Turkish armies which far outnumbered their own, and attributed these preternatural successes to the prayers of Stanislaus.

The whole nation, through its kings, repeatedly petitioned that Stanislaus might be declared their Patron. This was at first refused, as only canonized saints were given the title of Patron of a nation. But Clement x granted the request in 1671, setting aside the decree which forbade it.

The Church is slow in declaring any one a saint. It was not until December 13, 1726, one hundred and fifty-eight years after the death of Stanislaus, that Benedict XIII solemnly celebrated his canonization in the Basilica of St. Peter. It was a double ceremony, for it was also the occasion of the canonization of Saint Aloysius, who had been born in March of the same year in which Stanislaus died.

* * * * * * * * *

This little account has not done justice to the life of Stanislaus Kostka; and, indeed, it is very hard to do justice to it. He was a most human and lovable boy, but he was besides a wonderful, bright being that eludes the grip of our common minds. He was a citizen of heaven, who lived here amongst us, kindly and companionable indeed, during eighteen years of exile. To try to describe him is like trying to describe a star in the far sky of night.

That love for God, of which we speak so brokenly, which at its best in us is so small and cold, was the soul of his soul, the inner core and substance of his life. Here, in the misty country of faith, he had something of that radiant and rapturous union with God which all of us, as we hope, shall one day have in heaven.

All the sweet and strong twining of our hearts about father and mother and relatives and dear friends, all that binds us in affection to those we love in life, was multiplied and made many times stronger in his rare nature and lifted up by God's grace to fix itself upon God, the infinite Goodness, the supreme Beauty.

God was not a mere Name or a Power to him, not even the mere Lord and Master of all: God was his friend, his dearest intimate, his sure, strong, patient, loving counselor; whose presence was with him, waking and sleeping; whose interests were nearest his heart; whose commands it was a delight to obey; whose slightest wish and beckoning was eagerly watched for and joyously followed.

To catch the secret and true meaning of his life, one must feel how that love for God thrilled through him, was his. courage in action, his endurance in suffering, his sweetness and kindness in all dealings with other men. It was his life. And when we have said and realized that, we have come nearest to knowing who and what really was Stanislaus Kostka.


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