Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Duke Mieszko I of Poland
By John Janaro
We have seen how “conversion stories” are not just the stories of isolated individuals. They have an impact on countless other people, in various ways according to the wise and merciful providence of God. In discussing the conversion of Duke Mieszko I in 966, it must be acknowledged that very little is known about him personally, even though his baptism is regarded as the beginning of a nation that has endured (sometimes against overwhelming odds) for over a thousand years. More importantly, and in spite of the many sins of her rulers and people through the years, Poland has tenaciously clung to her Catholic faith. Poland’s history is not perfect, but she has suffered much, and has given great saints especially to our own era.
During the often perilous times after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the leaven of faith in Christ vivified diverse peoples (both ancient and new), and the social, cultural, and political entity known as Europe was born. Its nations called themselves “Christian” and in their best moments they aspired (in some measure) toward a Christian ideal, which led to many remarkable and enduring achievements. Still, there is no place for a worldly “triumphalism” regarding the Christian nations of Europe. It is right, of course, that we should acknowledge the enormous good they have accomplished. But too often they have betrayed the One whom they claim as their inspiration. All the persons and social groups that make up the pilgrim People of God in this world must walk humbly, acknowledging their failures, making amends, growing in justice and love, and keeping their eye on Jesus as the center and the fulfillment of all history.
In the 10th century, as Europe was still taking shape, the Slavs formed distinctive nations under the shadows of the Byzantine Empire in the East and the emerging Germanic Holy Roman Empire in the West. At some point in the mid-10th century, Mieszko became leader of the Poles. As he consolidated the pagan Polish tribes into a “duchy” in Central Europe, he saw that its proper place was with the Latin West, but he also wanted to avoid being absorbed by the expansionist ambitions of the Germans on his frontier. So he formed an alliance with Christian Bohemia, another Western Slavic nation, and agreed to be baptized and to marry Dobrawa, daughter of the Duke of Bohemia.
What may have initially been intended as a political formality, however, attained a deeper significance. Traditional Polish chronicles credit the devout Dobrawa for properly evangelizing Mieszko, insisting that he be catechized and that he reform his life (by, among other things, abandoning polygamy). Dobrawa ensured that her husband took seriously his baptismal commitment to serve Jesus in his Church. Though his life after baptism was far from saintly, Mieszko seems to have been genuinely affected by his conversion. He saw that the Catholic Church was at the heart of the future of Poland, and he published a document entrusting the new Polish nation to the particular protection of the pope. Thus, he inaugurated the filial bond between Poland and the papacy which has been a source of strength to the faith of the Polish people throughout their difficult history. We might wonder if Duke Mieszko ever imagined in his wildest dreams that—a thousand years later—a son of Poland would actually become pope, and would tirelessly preach Christ’s love throughout the whole world while also holding his native land close in his heart.