Feast Day : May 16
Patronage: bridges; confessors; against detraction
John was born at Nepomuc, Bohemia, near Prague in what is now the Czech Republic (then a part of the Holy Roman Empire). His family name was Woelflein or Welflin, but he used and has come to be known by the name of his native town instead. Soon after his birth John became very ill and his parents were afraid they would lose him, but they prayed to the Virgin Mary for his recovery, and she intervened on his behalf. His parents were so grateful for the miracle that they decided to consecrate John to the service of God. When he was still a child, they sent him to the local monastery, where he spent his mornings listening to Mass after Mass. He proved to be a fine student and after completing his early studies in Nepomuc was sent to Staaze to learn Latin. Later he attended the University of Prague (founded in 1356), where he studied philosophy, divinity and canon law, eventually taking a doctorate in the latter subjects. When he completed his studies, John, true to his parents’ wishes, spent a month in fasting, prayer and penance, preparing himself to enter the priesthood. Upon his ordination, he became vicar general of Archbishop John of Genzenstein at Prague and was sent to preach in the parish of Our Lady of Tein, where he was very popular. When Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire died in 1377, the throne passed to his son, Wenceslas IV, then only 16. Wenceslas, like Charles, lived in Prague, and hearing about John, invited him to preach the Masses of Lent to his court. These were so successful that Wenceslas offered him the first vacant bishopric, that of Leitomeritz, but John declined. He declined also the provostship of Wischeradt, finally accepting the position of almoner of the court. As almoner, he could better minister to the needy, the job he loved, and many sought him out for advice and the settlement of disputes. John became the confessor of Queen Sophie, the second wife of Wenceslas, who had turned out to be a mercurial and intemperate drunkard, given to fits of jealousy. When he noticed Sophie becoming more pious under John’s influence, he demanded that John reveal Sophie’s confessions, and when he refused, had him thrown in a dungeon. It is said that the pretense for the imprisonment was John’s appeal on behalf of the king’s cook, whom Wenceslas had ordered to be put on a spit and roasted when he prepared a meal not to his liking. Wenceslas sent the message that John would stay in the dungeon until he revealed Sophie’s confessions, but after a few days, he relented, and John was let go. When he still refused to reveal the confessions, however, he was returned to the dungeon and tortured on the rack, over a slow fire. He was released finally only when Sophie intervened with Wenceslas. John resumed his preaching with new fervor, not at all defeated but full of joy and courage. In one of his sermons, he is said to have predicted not only his own imminent death but also the political crisis that engulfed Bohemia soon thereafter. In 1383 (or perhaps 1393) Wenceslas sentenced John to death, but accounts of the reason vary. One has it that Wenceslas demanded once again that John reveal Sophie’s confessions, and when he again refused, had him killed. Another account states that John became involved in a dispute between Wenceslas and the archbishop when the king sought to convert a Benedictine abbey into a cathedral for a new diocese (to be given to a friend) when the abbot died. The archbishop thwarted him by approving the election of a new abbot immediately upon the death of the old abbot. In any event, on the night of May 16, John was cruelly tortured, then murdered and his body flung head-first into the Moldau River at Prague. According to legend, a heavenly light appeared over John’s body as it floated in the river, attracting many to the banks, and drawing the attention even of Sophie in the castle. She ran to Wenceslas to ask what he knew about the lights on the river, whereupon he fled to his estate in Zebrac, a few miles from Prague. In the morning, John’s body was rescued from the river and carried to the nearby church of the Holy Cross of the Penitents. People rushed to kiss his hands and feet and to tear off pieces of his clothes or other possessions. Wenceslas had the relics secretly removed, but their hiding place was discovered, and they were translated to the Prague cathedral, where they were interred in a stone tomb. Fearing an uprising in Prague, Wenceslas stayed in Zebrac until he felt it was safe to return. However, his empire soon came under immense strain, and in 1400 the princes of its various states banded together at Mentz to depose him from the throne. He was imprisoned twice, but managed to escape both times, eventually dying of an apoplexy, without repentance. Sophie, meanwhile, had died a holy death in 1387. Miraculous healings at John’s intercession began to be received during the translation and interment of his relics and at his tomb. Indeed, the tomb itself was miraculously protected from destruction by Protestant Hussites, and in 1618 by Calvinists who had invaded Prague. Several officers and workmen attempting to demolish the tomb were deterred by various adverse events, some of them dropping dead on the spot. John also is credited with helping to save Prague (and Bavaria) in 1620, his apparition appearing to imperial troops on the eve of battle, in response to their pleas for his assistance. In 1680, his intercessions helped to preserve Nepomuc from the bubonic plague. When the count of Althan, later archbishop of Bari, fell from a balcony in Rome, he called aloud to John, who saved his life, and Cardinal Michael Frederic Althan, viceroy of Naples, was cured of a paralytic disorder, which had caused him to lose the use of one arm, the moment he began to address his prayer to John on his feast day in the Minims church. On April 14, 1719, John’s tomb was opened. The flesh was gone from his body but his bones were perfectly joined together, showing the marks of his fall into the river behind his head and on his shoulders. More astonishingly, his tongue was found to be fresh and incorrupt, as if he had only just died. In art, John is portrayed as an Augustinian canon with a bridge nearby. Sometimes he is shown holding a finger to his lips, with seven stars around his head; in Bohemia and Austria, his lips may be padlocked.