St. Clement Hofbauer
A Model Evangelist, a Life of Struggle
These encouraging words from a man with a complicated story can inspire and guide us if we let them. Saint Clement Hofbauer spoke them more than 200 years ago, and the truth in them is as fresh today as they were then.
How the man born Jan Dvořák became the wise St. Clement Hofbauer is one piece of his complex life’s tale. He was born in 1751 in the small town of Tasovice in what was then Moravia and is today the Czech Republic, about 125 miles from Prague. His father, Pavel Dvořák, a butcher, changed the Slavic form of the family name to its German equivalent, Hofbauer. Both names have the same meaning: “farmer.” However, in Jan’s homeland, German and the local Slav dialect were used interchangeably. Switching from one language to another was common.
Jan was the ninth of twelve children. His father died when he was six, and although from his childhood Jan felt the desire to become a priest, his family’s poverty meant he had to join the workforce early on and didn’t have the liberty to entertain further education. After finishing an apprenticeship as a baker, he was employed by the Premonstratensian canons of Brück. He remained there until he turned twenty-four years old, at which time he tried to become a hermit. But his days of being far removed from society did not last long, as the government soon abolished all hermitages in the Habsburg Empire.
Jan also had a passion for long-distance pilgrimages. Four times in his life, he walked the 600-plus miles (each way) to Rome and back. On the third occasion, he tried the hermit’s life again near Tivoli, about thirty miles from Rome. At this time, he changed his name to Clement Mary in honor of a previous pope. He remained in Tivoli for about six months before he realized his desire to become a priest had not diminished.
He returned home to begin studies at the University of Vienna. When he had finished a philosophy course, disappointment struck again, for the emperor forbade religious orders to accept new candidates. As a result, Clement was once again on the move. Accompanied by friend Thaddäus Hübl, with whom he shared many of the same ambitions, he returned to Rome. There, the two men entered a small church run by a little-known religious community called the Redemptorists (the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer). The order had been founded in the South of Italy some fifty years before. They applied to join, were accepted, and professed vows in 1785. Clement was now finally on the path to realize his dreams. He and Hübl immediately began studying for the priesthood.
Within a few months of ordination, they were instructed to plant the new order north of the Alps. In February 1787, they reached Warsaw and were given charge to work with the congregation of St. Benno’s Church—another mix of languages: German in the church and Polish outside. By 1800, the community had grown to twenty-one priests, seven brothers, five novices, and four students for the priesthood. In addition to intensive work in the church from early morning until late at night, they ran an orphanage, a school for boys. A group of women ran a school for girls.
The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815)brought new difficulties for Clement and his brethren. The faithful Hübl died in 1806, and in June 1808, St. Benno’s was closed and the forty Redemptorists imprisoned. After an imprisonment of four weeks, they were ordered to return to their homelands. Clement gave Fr. Joseph Passerat charge of the young men, and for the next twelve years, a homeless band of Redemptorists wandered through Bavaria and Switzerland looking for a permanent home.
Clement, however, took a companion and went to Vienna, where he became a chaplain to a community of nuns. At the community, he gained a reputation for being a powerful preacher and compassionate confessor. Clement was what today we might consider “progressive.” He became known for his support of including women in the work of the apostolate and was a favorite with young intellectuals and artists. They came to his small apartment to talk, share a meal, or get advice. Several of them later became Redemptorists.
All the time, Clement was struggling to gain recognition for his Congregation. He was threatened several times with expulsion, but Providence took a hand. In the course of a visit to Rome, Emperor Francis II was informed by Pope Pius VII how much the work of Fr. Hofbauer was appreciated. The emperor agreed to give him a church in Vienna and signed the decree of approval.
Sadly, the decree, released in 1820 when Clement was sixty-eight, was unfortunately too late for him, and it was placed on his coffin. The Redemptorists were given charge of one of the oldest churches in the city, Maria am Gestade. Clement’s remains were transferred there in 1862. He was canonized in 1909, and three years later, was acclaimed as patron of Vienna. His feast is celebrated on March 15.
Brendan McConvery, CSsR