A look at the life of Clement Hofbauer can teach us much about a dream come true, about prayer and service, about perseverance in the Christian life, about becoming a saint by living each day as it comes, and using each moment of time for its proper purpose. Clement was not a miracle worker or a visionary, just a great and holy Redemptorist serving God’s people to the best of his ability.
Birth and Young Life
Our saint was born on the feast of Saint Stephen, December 26, 1751, in Tasswitz, Moravia. He was the ninth of twelve children born to Mary and Paul Hofbauer. Baptized the very next day, he was given the name of Hansl, or John. He would be known that way for more than twenty years until he entered a hermitage and took the name of Clement.
The saint’s older brother, Karl, had gone off to fight with the Hungarian cavalry against the Turks. Hansl could not wait until he would be old enough to wear the blue uniform with the silver braiding and the brown felt cap with the red piping.
He also had his boyish sights on another goal, however. While serving Mass he would imagine himself as a priest standing at the altar, wearing the priestly vestments, and leading the people in the Church’s great act of worship and praise to God.
It was the goal of the priesthood that finally won out over the career in the army. Coming from a poor family, however, Hansl had little chance to go away to a seminary or join a religious order.
Hansl began to study Latin at the parish rectory. The pastor was a kindly old priest who recognized the seeds of a priestly vocation in the young Hofbauer. Daily the young student and the aging pastor would meet to study the Latin language. It was to be the first step on Hansl’s long road to the priesthood. The period of study ended abruptly with the death of the pastor when Hansl was just fourteen. The new pastor did not have time to help him study Latin.
Unable to continue studying for the priesthood, Hansl had to learn a trade. He was sent to become an apprentice in bake shop in 1767. In 1770 he went to work in the bakery of the Premonstratensian monastery of the White Monks in Kloster Bruck. At that time, the effects of war and famine were sending many homeless and hungry people to the monastery for help. Hofbauer worked day and night to feed the poor people who came to his door. While this was still not the priesthood that he wanted so badly, it was an opportunity to help God’s people who were in great need.
In 1771, a trip to Italy brought Hofbauer to Tivoli. He decided to become a hermit at the shrine of Our Lady of Quintiliolo and requested the hermit’s habit from the local bishop. It was at this time that Hansl Hofbauer received the name of Clement Mary: Clement from the bishop of Ancyra in Asia and Mary from our Blessed Lady. As a hermit, Clement prayed for himself and for all the people in the world who forgot to pray. He worked at the shrine and assisted the pilgrims who came. Clement did not find happiness, however, and in less than six months he left Quintiliolo. He realized the need to pray for people and saw this as good work, but it was still not the priesthood that he wanted so badly.
He returned to the monastery of the White Monks at Kloster Bruck to bake bread and to begin the study of the Latin language once again. Although he completed his studies in philosophy by the year 1776, he could proceed no further. The Emperor would allow no new novices for the White Monks, and so Clement found the road to the priesthood once again.
He went home and lived for two years as a hermit at Muehlfraun, forcing himself to endure strict fasts, harsh penances, and long vigils of prayer. At the insistence of his mother he left the hermitage to become once more a baker of bread. This time he got a job at a famous bakery in Vienna where he met the two distinguished ladies who became his greatest benefactors.
At the age of twenty-nine, after being a baker in three places and a hermit in two others, Clement entered the University of Vienna. Since the government had closed all seminaries, students for the priesthood had to study at government-controlled universities. Clement was frustrated by the religious studies courses that were permeated by rationalism and other unquestionable outlooks and teachings. Undaunted, he continued seeking the truths of the faith and pursuing his dream of the priesthood.
During a pilgrimage in 1784, Clement and his traveling companion, Thaddeus Huebl, decided to join a religious community. The two seminarians were accepted into the Redemptorist novitiate at San Giuliano in Italy. On the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1785, Clement Hofbauer and Thaddeus Huebl became Redemptorists, publicly professing to live the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Ten days later they were ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of Alatri.
A few months after their ordination the two foreign Redemptorists were summoned by their Superior General, Father de Paola. They were told to return to their homeland across the Alps and establish the Redemptorist Congregation in northern Europe. It was a difficult and unusual assignment for two men so recently ordained. To Alphonsus, this spread of the Congregation beyond the Alps was a sure proof that the Redemptorists would endure until the end of time. To Clement, it was a dream come true.
Warsaw and St. Benno’s
The political situation did not allow Clement to remain in his own country. The Austrian Emperor who had closed over 1,000 monasteries and convents was not about to allow a new religious order to establish a foundation. Realizing this, the two Redemptorists moved on to Poland. It was February of 1787 when they reached Warsaw, a city of 124,000 people. Although there were 160 churches plus 20 monasteries and convents in the city, in many ways it was almost a godless slum. The people were poor and uneducated; their houses were in need of repair. Many people had turned from Catholicism to Freemasonry. The faithful Catholics and their few good priests suffered much. For the next 20 years Clement and his small band of Redemptorist priests and Brothers shared in this suffering for the Lord and for the faithful of Poland.
Poland was in the midst of great political turmoil at the time of Clement’s arrival in 1787. King Stanislaus II was virtually a puppet in the hands of Catherine II of Russia. Earlier, in 1772, the First Partition of the country had taken place — with Austria, Russia, and Prussia dividing the spoils. A similar partition was to occur again in 1793 and for a third time in 1795. Napoleon and his great army of conquest marching through Europe added to the political tension. During Clement’s twenty- one years in Warsaw there was hardly a peaceful moment.
On their journey to Poland, the two new Redemptorist priests were joined by Peter (now Emmanuel) Kunzmann, a fellow- baker who had accompanied Hansl on a pilgrimage. He became the first Redemptorist lay Brother form outside Italy. Together they arrived in Warsaw without a coin in their pockets; Clement had given the last three silver coins to beggars along the way. They met with the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Saluzzo, who put them in charge of St. Benno’s Church to work with the German-speaking people of Warsaw. As they learned the new language, the Redemptorists expanded their apostolate to the people who lived in the area of St. Benno’s.
When Clement saw a homeless boy on the street, he brought him to the rectory, cleaned him up, fed him, and then taught him a trade and instructed him in the Christian way of life. When the number of boys grew too large for the rectory, Clement opened the Child Jesus Refuge for his homeless boys.
To keep the boys fed and clothed, he had to beg constantly. He did so unashamedly. Going into a bakery to buy a loaf of bread he came upon a master baker without an assistant. Clement spent the day working at the dough trough and the oven, using all his old baking skills. He got bread for his boys that day and for many days to come.
On another occasion, legend has it that he went begging to a local pub. When Clement asked for a donation, one of the patrons scornfully spat beer into Clement’s face. Wiping off the beer, he responded, “That was for me. Now what do you have for my boys?” The men in the bar were so astounded by the Christlike response that they gave Clement more than 100 silver coins.
When the Redemptorists first opened their church they preached to empty benches. The people had many things that took them away from God, and they found it hard to put their trust in these foreign priests. It took several years for the Redemptorists to win over the hearts of the people; but in time St. Benno’s became the thriving center of the Catholic Church in Warsaw.
In 1791, four years after their arrival, the Redemptorists enlarged the children’s refuge into an academy. A boarding school had been opened for young girls under the direction of some noble Warsaw matrons. The number of orphan boys continued to grow steadily. Money to finance all this came from some regular benefactors and many other people who were willing to help in different ways; but Clement still had to beg from door to door seeking help for his many orphans.
In the church, Clement and his band of five Redemptorist priests and three lay Brothers began what they called the Perpetual Mission. Instead of having just a morning Mass in the church on a weekday, they had a full-scale mission every day of the year. You could attend St. Benno’s every day and know that you would hear five sermons in both German and Polish. There were three high Masses, the office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, public visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the Way of the Cross, vespers, prayer services, and litanies. And priests were available for confessions all hours of the day and night.
By the year 1800 the growth could be seen both in the work at the church and in the Redemptorist community. Reception of the sacraments jumped from 2,000 (in 1787) to over 100,000. The number of men serving at St. Benno’s had grown to 21 Redemptorist priests and seven lay brothers. There were also five novices and four Polish seminarians.
All this work was done under less than ideal conditions. The three partitions of Poland brought about great bloodshed. Kosciusco, the great Polish freedom fighter, had his moments of glory but the people could not hold off the foreign attackers indefinitely. The battles reached Warsaw during Holy Week of 1794. The Redemptorists, along with all the other residents of that city, found their lives to be in constant danger. Three bombs crashed through the roof of the church but did not explode. Throughout the battles, Clement and his companions preached peace. This only served to increase the cries of protest against the Redemptorists who were already labeled as traitors.
Almost from the start, they had been attacked on two fronts. Politically they were foreigners. They could mix with the people and do much good, holy, priestly work. They could care for hundreds of orphans, celebrate thousands of Masses, and bring tens of thousands closer to God, but the German Redemptorists remained a foreign element in a country that was constantly at war.
The other attack was even more painful. It was a personal attack by the people who turned from the Church of their baptism to become Freemasons. They met together in their secret groups to plot against the Catholics, to do harm to the priests, to stop public worship, and to close the churches.
The Redemptorists always had to be on the watch for ambushes. Their enemies lay in wait to pelt them with rocks or club them with sticks. On one occasion, death came to the door of the monastery in the form of a piece of meat. Someone donated a ham to the Fathers. Four priests died from ptomaine because of the poisoned meat. It was a terrible tragedy for Clement to endure. He saw the number of Redemptorists shrinking rather than growing. Providentially, four new men joined the community shortly after this incident, but Clement could never forget his murdered confreres.
Even more shattering to Clement was the death of Father Thaddeus Huebl, his classmate and dear friend. Huebl was called away on a phony sick call. Many hours later he was tossed out of a fast-moving carriage after having been tortured and beaten to a pulp. Several days later he died from his injuries. It hurt Clement deeply to see his friend pass from his life. Now he would have to march on alone.
The attacks continued. The Redemptorists became the butt of jokes in the theaters. The local Polish priests even tried to stop the work being done by the Redemptorists. After 20 years of building up the faith of the people in Warsaw, they were attacked, waylaid, and harassed. In 1806 a law was passed that forbade local pastors to invite the Redemptorists to preach missions in their parishes. This was followed by an even more restrictive law that stopped the Redemptorists from preaching and hearing confessions in their own church of St. Benno’s.
Clement appealed these actions directly to the King of Saxony who ruled Poland at that time. While this man knew the good that the Redemptorists were doing, he was powerless to stop the many Freemasons and Jacobins who wanted the Redemptorists out of Poland. The decree of expulsion was signed on June 9, 1808. Eleven days later, the Church of St. Benno’s was closed and the forty Redemptorists serving there were taken off to prison. They lived there for four weeks and then were ordered to return to their own countries.
Vienna: a New Start
In September 1808, after being exiled from Poland, Clement reached Vienna. He remained there until his death almost 13 years later. In 1809 when the forces of Napoleon attacked Vienna, Clement worked as a hospital chaplain caring for the many wounded soldiers. The archbishop, seeing Clement’s zeal, asked him to care for a little Italian church in the city of Vienna. He remained there for four years until he was appointed chaplain to the Ursuline Sisters in July 1813.
Attending to the spiritual welfare of the Sisters and the lay people who came to their chapel, Clement’s true holiness came even more to the fore. At that altar his reverence made it plain that he was a man of faith. In the pulpit he spoke the words that the people needed to hear. He preached so that they could see their sins, realize God’s goodness, and live their lives according to the will of God. But if he was a lion in the pulpit, Clement was a lamb in the confessional. He listened to the penitents’ sins, gave them a message of encouragement, asked God to pardon them, and sent them on their way.
In those early days of the 1800s, Vienna was a major European cultural center. Clement enjoyed spending time with the students and the intellectuals. Students came — singly and in groups — to his quarters to talk, share a meal, or get advice. A good many of them later became Redemptorists. He brought many rich and artistic people into the Church including Frederick and Dorothy von Schlegel (she was the daughter of Mendelssohn, the founder of the Romanticist school); Frederick von Klinkowstroem, the artist; Joseph von Pilat, the private secretary of Metternich; Frederick Zachary Werner, who was later ordained and became a great preacher; and Frederick von Held, who became a Redemptorist and later spread the Congregation as far as Ireland.
In Vienna Hofbauer again found himself under attack. For a short time he was prohibited from preaching. Then he was threatened with expulsion because he had been communicating with his Redemptorist Superior General in Rome. Before the expulsion could become official, Emperor Franz of Austria would have to sign it. At the time the Emperor was on pilgrimage to Rome, where he visited Pope Pius VII and learned how greatly the work of Hofbauer was appreciated. He also learned that he could reward Hofbauer for his years of dedicated service by allowing him to start a Redemptorist foundation in Austria.
So, instead of a writ of expulsion, Hofbauer got an audience with Emperor Franz. Quickly the plans were made. A church was selected and refurbished to become the first Redemptorist foundation in Austria. It was to be started without Clement, however. He took sick in early March 1820, and died on March 15 of that year. Like Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures, he had brought the people to the Promised Land but he himself did not live long enough to enter it. He died with the gratifying knowledge that his second dream had been fulfilled.
Clement Hofbauer was beatified on January 29, 1888, by Pope Leo XIII. He was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church on May 20, 1909. In 1914, Pope Pius X gave him the title of Apostle and Patron to Vienna. Today, more than 150 years after his death, the yearly feast of Saint Clement is remembered in a very special way by the people of Vienna and the six thousand priests and Brothers throughout the world who wear the Redemptorist habit just as Saint Clement did.
What made Clement Hofbauer a saint? He performed no miracles to dazzle us, received no visions or ecstasies to overawe us. He even had faults — a quick German temper, a tendency to be gruff. Yet, if we could have spent a few hours in his presence, we would have found him to be a man of unusually strong faith, a man of extraordinary calm and peace, and a man who could work tirelessly for souls.
Simplicity was the chief characteristic of his sanctity. He accepted the will of God as it came to him, and did all the good that he was capable of doing. He led a life of innocence and service devoting himself to glorifying God and drawing others to serve him. In the very simple way that he became holy, Saint Clement is a model for all people.