March 15: Feast of St. Clement Hofbauer


A Brief Account of The Life of St. Clement

1. The Time of St. Clement

Politically: in Clement Hofbauer’s lifetime (1751-1820), the political landscape of central and eastern Europe was quite different from what it is today. Poland did not exist – the country was divided up between Prussia, Russia and Austria. There was no Germany – only a number of larger German kingdoms existed side by side with a lot of small principalities. Austria was a great power and, under the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) and Joseph II (1780-90), culturally was at the forefront, the vanguard of Europe. This period also saw the French Revolution and Napoleon, truly a striking time.

Intellectually and Culturally, it was the age of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. In philosophy Germany led the way with Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schelling. In music Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven were Hofbauer’s contemporaries. Literature was dominated by Goethe – it was a brilliant era.

From the religious point of view, in Austria and central Europe, this period is characterised by the Enlightenment and the State Church. Joseph II suppressed many monasteries, though he also brought some new and worthwhile pastoral structures into being. Theology was searching for new ways of speaking to the intellectual currents of the age, only to have its attempts condemned by Rome. In Austria the Enlightenment was superseded by the Romantic Movement with – despite its “restoration” tendencies – did give rise to some new impulses. All in all, however, the religious world of that time was without power and quite without glory.

2. The Years preceding his entry into the Congregation (1751-1784)

Clement Hofbauer was born on the 26th December 1751, in the southern Moravian village of Tasswitz, now in the Czech Republic (some sixty miles north of Vienna). His father, Peter, a butcher, was Czech and his mother, Maria Steer was German. He was baptised as Johannes and was the ninth of twelve children and only six years old when his father died. The death of his father was traumatic experience for the boy and he never forgot the impact of his mother’s reaction. Maria took him to look at the crucifix and said that from now on Jesus must be his father.

Between 1767-1770 he became an apprentice baker. From 1770 to 1774, thanks to his cousin Johannes Jahn, he was an internal student at the abbey of the Norbertines of Klosterbruck. He became a hermit at Mühlfrauen, a Marian sanctuary, from 1775 to 1777. He also made many penitential pilgrimages to Rome. From 1777-1779 he was an assistant baker in Vienna under Meister Weyrig.

In 1779, he requested that he be allowed to become a hermit at Vöttau, but this was rejected by the administration. From 1780-81 Clement did a course in catechetics as a hermit. In 1782 emperor Joseph II suppressed the eremitic life in his realm. In 1783 Clement made yet another pilgrimage to Rome and approached the Bishop of Tivoli (later to become Pope Pius VII) for permission to become a hermit at Tivoli near Rome. It was here as a hermit that he took the name Clement. He enjoyed the quiet and prayerfulness of the hermitage at St. Mary of Quintiliolo. After six months Clement returned to Vienna to continue his studies at the University. It was here that he had the famous confrontation with his professor of Moral theology who was a Jansenist, Michael Domfort. It was during this time that Clement made friends with a Swiss Jesuit, Fr. Niklaus Josef A. von Diessbach (1732-1798). He had personally known Alphonsus Liguori and was a zealous disseminator of Alphonsus’ writings in Turin and in Vienna. It is most likely that Diessbach first introduced Clement to the writings of Alphonsus. The atmosphere in the Universities of Vienna was very much against religious orders and certain religious practices. The professors followed the line taken by Emperor Joseph II, nicknamed the Royal Sacristan because of his interference in church affairs. It was at the University of Vienna that Clement met Thaddeus Huebl, an impoverished student like Clement himself – although ten years younger. Thaddeus and Clement were to become close friends, apostles and missionaries together. In 1784 the Emperor laid down that all students in theology had to go to general seminaries. It was at this time, in the autumn, that Clement and Thaddeus went to Rome to complete their studies in theology.

3. Entry into the Congregation (1784-1785)

On reaching Rome Clement and Huebl found lodging near the great Basilica of St. Mary Major and resolved to go to Mass at the first Church whose bells they heard in the morning. This was San Giuliano, the Redemptorist house which was situated close to the present house of San Alfonso. This was the generalate where Father Di Paolo resided. It was here that on the 24th October 1784, they began their Novitiate. As novice master they had Fr. Landi, who had worked for over 30 years with Alphonsus and who was filled with enthusiasm for the Congregation and its work and had a great love for the founder. This was the sort of inspiration that Clement longed for. On 19 March 1785 Clement Hofbauer and Thaddeus Huebl took vows as Redemptorists and ten days later were ordained to the priesthood. Clement was 34 years old. The Superior General, Fr. De Paola, sent for the two Redemptorists who were in Frosinone completing their studies and found that they shared his plans for expansion: to return to Austria and establish the Redemptorist Congregation in northern Europe. Until such time the Redemptorists were only in southern Italy and the Papal states. Tradition states that Alphonsus, heard of the project with enthusiasm and said, “Believe me, the Congregation will endure to the Day of Judgement, for it is not my work, but the work of God. As long as I am alive, it will continue in obscurity and lowliness; but after my death it will spread its wings, especially in Northern countries.” In the autumn of 1785 Clement and Thaddeus set off for Vienna. They did a catechetical course there, but due to the suppression of monasteries and convents by Joseph II they could not set up their new unit in Vienna. They thus left Vienna for Warsaw in October 1786.

4. Clement in Warsaw (1787-1808)

Clement, Thaddeus and Emmanuel Kunzmann ( the first Redemptorist lay brother of northern Europe) reached Warsaw in Poland in February 1787, a city with a population of some 124,000. Poland had suffered many partitions during the wars between Austria, Prussia and Russia. Religion was at a low ebb, with hostile rulers and the depressing teachings of Jansenism rampant. At the request of the president of the German confraternity of St. Benno on the Vistula of Warsaw, and on the orders of King Stanislaus II Poniatowski (the former lover of Catherine II, empress of Russia), and with the acquiescence of the Apostolic Nuncio in Warsaw, Msgr. Saluzzo, and of Father Di Paola, Clement, Huebl and Kunzmann were welcomed and given charge of the German National Church of St. Benno’s. It was here that the extraordinary zeal and energy of Clement Hofbauer were first revealed. The church had been without a pastor since the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 and Clement undertook to set up a school for poor children and to serve the needs of the immigrant German population. The place was primitive, a hut to begin with, without furniture. The conditions were Spartan and Kunzmann was cook. They were viewed with suspicion by the locals as “Germans”. Clement was undeterred: “In this city we have children of different nationalities and creeds, German, Polish, Russian… The task is a gigantic one and leaves us very little time for rest.” He set up the “child Jesus Refuge” for children orphaned by the wars. “The child Jesus Refuge,” he said, “is the only institution here that not only receives orphans and poor children, but provides them with food, clothing and education as well.” He made sure they were taught a trade which would enable them to earn their livelihood when they left.

St. Benno’s in Warsaw was the first Redemptorist foundation outside Italy and the year was 1787 – the year St. Alphonsus died. These were years of European wars and Clement wrote of the horrors: “Hardly had we been freed from the siege by the Prussians when there followed another by the Russians, and while this latter did not last so long, it was more frightful in its consequences. At the storming of the suburb of Praga in Warsaw, more that 15,000 men, women and children were brutally massacred. Our house is built on the banks of the Vistula, which separates us from Praga; and so we had to be the unwilling witnesses of bloody scenes, enacted just across from St. Benno’s…”

Warsaw was under Russian rule for some 18 months. Then came another partition and Warsaw became Prussian for the next ten years. The Redemptorists meantime had won the affection of people of all races. Constant wars made clear, to Clement, that racial and political distinctions were of no significance – people mattered. All suffered in war. Soon there were more Polish people than Germans coming to St. Benno’s and it became the spiritual heart of the city. When they began at St. Benno’s in 1787 there were some 2,000 communions, by 1800 when the perpetual mission had begun the number had risen to 100,000.

“Our works”, Clement wrote to the Father General in 1800, “have been singularly blessed by God. As the government does not permit regular mission in the city, we have undertaken in our church what may be called a perpetual mission.” The perpetual mission at St. Benno’s is one of the most remarkable stories of apostolic zeal in the history of the church. Msgr. Litta, the Pope’s representative in St. Petersburg, wrote in 1800 to the Redemptorist General in Rome, “On my return from St. Petersburg I passed through Warsaw where I spent a month. I was delighted to find the Redemptorist foundation more flourishing than ever… Father Clement is the most apostolic man I have ever met… He works miracles with the grace of God. To give you an idea of his labours, I must tell you that the Church is thronged day after day from five in the morning till late at night; and from morning till night he is always hearing confession, or preaching, or saying mass, or giving instructions… I am not exaggerating. It is an extraordinary sight.” The Redemptorists delighted in the spectacular and colourful. People had been long deprived of the cheerful face of the Faith and they loved it. The Corpus Christi processions were an experience not to be missed. Great care was taken to prepare the ceremonies – candles, flowers, incense burning. The national colours dipped in salute to the Blessed Sacrament. The singing too was renowned. A large orchestra played at the mid-morning High Mass. Contemporary composers were heard, Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden. Their reputation grew and attracted many who were not Catholics. The sermons ranged over the whole of Catholic faith and morals. It was seen as a training in the schools of sanctity, working on the development of spirituality. Every year a special retreat was preached.

Clement was ahead of his time in many areas of the apostolate. He set up a classical school for prospective vocations and an Industrial School specifically for girls because, he said, “they have no chance of learning anything and are therefore so easily led astray.” This enterprise he was soon able to turn over to lay associates. He created ‘Oblates’ of the congregation, lay apostles of both sexes who were united in the mission of the Congregation through daily prayer, witnessing to their faith, and spreading spiritual literature. The oblates would meet regularly for conferences and discussion, perhaps in people’s homes. They exchanged ideas and shared experiences. Each person was encouraged to contribute their own suggestions and to say what had worked and what had not in making the gospel know. They would discuss which books were helpful in particular circumstances and for particular needs. There was a solidarity about the Oblates and burdens were shared. In 1804 Pope Pius VII approved the society and its statutes.

Postulants came to join the Bennonites (as they were called): Poles, Germans and French immigrants, the most celebrated of whom was on Joseph Passerat.

In 1793 the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer was approved by the Polish Government, through the parliament of Grodno “semel pro semper” (once and forever).

In 1794 Warsaw was occupied by the Russians and in 1795, by the Prussians. Poland had ceased to exist. So from 1787-95 there was a period of great activity at St. Benno’s and Clement never left the town. From 1796-1806 he dedicated himself to founding the Congregation in Southern Germany, the only region free, for a short time, from the confusion caused by the revolutionary wars and those of the Empire. The following places appear in the life of St. Clement: Wollerau, Mount Thabor near Jestetten (1802-1805), and Babenhausen. Pastoral activity was intense everywhere.

However, failure was also obvious. All Clement’s efforts failed one after the other. In November 1806 the French troops entered Warsaw. In 1808 the Bennonites, 17 priests, 10 students and 9 brothers were expelled by the King of Saxony, the Grand Duke of Warsaw, on the orders of Napoleon. Finally at daybreak on 20 June, 1808, the carriages were escorted out by the military, bearing 40 religious, of whom 20 were priests. They were imprisoned for a month at Küsterin, and then each of them was allowed to return to his own country. Clement arrived in Vienna at the end of September 1808. He was to stay there, except for a few visits to shrines of Mary, until his death.

5. Clement finally in Vienna (1808-1820)

At the outset, Clement worked in obscurity at the church of the Minorites, replacing the rector of the National Church of Italy who was ill. He heard confessions also in the Capuchin Church am Platzl where the community of Armenian Melchite monks – formerly quite unknown in Vienna – had been installed in 1810. In 1813 the Archbishop, Sigismond de Hohenwart, named him confessor of the Ursulines and Rector of St. Ursula’s Church in Johannesgasse. The church was a “nebenkirche”, i.e. an auxiliary church, following the legislation of Joseph II. Clement organised the liturgy with High Masses, but more than anything else he preached, and very soon received an order from the government prohibiting him from preaching for a year. He had the habit of saying, “The Gospel must be preached in a new way.” He heard confessions frequently, and attended the sick, the dying and the poor, especially in the suburbs where there was already an urban proletariat.

Clement inaugurated new methods in pastoral ministry. He introduced himself to numerous families where he had great influence. He set up a lending library, permission for which was given as an exception by the emperor Francis I. He was responsible for the publication of a cultural revue of high quality called The Olive Branch.

Clement was inspired by a great ecumenical spirit and he laid the foundations for the development of an authentic freedom of conscience. Within his circle of friends he was responsible for many conversions from Protestantism, such as the families of Schlegel, Pilat, Klinkowström, A. Müller, and Zacharias Werner. During the Congress of Vienna he worked unceasingly to block a plan, proposed by Wessenberg, to create a German National Church independent of Rome. The crown prince of Bavaria, the future Ludwig I, wanted to meet him.

More important for Vienna and for Austria were the relationships that Clement developed with the Viennese romantics: Friedrich Schlegel, Adam Müller, the dramatist Zacharias Werner so esteemed by Goethe, Joseph von Eichendorff, Klinkowström, Joseph von Pilat, the editor-in-chief of Osterreichischer Beobachter, and Clement Brentano. Clement became the spiritual guide of these Viennese romantics. Catholic romanticism, and the movement of Catholic reform against Illuminism, mutually supported each other.

The intellectual life of Vienna was concentrated in the different circles of Schlegel and of Széchényi. Clement Hofbauer was at home everywhere. But especially characteristic of his apostolate were the soirées where he grouped around him not only the romantics but the professors of the university of Vienna, students, especially those of the faculty of law, and young people. These reunions with Clement were occasions of deep discussion on all cultural and religious subjects. “It was from there on,” wrote Hermann Bahr, “that Austria became Catholic again.” Clement’s activity influenced all the Viennese and Austrian Catholic intelligentsia.

Most importantly, Clement Hofbauer achieved the implantation of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in his own country. The police, having discovered that he was part of an Order not authorised in Austria, put before him the alternative of leaving his Order or emigrating. The Archbishop of Vienna intervened on his behalf before the Emperor. During his visit to Rome at Easter 1818, the Emperor heard Pius VII give a eulogy of Clement, whom he called “the ornament of the clergy of Vienna”. The Emperor wanted to repair the injustice done to Clement by authorising the Congregation. In August, the Emperor discussed the question with Clement himself. The authorization was granted on the death of Clement, on 15 March 1820. This was not the last great joy for Clement. However, the imperial decree was not signed until 19 April 1820. Ever since 1780 monasteries had only been suppressed; this was the first religious Congregation to be approved during the forty years since 1780. The Church of Sancta Maria am Gestade became the centre of Catholic reform and of the expansion of the Congregation beyond the Alps.

The removal of the mortal remains of Clement from the cemetery of the romantics of Maria Enzersdorf to the church of Sancta Maria am Gestade marked the beginning of the process of canonization. Declared Blessed in 1888, Clement was canonized by Pius X on 20 May 1910, and declared the second patron of Vienna in 1914.


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