The Paulines Celebrate 750 Years: (Első Remete Szent Pál Rendje)

Charles Balintitt Jr.

The Paulines Celebrate 750 Years: (Első Remete Szent Pál Rendje)

Pauline church of Márianosztra, copy of miraculous picture of Czestochowa sent to Márianosztra; entrance to the Sziklatemplom in Budapest, main altar in Sziklatemplom; map showing the Line of Demarcation as established by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

From the earliest period of Christianity some Christians were drawn to the hermit life.  This is probably a result of the way Jesus began his ministry, which is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  After he was baptized by John, Jesus went into the wilderness: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.  He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  (Mark 1:12-13).

Probably the first, as well as the most prominent of the Christian hermits was Saint Paul of Thebes.  As a teenager he fled from Thebes (the ruins of the city are in present-day Luxor, Egypt) to the desert near the Red Sea to avoid the persecution of Christians in Egypt by the Roman emperor Decius in the year 250.  He ended up living out his life in a mountain cave near a spring and a palm tree, which was his main sustenance, until a raven began bringing him bread when he was 43 years old.  Shortly before he died, at the approximate age of 113, he was visited by Saint Anthony the Great of Egypt.  Not long after this Anthony returned for a second visit and found Paul dead.  Legend has it that Anthony buried him there with two lions helping him dig the grave.

Halfway through the Middle or Dark Ages there was an increase in the acceptance of eremitical monasticism as a way to salvation.  For example, in the late 11th century, Peter the Hermit of Amiens, France led the People’s Crusade to the Holy Land.  The most notable of the Hungarian hermits was Özséb (Eusebius).

Blessed Özséb of Esztergom, Hungary was born at the turn of the 13th century.  He came from a rich family and studied to become a priest.  During the time of his ministry, he met numerous hermits from the Pilis Mountains.  In 1246, about four years after the first Mongol invasion of Hungary, Özséb received permission from his bishop to become a hermit.  A few years later he had a vision of small flames, representing the individual hermits (see our header), and felt a call to gather the hermits in the area to form a monastery.  He immediately went about doing this,  uniting certain individual hermits along with another group of hermits, who had formed a monastery at Jakab-hegy (Jacob’s Hill) in 1225.  As a result of these efforts, in 1250, one thousand years after Paul entered his cave, Özséb founded the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit.  The Pauline Order is the only monastic order founded in Hungary and it is still in existence today.

Novices were always told: "You are here to pray and do penance not only for yourself, but also for your Hungarian homeland and people."

In 1262, Özséb travelled to Rome to get the approval of Pope Urban IV for his new monastic order.  In doing so, he had the approval not only of the first Hungarian Cardinal, Báncsa István (the bishop who allowed him to become a hermit), but that of Saint Thomas Aquinas as well.  Özséb died on January 20th, 1270 in the cloister of Szentkereszt (Holy Cross), in the first of 16 monasteries established during his 20 years as leader of this fellowship.  The final approval for the Order of Saint Paul from the Holy See came 38 years later, on December 13, 1308, when Cardinal Gentile Portino da Montefiore went to Hungary as the envoi of Pope Clement V.

In 1382, King Louis the Great sent his nephew, László of Opeln to found a hilltop monastery at Jasna Góra, Poland where a small wooden church already existed.  Accompanied by 16 Pauline monks from the monastery of Márianosztra, they brought with them the painting which became known as Our Lady of Czestochowa, or the Black Madonna.

The first entirely Hungarian translation of the Bible (1456) is attributed to the Pauline monk Bátori László (1420-1456).  It was numbered among the Corvinas of King Mátyás, but unfortunately disappeared in the turbulent Turkish times that followed.

Before becoming Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia had been Bishop of Eger and Abbot at Pétervárad, and knew the Paulines well.  So it may be understandable that, as Pope (1492-1503), he entrusted the Christianization of the New World to the Hungarian Pauline Order. (Detailed information about 300 traveling Paulines was recorded in the “Archivo de las Indias” in Cadiz.)

The same Pope asked the Paulines to use astronomical methods to draw up a Line of Demarcation between the two contending colonial powers, Spain and Portugal.  As a result of their work, the Pope issued the bull “Inter caetera”, followed by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, by which Spain and Portugal divided the world among themselves.  A circle of latitude was drawn 371 leguas (1 legua equaled 3.5 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands, with areas east of this line granted to Portugal, and those west of it to Spain.  (Eventually, due to pressure by the King of Portugal, this line was moved toward the 46th degree of longitude.)

The bull “Los Reyes Catholicos” published by Pope Alexander VI in 1501, meted out justice in relation to the newly conquered areas, and ordered the spread of Christianity to the New Indies by the Paulines.

The Pauline Order went on to have over 170 monasteries in Hungary at one time, while also spreading out to other countries including Germany, Poland and Sweden.  Their high point came around the beginning of the 16th century when they were present in about 300 locations in numerous countries.  But many of them suffered greatly and their numbers were diminished due to world events, such as the invasion of the Turks, the defeat of Hungary in the Battle of Mohács in 1526, and the subsequent occupation of the country for 150 years.  Márianosztra, which once had accommodated 300 monks, was also destroyed.  Rebuilding began only in 1711.

The General Secretary of the Paulines, Father Cipriano of Laskir, had a copy painted of the miraculous image of Czestochowa.  To transfer its grace and power, the copy was touched to the original before being sent to Hungary, and miracles of healing have been recorded in Márianosztra as well.

Then came the Protestant Reformation, and later on, in 1786, Habsburg ruler Joseph II closed all religious houses, including Márianosztra.  For 72 years, the monastery stood empty, and then was turned into a women’s prison.  Under Communist rule, it became a men’s penitentiary, having Cardinal Mindszenty József as one of its inmates for a while.

According to Pázmány Péter, the 16th-17th century Jesuit theologian, the fate of Hungary was tied to the Paulines:  If they prospered, so would the country; if not, the country would go into decline as well. 

Today there are about 70 some odd monasteries scattered in about 16 countries with a total of over 500 monks worldwide.  Probably the most famous site outside of Hungary is the Polish Monastery of Our Lady of Jasna Góra in Czestochowa, Poland. 

One of the current Hungarian locations for the Pauline monks is the Gellért Hill Cave in Budapest, which is also known as Saint Ivan’s Cave.  Saint Ivan was also a hermit, who was known to have healed the sick with the thermal spring water found in front of his cave.  This is the current source of the famous thermal baths of the Gellért Hotel.

The cave was reconstructed and expanded by the Pauline monks in the 1920’s.  This lasted until 1951, when the Communist government outlawed monastic orders in Hungary.  The cave was raided and the head of the order, Vezér Ferenc, was condemned to death, while the other monks were sentenced to 5 to 10-year prison terms and the cave was sealed.  The cave was reopened almost immediately after the fall of Communism in 1989.  After a three-year restoration period the Pauline monks returned.  The cave once again served as a chapel and monastery, as well as a tourist attraction.  It is also known as the Chapel in the Rock (Sziklakápolna) or Gellért Hill Rock Church (Gellért-Hegyi sziklatemplom).  The cave was made in the image of Lourdes and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  The actual name of the church is Our Lady of Hungary Rock Church (Magyarok Nagyasszonya-sziklatemplom).

The cave where Blessed Özséb had his vision to form the Pauline Order can be found in the town of Pilisszentkereszt, about 20 miles northwest of Budapest.  If not for the worldwide pandemic, this would have been a good year to visit, since 2020 has officially been proclaimed as the year of Blessed Özséb in Hungary in honor of the 750th anniversary of his death.

It is interesting to note that although he has been known as Blessed Özséb in Hungary for many centuries, he was only officially beatified on February 8th, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.  His feast day is on January 20th.

Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.