I don’t know why I’ve always liked the name Hedwig… it’s actually kind of a weird one. I find it intriguing, unusual and pretty all at the same time. My love for the name was then solidified by the Harry Potter books when he used the name for his beloved pet owl (who — not by coincidence was chosen by author J.K. Rowling because St. Hedwig is the patron saint of orphans).
Today’s feast celebrates a different saint who shares the same name. This particular Hedwig was a polish princess who was betrothed as an infant to the heir of the Hapsburg dynasty, Willhelm. Her family sent her to Vienna to grow up and be educated alongside her future husband, but when her father died, she returned to Poland as their “king.” The Polish nobles, concerned with the future of their country, proposed another betrothal. His name was Jagiello, and was the grand-duke of Lithuania. Though he was a pagan, and much less prestigious than Willhelm, he was more concerned with the good of Poland, a place of little importance to the Hapsburg Dynasty.
Hedwig was torn… she was only 12 years old. Jagiello was over twice her age (26) and a pagan. Marrying him would change everything about her life, and everything she had been preparing for. Though Poland was her homeland, Vienna was very much a home– and Wilhelm was the treasured companion of her youth. She took the matter to the royal chapel, and knelt before the crucifix in prayer for hours. There she found clarity and strength, and agreed to marry the duke.
Jagiello was faithful to his promises. He was baptized and promoted Catholicism within his lands. Hedwig also focused on the spreading of the faith, building churches, donating liturgical ornaments and founding a college of Psalmists (their task was to provide perpetual praise within the cathedral of Krakow). Their marriage resulted in the centuries-long union between their two countries. Four years later, she died after giving birth to a premature daughter. In her will, she instructed that her fortune be used to restore Poland’s first university, now known as Jagiellonian University. About 500 years later… a very famous Pole graduated from this school: the future Pope John Paul II. It was during his papacy that Hedwig was beatified and canonized (1997).
I always find stories like this so amazing because ironically, Hedwig’s holiness was so ordinary. Beyond the difficult and admirable decision she made to marry the grand-duke, there was nothing that Hedwig accomplished that cannot be emulated by every single Christian. She served God and the people around her. She was faithful and generous– even in death. These little acts slowly changed the world– in a ripple effect. The initial change that result from her decision was the one that affected her own life… marrying a stranger and moving away from her most familiar home. She sacrificed her own comfort. This “ripple” affected her new husband, who was baptized. His “ripple” spread to his own lands and peoples– no doubt creating many ripples within all his subjects. Poland experienced this holy outpouring as well… and the ripples continued for hundreds of years… reaching all the way to our beloved JPII- who’s life was more of a “wave” than a “ripple.”
The effect of one ordinary life is actually quite extraordinary…