Msgr John Broadbent
St Nicholas was born near Sachselin in Unterwalden in 1417. It is said of him that ‘no religious figure in the history of Switzerland has given rise to so varied and voluminous a body of literature’.
From a farming family, Nicholas’ father also held a civil post in the canton. His mother belonged to a prominent Catholic movement called the Friends of God, rather like today’s Focolare Movement. Members led a stricter life constantly meditating on the passion of Our Lord and similar devotions, in pursuit of an especially close relationship with God.
With such a mother no wonder young Nicholas turned into a good living, peaceful and balanced person with a deep sense of the spiritual.
Despite his peace-loving disposition, Nicholas spent the usual term in the Swiss army and fought at the age of 22 for his canton against the neighbouring Canton of Zurich. Fourteen years later he again took up arms, this time as a captain. He went on to be a magistrate and judge, often representing his canton at meetings and showing remarkable wisdom and understanding.
He married a religious minded girl, Dorothea Wiseling, with whom he had 10 children. The eldest son, became governor of the canton before Nicholas died and the youngest studied at the University of Basle and became a diocesan priest.
Passing the night in prayer
Throughout his married life, Nicholas practised his ascetic exercises rising after a few hours sleep to pray. He would often go to the parish church or spend time in the forest near his home.
When he was 50, his wife did not oppose his desire to be a hermit and the Friends of God encouraged him, because many others had become hermits.
Later some hunters found him living under a tree. His brother Peter begged him to live in a proper hut, especially during the Swiss winter, and subsequently joined others in the canton to help him build a small hut with a chapel attached.
A sought-after counsellor
This they built on a lonely spot over a narrow gorge with the roaring of a mountain torrent in the valley below.
Nicholas spent 19 years in these peaceful surroundings in prayer and contemplation from midnight to midday.
In the afternoon he gave interviews to people from all over Switzerland who sought his advice. Because of his experience in politics and in trying to unite Switzerland’s cantons into one country, Nicholas was consulted by the great as well as the humble and poor.
In the great battles of Grandson, Morat and Nancy the Swiss gained their independence by defeating Charles the Bold, their overlord and master of the two Burgundies and almost the whole of Belgium.
As the cantons sometimes struggled over the independence agreement, the Edict of Stans, particularly where the booty from the battles was concerned, Nicholas was often consulted.
Civil war threatened over one particular sticking point and the bishop begged the cantons to send a deputation to Nicholas to ask him to arbitrate a settlement.
The deputation camped around Nicholas’ hut and he sketched out what was to become the model of the Swiss Confederation – some say it was drafted in his cell.
It was so strong that, at the time of the Reformation, some 60 years later, the Catholic and protestant cantons, after much fighting among themselves, could still unite and carry on the country of Switzerland.
Nicholas kept up his interviews to his death. One visitor said of him that ‘He praises and recommends obedience and peace and as he exhorted the Confederates to maintain peace, so does he exhort all who come to him to do the same.’
A surviving letter from his son John to the Canton of Bern thanks them for their gift in gratitude for what Nicholas had done for their country.
John writes that the money they sent provided a priest chaplain so Nicholas could have Mass every day which he had been without for a long time. It is interesting he could neither read nor write and gave his signature to any documents by inscribing a cross.
Nicholas died in 1487 and was buried in the parish church of Sachselin where his body still rests today under a black marble canopied altar.
His cultus as a saint was formally recognised in 1669 and he was canonised only in 1947.
‘Happy the peacemakers, God will call them his children.’ (Matt 5, 9). May we like St Nicholas pray to fulfil our vocation spreading peace wherever we are.