The Bear and his mate visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois yesterday. (It's the only place around here you can find a good Reuben sandwich, among its other attractions.)
In the gift shop, the Bear's eye was caught by a doll of a crowned child. One hand held an orb, the other was raised in blessing. Little fancy garments were offered for sale alongside it. It was the Infant Jesus of Prague, of course, but beyond that the Bear knew little. He had seen a few in Catholic homes, usually under a glass dome. Frankly, they seemed weird and a little over-the-top.
After returning home, however, the Bear's mind kept returning to the innocent, if strange, image. Each time his thoughts rested on the Infant Jesus of Prague, his heart felt an unaccustomed lightness. The infancy, the childhood of Jesus, spent within the loving embrace of Mary and Joseph. Why not have a devotion to the Child Jesus? After all, many saints have. St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis, and Bernard of Clairvaux come to mind. That night, pleasant dreams followed, involving a baby.
How strange for a Bear to be touched by a dressed-up baby doll!
The origin of the Infant Jesus of Prague can be traced to Spain, where pious legend says it was once owned by St. Teresa of Avila. It came into the hands of a noble Spanish family, and was brought to Prague when a daughter of the family married a nobleman there. The woman's daughter later presented it to some Carmelite novices, and the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II provided funds for its honor and upkeep.
In 1630, the Protestant army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden rampaged through Prague and sacked the oratory where the Little King was installed. The statue was buried in trash, its hands broken off. Seven years later, Fr. Cyrillus is said to have been miraculously led to the statue. It remains to this day displayed in an elaborate shrine in Our Lady of Victory, Prague.
Like many Catholic devotions, it is surrounded by an extravagant growth of promises and reported miracles. Perhaps we have learned to be too cynical in our day as we believe our ancestors to have been too credulous.
The clothes are modeled on the fashions of 17th century aristocrats -- He may be a child, but He is a king, after all! They are often changed in keeping with the colors of the Church calendar.
The motto associated with the statue comes from Fr. Cyrillus' vision: "The more you honor me, the more I will bless you." The devotion was granted a plenary indulgence by Pope Leo XIII.