by Marc and Julie Anderson
LEAWOOD — He doesn’t collect them.
After all, he explained, one collects baseball cards or Beanie Babies.
Nevertheless, Chuck Smrt, a parishioner of Curé of Ars in Leawood, has at least 16 different statues of the Infant Jesus of Prague, more commonly known as the Infant of Prague.
The original Infant Jesus of Prague is a small statue dating back to the 17th century. It is just 19” tall, and is made of wood, wax and cloth. But replicas of it come in all shapes and sizes, and feature the Infant Jesus dressed in royal robes and wearing a king’s crown. (For more on the origin and history of the devotion, see below.)
Most of Smrt’s statues have come as gifts from family and friends in response to his strong devotion to the Infant Jesus.
In recent years, Smrt said his desire to help others foster a similar devotion has grown considerably. He’s been mulling over ideas, and he’s even considering sharing some of his statues.
“If someone needs an Infant, I’d love to give it to them,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t want to have a bunch of Infants on a shelf.”
Still, there are some he’ll keep, especially the one from his “Gram.”
“My grandmother had that Infant on the TV,” he recalled. “So, we would go over there for all these different functions on Sunday afternoons, and all of the guys would go into the living room to watch TV. That Infant sat there all those years. So, I grew up seeing that Infant.”
After his grandmother died, the statue passed to an uncle. Later, his uncle gave it to him. The statue is at least 80 or 90 years old, if not older.
Shortly thereafter, Smrt’s wife Gina received another statue — one made from wax. Like his grandmother’s statue, it, too, had been a cherished possession of Gina’s aunt. Around that same time in 1995, the couple made a pilgrimage to Prague. It was there that Smrt found his devotion soared, literally and figuratively.
The original statue stands around 18.5 inches tall and sits high atop an altar in the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.
“If you’re in that church, you’re there for one reason,” Smrt said.
Sister Mary Rosaleen Driscoll, SCL, agreed.
Like Smrt, she, too, has a devotion to the Infant of Prague. In 2017, parishioners at Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish, where she lives in Topeka, surprised her and her niece with a trip to Poland and the Czech Republic in honor of her 70th anniversary as a nun.
“It was awesome,” she said of seeing the Infant. As she recalled the memory of being before the Infant statue, her face lit up with joy.
Likewise, Smrt said he recalls being utterly awed in the presence of that original statue, a statue which by all accounts, dates back to at least the 1500s.
“It was very emotional,” he said
Several years ago, Smrt battled cancer. He’s been cancer-free for three years, something he attributes to the Infant Jesus.
In fact, after he was declared free of cancer, he invited everyone who had prayed for him to Saturday morning Mass at Holy Trinity in Lenexa, where he and his family had belonged for many years. After Mass, Smrt treated everyone to breakfast and shared information about the Infant Jesus, bringing along some of his precious statues. Nowadays, he is asking the Infant to help him lead others to a devotion to the Christ Child.
As the church celebrates the birth of Christ at this time of year, Sister Mary Rosaleen and Smrt said it’s natural for people to think of the Christ Child, but it’s something they do every day.
In Sister Mary Rosaleen’s case, she started the practice more than 60 years ago.
In the early 1950s, the nun was placed in charge of the pediatrics ward of St. Vincent Hospital in Billings, Montana.
“They had a statue there of the Infant,” she said. “And I think when I really, really knew how powerful he was, I had three children with tracheotomies that I was taking care of in the ward, and it was life or death for them.”
Two of the boys were brothers, suffering the effects of smoke inhalation due to a house fire. A third boy had been stepped on the throat by a horse.
“So, I had three very, very critically ill children,” she added, and knew she desperately needed divine assistance.
“We had a beautiful statue in the hallway, and I took it out of the hallway and put it in their room,” she continued. “That’s when I really found out about the Infant. As much as I could, I made the nine-hour novena, and all of them survived. All of them got to go home. And so, I attribute that to the Infant.”
Witnessing the boys’ recovery, Sister Mary Rosaleen said she fell in love with the Infant and attributes a lot of answered prayers to his intercession. To this day, she never passes by a statue of the Infant without offering him affection.
“When I go by the Infant, I try to give him a little love because he’s so special,” she said.
Devotion intertwined with Czech history
Most experts agree knowing the exact history of the Infant of Prague is not as important as honoring the Christ Child. Still, its history helps explain the devotion and its prevalence among Czech communities such as Chuck Smrt’s hometown of North Judson, Indiana.
1500s — A statue of the Child Jesus originates in Spain. Accounts differ as to whether the Infant Jesus appears in a vision to a monk who fashions the statue based on his vision or whether St. Teresa of Avila owns the statue.
1556 — The statue of the Infant Jesus is brought to Prague by the Spanish Duchess Marie Manriquez de Lcara who married Vrastislav of Pernstein. The duchess later gives the statue to her daughter Polyxena as a wedding present.
1628 — Polyxena donates the statue to the monastery of Discalced Carmelites at the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The Carmelites place the statue in the novitiate chapel and pray for the monks to learn the virtues of the Christ Child.
1631 — During a siege of Prague, the Carmelites flee the monastery. The monastery is plundered, and the statue is discarded.
1637 — Father Cyril of the Mother of God returns to Prague and finds the statue in a pile of junk with both its arms missing. During prayer he hears Jesus say, “Have mercy on me, and I will have mercy on you. Give me my arms, and I will give you my peace. I will bless you as much as you will venerate me!” Eventually, the monk has new arms made for the Infant Jesus.
1641 — The statue is moved to a chapel in the church for public veneration.
1651 — The Infant is carried in processions throughout the city of Prague.
1655 — The bishop of Prague crowns the statue.
1741 — Due to increasing crowds, the statue is relocated to the main church.
1754 — Empress Marie Terezie donates an embroidered robe to the Infant Jesus. Veneration of the Infant spreads throughout the former countries of the Austrian Empire.
1784 — Josef II launches a campaign against monasteries and religion. The Carmelite monastery is abolished, and the church as well as the altar of the Infant Jesus suffer from decay.
1879 — The Infant Jesus makes a pilgrimage through Prague’s convents. Monies raised from the pilgrimage pay for the altar’s restoration, and veneration to the Infant Jesus is revived. Stories of miracles stream in from throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
1896 — Pope Leo XIII officially approves the devotion to the image
Early 1900s — Veneration of the Infant Jesus spreads throughout the world, especially in Spain and Portugal. Missionaries cultivate a love for the Infant in India, China, the Philippines and North America.
1924 — Pope Pius XI grants the first canonical coronation of the Infant Jesus of Prague.
1928 — Celebrations mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Infant Jesus in Prague.
1939 – 1989 — Nazi and Communist regimes silence veneration of the Infant Jesus.
1993 — The Discalced Carmelites return to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, and with them, a renewed interest in and devotion to the Infant Jesus.
2009 — Pope Benedict XVI visits Prague, offering a crown as a present for the Infant.
A prayer to the Infant Jesus of Prague
Prayer offered by Pope Benedict in his crowning of the Infant in Prague in 2009:
O my Lord Jesus, we gaze on you as a child and believe that you are the Son of God, who became man through the working of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Just as in Bethlehem, we, too, adore you, with Mary, Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, and acknowledge you as our only Savior. You became poor to enrich us with your poverty. Grant that we may never forget the poor and all those who suffer. Protect our families, bless all the children of the world and grant that the love you have brought us may always reign among us and lead us to a happier life. Grant, O Jesus, that all may recognize the truth of your birth, so that all may know that you have come to bring to the whole human family light, joy and peace. You are God, who live and reign with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.