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Jan Hus - 600 years on

6 July 2015 marks the 600th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus in Konstanz on the shores of Lake Constance in southern Germany. A century before Martin Luther and two hundred years before the split between Catholicism and Protestantism was to tear central Europe apart, Hus and his followers maintained that Jesus Christ, not the pope, was the head of the church. Hus fiercely criticised ethical abuses amongst the church hierarchy and condemned monetary exploitation of parishioners by their priests. Inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe (1331-1384), an English theologian and reformer who had translated the Bible from Latin into English, Hus also believed that lay people should read the holy scriptures and pray in their own language.
Before being ordained as a priest in 1400, Hus studied at the University of Prague where he earned his Master's degree in 1396. Over the coming years, as a preacher at the newly built Bethlehem Chapel in Prague and in his position as rector of his old university, Hus continued to criticise the church and the abuses of power that were common at the time. He rejected the idea of indulgences - documents of personal forgiveness from the pope that were sold by the clergy to raise money - and questioned the notion of papal infallibility that had entered medieval theology.

In a move that was to come to symbolise the movement, Hus maintained that all persons, not only clergy, should be allowed to receive both parts of the communion - bread and wine. According to Catholic practice at this time, only the priest was allowed to partake of the wine - the 'blood of Christ'. At a time of great upheaval in the Western Church, with different individuals claiming the papacy, Hus' radical thinking quickly came under the spotlight of church authorities leading to his excommunication in 1410 as part of a larger purge of Wycliffe-inspired radical thinking.

As tensions between different claimants to the papacy rattled Europe and Prague, now a hotbed of 'heretical' thinking and insubordination, a council was called at Konstanz for November 1414. The council's main aim was to reconcile the different factions within the Catholic Church and to elect a single pope to represent the entire church. At the same time, Hus was invited to Konstanz to defend his ideas in front of assembled bishops. For his journey to the council he was given a safe-conduct by Sigismund, King of Hungary and head of the Holy Roman Empire.

Yet a few weeks after his arrival in the city, during which he had been preaching and celebrating Mass, Hus was imprisoned under the pretext that he was planning to flee. Though he declared himself ready to recant his views if they were proven to him to be erroneous he was pressured to confess that he had erred in his ideas, that he would fully renounce them and that he would declare the opposite to what he had been teaching until that point. Unwilling to speak against his conscience Hus was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to die at the stake.

Upon being encouraged to recant one last time by the imperial marshal tasked with carrying out his sentence, Hus is said to have exclaimed: 'God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.' Another anecdote has Hus proclaim at his execution that 100 years after him, a man would rise whose teachings could not be suppressed, thus presaging Luther.

Björn Steinz has been to the major sites that defined Hus life and the history of his movement which continued to resist papal authority and fought for the coming two centuries to maintain his teachings.
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