The focus of the Council of Constance was threefold: firstly it was to resolve the debacle of the Papal Schism that had limped along for the better part of 40 years, secondly, it was to deal with heresies, chief of which were the heresies propagated by Wycliffe and Huss. In dealing with the Papal Schism the issue at hand was to decide which of the three rival Popes, all claiming the right to the seat of St. Peter, was the true pope and in doing so to set up a single sovereign over the church of Rome thus uniting it and bringing an end to an era of division and humiliation. With regards to the charges of heresy the council began with Wycliffe, finding the deceased reformer to be a heretic and denouncing his writings to be the same they ordered that his bones be exhumed and burned, having done this they then turned their eyes to the heretic, Jan Hus.
Huss had traveled to Constance upon the promise of safe passage by the emperor and the Pope but this safety was short lived and at the command of the pope and cardinals he was thrown into prison. Sickly and enfeebled by the ghastly conditions in prison and weighted down with fetters, he appeared before Sigismund and his council in the Munster of Constance. His trial was long and arduous but he firmly maintained his position, denouncing the corruption of the hierarchy of Rome and when ordered to recant or to face a martyr’s death, with a quiet dignity he chose the latter.
They sent him back to prison to await his final sentencing and when he was brought back before the Council of Constance he stood unbowed and unashamed before Sigismund, who had promised him safe passage and had shamefully gone back on his word. He was given one more chance to recant or face death, to which, fixing his eyes on the Emperor he replied:
“I determined, of my own free will, to appear before this council, under the public protection and faith of the emperor here present.” All eyes turned to Sigismund as his betrayal of trust was revealed and historians note that the emperor flushed crimson with rage.
Huss was sentenced to death and in an awful show of spiritual and psychological warfare, he was told that his soul was committed to the devil, in effect issuing him a one-way ticket to hell. Huss, was unbowed, for he knew that it was Jesus and not the Pope, who held open the door that no man could shut.
Meanwhile, in Prague, Jerome had received news of Huss’s trial and left Prague for Constance in the hopes of offering Huss his help. Upon arrival, he found there was little that he could do on behalf of Huss and as he was returning to Prague and imprisoned in Constance. The martyrdom of Huss had not had led to an outcry among the people, largely due to the fact that he had been sacrificed in violation of an imperial safe conduct. To martyr Jerome in the midst of this was not advisable and he was kept imprisoned in Constance for a year.
He might as well have been relegated to the belly of hell and when he was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance a year later, pale, emaciated, plagued with doubt and riddled with illness his fortitude gave way leading him to recant. Instead of releasing him they sent him back to prison where the magnitude of his recantation hit him with full force.
He was overcome with grief for having denied Jesus and repenting, he resolved to stand his ground. When at last they summoned him before the council again he boldly declared that he could not recant and chose a martyr’s death.
Jerome’s story paints a striking picture of a man, once strong and zealous for the Lord who, under the pressure of trial and condemnation fell away from the faith he once held so close to his heart. It is a story of a man who is defeated but not destroyed and who at the eleventh hour chose to turn back and lay hold upon the cross he once shamefully spurned. Proverbs 24:16 tells us “for a just man falls seven times and rises up again”. If you find yourself having fallen away from the faith you once held so dear then please remember Jerome of Prague, pick yourself up, brush yourself off and come back home, because the best is yet to come.