September 2, 2017: ST. STEPHEN, KING OF HUNGARY
September 2, 2017: ST. STEPHEN, KING OF HUNGARY, CONFESSOR
“I will compare him to a wise man, who built his house
on a solid rock.”
(St. Matth, vii. 24)
Grant, to thy Church, O Almighty God, that as blessed Stephen thy Confessor, while he reigned on earth, did enlarge her bounds, so being now glorious in heaven, he may be her protector. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Let us read the history of the apostolic king, as given in the book of holy Church.
Stephen introduced into Hungary both the faith of Christ and the regal dignity. He obtained his royal crown from the Roman Pontiff; and having been, by his command, anointed king, offered his kingdom to the apostolic See. He built several houses of charity at Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople; and with a wonderfully munificent spirit of religion, he founded the archiepiscopal See of Gran and ten other bishoprics. His love for the poor was equaled only by his generosity towards them; for, seeing in them Christ himself, he never sent anyone away sad or empty handed. So great indeed was his charity, that, to relieve their necessities, after expending large sums of money, he often bestowed upon them his household goods. It was his custom to wash the feet of the poor with his own hands, and to visit the hospitals at night, alone and unknown, serving the sick and showing them every charity. As a reward for these good deeds his right hand remained incorrupt after death, when the rest of his body had returned to dust.
He was much given to prayer: and would spend almost entire nights without sleep, rapt in heavenly contemplation; at times he was seen ravished out of his senses, and raised in the air. By the help of prayer, he more than once escaped in a wonderful manner from treasonable conspiracies and from the attacks of powerful enemies. Having married Ghisella of Bavaria, sister of the emperor St. Henry, he had by her a son Emeric, whom he brought up in such regularity and piety as to form him into a saint. He summoned wise and holy men from all parts to aid him in the government of his kingdom, and undertook nothing without their advice. In sack cloth and ashes, he besought God with most humble prayer, that he might not depart this life without seeing the whole kingdom of Hungary Catholic. So great indeed was his zeal for the propagation of the faith, that he was called the apostle of his nation, and he received from the Roman Pontiff, both for himself and for his successors, the privilege of having the cross borne before them.
He had the most ardent devotion towards the Mother of God, in whose honour he built a magnificent church, solemnly declaring her patroness of Hungary. In return the blessed Virgin received him into heaven on the very day of her Assumption, which the Hungarians, by the appointment of their holy king, call ‘the day of the great Lady.’ His sacred body, exhaling a most fragrant odour and distilling a heavenly liqueur, was, by order of the Roman Pontiff, translated, amidst many and divers miracles, to a more worthy resting-place, and buried with greater honour. Pope Innocent XI commanded his feast to be celebrated on the fourth of the Nones of September; on which day, Leopold I emperor elect of the Romans and king of Hungary, had, by the divine assistance, gained a remarkable victory over the Turks at the siege of Buda.
Life of St. Stephen, King of Hungary
Geysa, the fourth duke of the Hungarians, by conversing with certain Christian captives, and afterwards with certain holy missionaries, as Piligrinus, Bishop of Passaw, St. Wolfgand, Bishop of Ratisbon, &c, or their disciples, became infinitely delighted with the sanctity of the maxims of our holy faith, and was convinced of its divine truth and original by the motives and arguments which are, as it were, the stamp which God has put upon his revelation in order to confirm it to us. And though he had reason to fear great disturbances from the ferocity of his people upon a change of religion, he despised such dangers, and was baptized together with his wife Sarloth, and several of his officers and courtiers. Sarloth was so penetrated with the wonderful mysteries of religion, and so strongly affected with the great ideas of eternity, that she walked in the paths of heroic perfection with a fervour not inferior to that of the saints. Being sometime after with child, she was assured by St. Stephen, the protomartyr, in a dream, that she bore in her womb a son who should complete the work she and her husband had begun, and abolish idolatry in that nation. The child was born in 977 at Gran, the ancient Strigonium, at that time the metropolis of the country, and on account of the above mentioned vision was christened Stephen. St. Adalbert, Bishop of Prague, who for some time preached the gospel to the Hungarians, and, according to the German historians, baptized St. Stephen, had certainly no small share in the honour of his education, and Theodatus, an Italian count of singular piety, was his tutor; these two holy persons, by their example and instructions were, under God, the great instruments of his future sanctity. Geysa died in 997, and Stephen, who had been chosen waywode, that is, leader of the army or duke, sometime before, then took the reins of the government into his hands.
His first care was to settle a firm peace with all the neighbouring nations. This being done, he turned his thoughts wholly to root out idolatry, and as much as in him lay to make Christ reign in the hearts of all his subjects. Performing himself the part of a missionary, he often accompanied the preachers, and pathetically exhorted his people to open their eyes to the divine truth. Many, however, were so obstinately attached to the superstitions of their ancestors as to take up arms in defence of idolatry: and having at their head a count of great interest and valour, named Zezzard, with a numerous army, they laid siege to Vesprin. St. Stephen placed his confidence in the Lord of Hosts, and prepared himself for the engagement by fasting, almsdeeds, and prayer, invoking particularly the intercession of St. Martin and St. George. Though inferior to the rebels in the number of his forces, by the divine assistance, he gave them a total overthrow, and slew their leader.
The zealous prince founded the archbishopric of Gran or Strigonium, and ten bishoprics, and sent Astricus or Anastasius, the new elected Bishop of Coloctz, to Rome, to obtain of Pope Sylvester II the confirmation of these foundations, and of many other things which he had done for the honour of God and the exaltation of his holy church; and, at the same time, to beseech his holiness to confer upon him the title of king, which his subjects had long pressed him to assume, and which he now only asked to satisfy their desires, and that he might with more majesty and authority accomplish his great designs for promoting the glory of God, and the good of his people. Miceslas, Duke of Poland, upon marrying a Christian princess, the daughter of Boleslas, Duke of Bohemia, had embraced the faith in 965. About thirty-four years after this, he sent an embassy to Rome to obtain the title of king, confirmed to him by the authority of the apostolic see. Sylvester II, who was then pope, was disposed to grant his request, and prepared a rich crown to send him with his blessing. But the extraordinary zeal, piety, and wisdom of St. Stephen deserving the preference, his holiness delivered this crown for him to his ambassador, Astric, together with the present of a cross, granting by a special privilege, that it should be carried before him in his armies. At the same time he, by a bull, confirmed all the religious foundations which our holy prince had made, and the elections of the bishops. St. Stephen went to meet his ambassador upon his return, listened standing, with great respect, to the pope's bulls whilst they were read, and fell on his knees as often as the name of his holiness was repeated.
The good prince, by a public act, and with extraordinary devotion, declared that he put all his dominions under the special patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and never ceased most earnestly offering his daily prayers to implore her powerful intercession for obtaining the divine blessing upon all his subjects. “Whence, in many medals and coins of this kingdom she is styled patroness of Hungary. It is incredible with what ardour the king exhorted his people, especially his domestics, to the practice of all virtues. With a view to propagate on earth the divine honour and praise beyond his own life, and to the end of time, he filled Hungary with pious foundations. At Alba he built a stately church in honour of the Mother of God, in which the kings of Hungary were afterwards both crowned and buried.
St. Stephen, who would seek no alliance but by which piety might be strengthened in his realm and family, took to wife Gisela, sister to St. Henry, King of Germany, who was shortly after crowned emperor; and that holy prince admirably seconded and assisted our saint in all his pious designs. St. Stephen abolished many barbarous and superstitious customs derived from the ancient Scythians, and by severe punishments repressed blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery, and other public crimes. To put a stop to incontinence and idolatry he commanded all persons to marry except religious and churchmen, and forbade all marriages of Christians with idolaters. He was of most easy access to people of all ranks, and listened to every one's complaints without distinction or preference, except that he appeared most willing to hear the poor, knowing them to be more easily oppressed, and considering that in them we honour Christ, who being no longer among men on earth in his mortal state to receive from us any corporal services, has substituted and recommended to us the poor in his place and right. The good king provided for their subsistence throughout his whole kingdom, and took them, especially the helpless orphans and widows, under his special protection, declaring himself their patron and father. Not content with his general charities and care for all the indigent, he frequently went privately about to discover more freely the necessities of any that might be overlooked by his officers. One day it happened that, whilst he was dealing about his plentiful alms in disguise, a troop of beggars set upon him, threw him down, beat him, plucked him by the beard and hair, and took away his purse, seizing for themselves what he intended for the relief of many others. The king esteemed himself happy to suffer in the service of his Redeemer, and addressed himself in these words to the Blessed Virgin: “See, O queen of heaven, in what manner I am requited by those that belong to your Son, my Divine Saviour. As they are his friends, I receive with joy this treatment from their hands.” He learned, however, from this accident no more to expose his person, but he renewed his resolution never to refuse an alms to any poor person that asked him. His nobles rallied him on this occasion; but he rejoiced in all humiliations, and God was pleased to testify how agreeable his sincere and heroic piety was, by conferring on him many extraordinary graces, with the gifts of prophecy, and many miraculous cures.
St. Stephen's excellent code of laws, to this day the basis of the laws of Hungary, are inscribed to his son, Duke Emeric. In fifty-five chapters the pious legislator has comprised the wisest and most holy regulations of the state. He pathetically exhorts his son to sincere humility, (which he calls the sole exaltation of a king,) to patience, meekness, assiduous and devout prayer, charity, compassion for the poor, the protection of all that are in distress, &c. He forbids, on pain of severe punishments, all grievous public crimes, especially of impiety and irreligion, as a violation of the Sunday or a fast-day, talking in the church, a culpable neglect to call in the priests to assist dying persons, &c. He commands the most religious respect to be paid to all holy things, and to the clergy. These wholesome laws he caused to be promulgated throughout his dominions, and had them always most strictly observed; as on the exact execution of the laws the tranquillity of the state depends.
The protection of his people engaged him sometimes in war, wherein he was always victorious. The Prince of Transylvania, his cousin, invaded his dominions; St. Stephen defeated him in battle, and made him prisoner; yet gave him his liberty, and restored him his dominions, requiring of him this only condition, that the gospel should be allowed to be freely preached in them. The saint was never the aggressor in any war; that with the Bulgarians was obstinate; but they were at length overcome, and obliged to receive the laws which he prescribed them. There is no saint whose virtue is not exercised by tribulation. Sickness deprived St. Stephen of all his children. St. Emeric, the eldest, was carried off the last. He had then begun to sustain a great part of the burden of the state, and to be both a comfort and assistant to his father. The interest of the state, and that of the infant church of his kingdom, conspired with nature to make this stroke more severe; but the good king bore the loss with entire resignation, adoring in it the holy will of God. St. Emeric was canonized by Benedict IX, and is honoured among the saints on the 4th of November. This affliction weaned the king's heart more and more from the world, and he desired, if it had been possible, to reserve to the care of his own soul the remaining part of his life, that being freed from all worldly concerns, he might be preparing for his last passage. But, as the affairs of both the Church and State did not allow this, he continued to endure the toil of business, knowing that he was accountable to God for the least neglect or omission in the particular duties of his station towards his Creator, his subjects, or himself. He endeavoured, however, to redouble his fervour in all his religious exercises, and applied himself particularly to those which are more immediately preparatory for a happy death, to which he principally directed his devotions and charities.
Though brave and expert in war, he had always been a lover of peace: but, from this time, ho took a resolution to spill no blood in war, in which he earnestly begged the interposition of Divine Providence, which did not fail him. For to hostilities he, after this, opposed no other arms than fasting, prayers, and tears, and by them alone was ever victorious. The Bessi, a fierce nation of Bulgarians, the most implacable enemies of the Hungarians, made a furious irruption into his territories; but, moved with veneration for the sanctity of the holy king, they on a sudden repented of their enterprise, begged, and easily obtained, his friendship, and returned peaceably home. St. Stephen, by an act of justice, caused some of his own subjects to be hanged on his frontiers, for having plundered them in their retreat. After the death of our saint's good friend, St. Henry, the emperor, his successor, Conrad II, invaded Hungary with a powerful army in 1030, and advanced so far, that St. Stephen was compelled to lead out his army against him, though still trusting in God that the effusion of blood would be prevented. All things seemed to be disposed for a decisive battle, when St. Stephen again recommended himself and his earnest desire of peace to the Blessed Virgin; and to the surprise of all men, the emperor on a sudden turned his back with his army, and without having executed anything, marched home into Germany with as great precipitation as if he had been defeated.
St. Stephen laboured three years under a complication of painful distempers. During this time four palatins, exasperated at the strict execution of justice which he caused to be observed, entered into a conspiracy to take away his life. One of them got into the king's chamber in the night with a dagger under his cloak; but let it fall in a fright upon hearing the king ask who was there. Seeing himself discovered, he threw himself at the feet of his sovereign, and obtained his pardon; but his accomplices were executed. The saint perceiving that his last hour drew near, assembled his nobles, and recommended to them the choice of a successor, obedience to the holy see, and the practice of Christian piety. He then again commended his kingdom to the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, and after having received the sacraments of penance, the viaticum, and extreme unction, happily expired on the feast of the Assumption of our Lady, the 15th of August, in 1038, being threescore years old, of which he had reigned forty-one from the death of his father, and thirty-eight from the time he had been crowned king. His sacred remains were honoured with miracles, and forty-five years after his death, by an order of the pope, at the request of the holy king, St. Ladislas, were enshrined and placed in a rich chapel, which bears his name, within the great Church of our Lady at Buda. He was canonized by Benedict IX, in the manner described by Benedict XIV. Innocent XI appointed his festival on the 2nd of September, in 1686, with an office for the whole church, the Emperor Leopold having on that day recovered Buda out of the hands of the Turks, after many signal victories over those infidels. In Hungary, his chief festival is kept on the 20th of August, the day of the translation of his relics.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. V, Edition 1910;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
St. Stephen, King of Hungary, pray for us.