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Pope Benedict XVI's weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on some of the great women saints of the Middle Ages. He spoke Oct. 20 about St. Elizabeth of Hungary, whose father was King Andrew II of Hungary.
St. Elizabeth was known from an early age for her fidelity to prayer and her care for the poor. Although she married Ludwig of Thuringia for political reasons, she and her husband developed a sincere love for each other, a love deepened by faith and the desire to do the Lord’s will.
St. Elizabeth preferred to feed the poor than to dine at banquets and to clothe the naked than to dress in costly garments. After Ludwig’s premature death, she dedicated herself to serving the poor, always performing the humblest and most difficult works. She founded a religious community and lived her vows until her death at an early age. She is the patroness of the Third Order of St. Francis.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak to you about one of the most greatly admired women of the Middle Ages: St. Elizabeth of Hungary, also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia.
She was born in 1207. Historians are unsure of the place of her birth. Her father was Andrew II, the rich and powerful king of Hungary, who, in order to strengthen his political alliances, married the German countess Gertrude of Andechs-Merania, the sister of St. Hedwig, who was married to the Duke of Silesia.
Elizabeth, along with her sister and her three brothers, spent only the first four years of her childhood at the Hungarian court. She enjoyed playing as well as music and dance. She faithfully recited her prayers and already showed special concern for the poor, whom she helped through her encouraging words and loving kindness.
Life in Germany
Her childhood was abruptly interrupted when some knights from distant Thuringia came to take her to a new home in central Germany. According to the custom of the time, her father had made arrangements for her to become the princess of Thuringia. The count of that region was one of the richest and most influential rulers of Europe at the beginning of the 13th century, and his castle was an opulence center of culture.
However, behind that facade of festivities and seeming glory lay hidden the ambitions of the feudal princes who were often waging war among themselves and fighting against the royal and imperial authorities.
Against that background, the count, Hermann, welcomed gladly the betrothal of his son, Ludwig, to the Hungarian princess Elizabeth, who had traveled from her homeland with a sizeable dowry as well as a large entourage, including several personal maidservants, two of who remained her faithful friends to the end of her life. The two of them have left us valuable information on St. Elizabeth’s childhood as well as her subsequent life.
After a long journey, Elizabeth arrived in Eisenach and climbed to the castle of Wartburg, a massive fortress overlooking the city.
There, a celebration was held for the betrothal of Ludwig and Elizabeth. During the following years, Elizabeth and her companions studied German, French, Latin, music, literature and embroidery, while Ludwig mastered the art of knighthood. Although their match had been decided upon for political reasons, a sincere love developed between the two young people, inspired by deep faith and the desire to do God’s will.
Love for the Poor
When his father died, the 18-year-old Ludwig began his rule over Thuringia. Elizabeth, however, had become the target of hushed criticism by those who felt her actions were not befitting of court life. Her wedding celebration, for example, was far from extravagant, and some of the funds destined for the banquet were given to the poor afterwards.
A deeply sensitive person, Elizabeth perceived the duplicity between the faith Christians professed and their true lives. She refused to tolerate any such insincerity.
Once, entering a church on the solemnity of the Assumption, she took off her crown, set it in front of the cross, and prostrated herself on the floor with her face covered. When her mother-in-law reprimanded her for doing so, she replied: “How could I, a miserable creature, continue to wear a crown of earthly dignity when I see my king, Jesus Christ, wearing a crown of thorns?”
Elizabeth’s behavior with her subjects was just like her behavior before God.
We find the following testimony in the Libellus de Dictis Quatuor Ancillarum: “She did not consume any food unless she was sure that it came from her husband’s property. Just as she abstained from anything that had been procured illicitly, she did her utmost to see that those who had been the target of any violent act received compensation” (25 and 37).
She was truly a model for all those who are in a position to offer guidance. Indeed, the exercise of authority at all levels must be practiced as a service to justice and charity, in the constant quest for the common good.
Elizabeth assiduously practiced works of mercy. She gave food and drink to those who came to her door, sought clothing for them, paid their debts, cared for the sick and buried the dead.
Leaving her castle, she and her maidservants often went to the homes of the poor, taking bread, meat, flour and other food items to them. She would hand out the food personally and made sure that the poor had adequate clothing and bedding.
When her husband was informed of what she was doing, he was in no way displeased. On the contrary, he told her detractors: “As long as she doesn’t sell the castle, I’m happy!”
It is in this context that the miracle of the bread that was transformed into roses took place. One day, while Elizabeth was walking through the streets with her apron full of bread for the poor, she ran into her husband, who asked what she was carrying. She opened her apron and, instead of the bread, magnificent roses appeared. This symbol of charity is often present in art depicting St. Elizabeth.
Support in Marriage
Her marriage was a profoundly happy one. Elizabeth helped her husband to elevate his natural human qualities to a supernatural level, while he, in turn, protected his wife in showing generosity to the poor and in her religious observances. As his admiration for his wife’s great faith increased, Ludwig, referring to her care for the poor, said to her: “Dear Elizabeth, it is Christ whom you have washed, fed and taken care of.”
This is a vivid testimony of how faith and love for God and for others can strengthen family life and make the marriage bond even more profound.
The young couple found spiritual support in the Franciscans who, starting in 1222, began to spread throughout Thuringia. Elizabeth chose one of them, Friar Roger, as her spiritual director. When he told her the story of the conversion of the young and wealthy merchant Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth experienced even greater enthusiasm for her own journey in the Christian life.
From that moment on, she became even more resolute in following the poor and crucified Christ, who is present in the poor.
Even when her first son was born, followed by two others, she never interrupted her charitable activities.
On the contrary, she helped the Friars Minor to build a monastery in Halberstadt, with Friar Roger as superior. For this reason, Conrad of Marburg took charge of Elizabeth’s spiritual direction.
Death of Her Husband
Having to bid farewell to her husband in June of 1227 when Ludwig IV joined Emperor Frederick II’s crusade was an extremely hard trial for her. When Ludwig reminded his wife this had become a tradition for the rulers of Thuringia, Elizabeth replied: “I will not hold you back. I have given myself entirely to God and now I also have to give you to him.”
However, an epidemic broke out among the troops, and Ludwig himself fell ill and died at the age of 27 in Otranto. It was September 1227, just before he was to embark for the Holy Land.
Upon learning this news, Elizabeth was so grief-stricken that she retired to solitude. Later, fortified by prayer and the consolation that she would see him again in heaven, she once again took an interest in the affairs of the kingdom.
Nevertheless, she had to face a new trial. Her brother-in-law usurped the government of Thuringia, declaring himself Ludwig’s rightful heir and accusing Elizabeth of being a pioshe had to face a new trial. Her brother-in-law usurped the government of Thuringia, declaring himself Ludwig’s rightful heir and accusing Elizabeth of being a pious woman who was incompetent to rule.
The young widow and her three sons were driven from the castle of Wartburg and had to seek refuge elsewhere. Only two of her maidservants remained by her side and accompanied her. Her three children were entrusted to the care of some of Ludwig’s friends.
Traveling from village to village, Elizabeth would work wherever she was welcomed, helping the sick, weaving and cooking. During this ordeal, which she endured with great faith, patience and devotion to God, her reputation was re-established by some relatives who had remained faithful to her and considered her brother-in-law’s government illegitimate.
Thus, at the beginning of 1228, Elizabeth was given a pension that was sufficient enough to allow her to live at the family castle at Marburg, where Friar Conrad, her spiritual director, also took up residence.
Friar Conrad gave Pope Gregory IX the following report: “On Good Friday of 1228, having laid her hands on the altar of the chapel in her city of Eisenach, where she had once welcomed the Friars Minor, Elizabeth, in the presence of some friars and family members, renounced her own will and all the vanities of the world. She also wanted to give up all her possessions, but I dissuaded her out of love for the poor. Shortly afterwards, she constructed a hospital, brought the sick and invalids there, and served the poorest at her own table. When I chastised her for these actions, Elizabeth said that she received a special grace and humility from the poor” (Epistula Magistri Conradi, 14-17).
Here we can perceive a mystical experience similar to St. Francis’ experience. Indeed, the Poverello of Assisi had declared in his spiritual testament that his service to the lepers transformed what had once been bitter to him into a sweetness for soul and body (Testamentum, 1-3).
Elizabeth spent the last three years of her life in the hospital she founded, serving the sick and attending the dying. She always sought to perform the most humble and repugnant tasks. She became what we would call today a consecrated woman living in the world (soror in saeculo) and, clad in gray, formed a religious community with some of her friends. It is no coincidence that she is the patron saint of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis and of the Secular Franciscan Order.
In November of 1231, she came down with a high fever. When news of her illness spread, many people rushed to see her. After 10 days, she asked that the doors be closed so she could remain alone with God. On the night of Nov. 17, she quietly fell asleep in the Lord. The testimonies regarding her holiness were so numerous that Pope Gregory IX proclaimed her a saint just four years after her death. In that same year, a beautiful church was dedicated in her honor at Marburg.
Model for Today
Dear brothers and sisters, St. Elizabeth shows us how faith and friendship with Christ create a sense of justice, of universal equality, of the rights of others, thereby fomenting love and charity.
From this charity, hope is born — the certainty that Christ loves us and that the love of Christ awaits us, thus enabling us to imitate Christ and see Christ in others.
St. Elizabeth invites us to rediscover Christ, to love him, to have faith, thereby finding true justice and love, as well as the joy that one day we shall be immersed in God’s love, in the glory of eternity with God. Thank you.