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SAINT STEPHEN, KING OF HUNGARY, C.
From his life written by Chartuiz and from the historians Bonfinius, in Hist. Hungar.1. 1. Hermanus Contractus, &c. See also Czuittinger, Specimen Hungariæ Litteratæ, p. 1, t. 1. The Elzivirian edit. of Resp. et Status Hungariæ, p. 117, 154. Antonius Pagi in Baron. and Gabriel de juxta Hornad, L. de Initiis Religionis Christianæ Inter Hungaros. Francofur. 1740.
A. D. 1038.
GEYSA, the fourth duke of the Hungarians,* by conversing with certain Christian captives, and afterward 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 fervor not inferior to that of the saints. Being some time 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 abovementioned 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 honor 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, some time before, then took the reins of the government into his hands.
His first care was to settle a firm peace with all the neighboring 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 valor named Zegzard, 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, alms-deeds, 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. To give to God the entire glory of this victory, he built near the place where the battle was fought, a great monastery in honor of St. Martin called the holy hill; and besides estates in land he bestowed on it one-third part of the spoils. It is immediately subject to the holy see, and is called in Hungary the Archabbacy. St. Stephen having quelled the rebels found himself at liberty to prosecute his design; which he did by inviting into his dominions many holy priests and religious men, who, by their exemplary lives and zealous preaching, sowed the seed of faith, civilized that savage nation by the precepts of the gospel, built churches and monasteries, and some of them obtained the crown of martyrdom.
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 honor 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. To express his profound sense of religion, and to inspire all his subjects with a holy awe for whatever belonged to the divine worship, he treated the pastors of the Church with honor and respect. The same prelate who had brought the crown from Rome, anointed and crowned him king with great solemnity and pomp in the year 1000.†
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 ardor the king exhorted his people, especially his domestics, to the practice of all virtues. With a view to propagate on earth the divine honor 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 honor of the Mother of God, in which the kings of Hungary were afterward both crowned and buried. This city St. Stephen made his usual residence, whence it is called Royal Alba, to distinguish it from Alba Julia or Weissemberg in Transylvania. He founded, in old Buda, the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul and in Rome on mount Cœlio the church of St. Stephen, with a college of twelve priests; also an inn and hospital on the Vatican-hill for the entertainment of Hungarian pilgrims; and he built a church at Jerusalem; not to mention the magnificent monastery of St. Bennet, and many other churches in Hungary. Throughout all his dominions he commanded tithes to be paid to the churches, though these are redeemed to this day in many places by the noblemen for a certain sum of money.
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 honor 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 genera 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.
How difficult soever it may seem to practise extraordinary severities and humiliations in the midst of a court, and surrounded by the most flattering objects of softness and pride, where such gospel maxims are seldom heard, yet the extraordinary fervor of our saint found means for the exercise of both. He desired to serve and wash the feet of poor men in public; but the fear of giving offence to his subjects, whose minds were not yet framed to imbibe such ideas of a prince’s humility, made him only do it privately. He lost no part of his time in vain amusements or idle company; but divided himself between the duties of religion, and those of his station. To the former, he regularly allotted many hours every day; and the latter, he sanctified by religious motives, and by the constant recollection of his soul. Thus, if he was not able always to praise God with his tongue, he did it without intermission by his life, all his actions being directed to the same point of God’s holy will and greatest glory. His charitable and zealous application to all external duties of life, and to the government of his kingdom; his alms-deeds, mildness, temperance, patience, and other virtues, succeeding one another in their victories and repeated heroic acts, sanctified his whole life, and made it, as it were, one uninterrupted sacrifice to God. The least faults of frailty and inadvertence by which its perfection might be impaired, he labored to expiate by daily penance and tears. The shining example of his virtue was a continual most powerful sermon to those who conversed with him. His happy influence over his children was most sensible in the virtuous courses they pursued. St. Emeric, his eldest son, walked in his steps with so much fervor as to be in his youth the admiration of Christendom. Rising always at midnight he recited matins privately on his knees, pausing a little in devout meditation at the close of every psalm. Many wonderful things are related of his virtues and miracles; to comprise his character in one word, nothing could be more amiable, more pious, or more accomplished, than this young prince. His father trained him up not only in the perfect practice of the most heroic piety, but also formed him in the art of government.
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.1 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, invader 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 preacher 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 assistance 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 honored 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 endeavored, however, to redouble his fervor 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, he 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 labored 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 honored 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.2 Innocent XI. appointed his festival on the 2d 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.
Virtue is the most excellent dignity, and the only good of rational beings, as St. Austin observes.3 Genius, learning, power, riches, and whatever else a man enjoys, are only good when made subservient to virtue. Hence the ancient Stoics called such external goods conveniences, not good things, because, said they, virtue alone deserves the name of good.4 This is our glory, our riches, and our happiness in time and eternity. To acquire and continually improve in ourselves this inestimable treasure is the great business of our lives. Yet how careless are the generality of mankind in this particular! Many spare no pains to cultivate their minds with science, or to excel in accomplishments of the body, and in every qualification for the world, yet neglect to reform and regulate their heart. Half that attention which they give to their body or studies, would make them perfect in virtue. An hour, or half an hour a day, employed in holy meditation, pious reading, and self-examination, would be of infinite service in this most important and noble study. This would teach us the divine maxims of virtue, inspire us with its sublime sentiments, and instruct us in its exercises; and a constant attention and watchfulness in all our actions would inure us to the practice, and ground us in perfect habits of it. Were we but thus to learn well one virtue every year, we should soon be perfect saints. Holy kings upon the throne never suffered any avocations or business to be an impediment to this earnest application to the science of a Christian. Virtue no sooner gains the empire in the hearts of men but it rules and sanctifies the whole circle of their actions, makes all the employments of their state an uninterrupted exercise of its various acts, and advances daily in fervor and perfection.