Saint Stephen of Hungary: the Apostolic King

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St. Stephen of Hungary could be considered a model and patron of souls called by God for missions of colossal magnitude. What was the secret for him to obtain the radical transformation of his people?

Newsroom (August 16 2021 8:22 PM, Gaudium Press)  – Massacre, flight, or miracle were the only alternatives that presented themselves to those who heard the Huns’ troop approaching. This terrible barbarian people had managed to overcome the rage of all the other invading tribes and to panic the Roman Empire of the East and West.

At their head marched Attila, a man of small stature, with a pointed nose and a piercing gaze, who gathered under his command half of the barbarian world. He called himself the scourge of God, and showed it by his actions, reducing any city or town he passed by to total ruin, to the point where people claimed that grass no longer grew where the hoofs of his horse had trodden.

The fierce invaders become defenders…

Let us move forward a thousand years after the death of the fearsome devastator and we will find the descendants of that bellicose people again taking up arms with ardor.

This time, however, the objective is not to destroy Christendom, but to defend it.

From destroyer to defender of Christianity! How can we explain such a prodigious transformation in this brave people?

To make it possible, Providence made use of a great king: Saint Stephen.

Using his power with both gentleness and firmness, he managed to overcome “the opposition of his people, famous for their combative and willful spirit, which, exacerbated by barbarism, accepted with difficulty the discipline of civilization.

Gifted with a serious character and indomitable energy

During the 10th century, five hundred years before the Battle of Belgrade, the dynasty of Árpád was ruling Hungary and consolidating its borders, so that after a long period of nomadism, the people finally settled down.

It is in the last decades of this century that Duke Geza, under the influence of his wife Sarolta and the exhortations of St. Adalbert, receives Baptism. More than five thousand of his subjects follow his example.

A wide field of conquest thus opens up for the Holy Church, but the Duke does not have the courage to work it… The pagan roots of the Magyars are intertwined with equally deep-rooted family traditions, and Geza does not intend to eradicate them completely.

However, her son Vaik, a young man named Stephen when he was baptized, thinks differently. Raised since childhood under the light of the Faith, he has a deeply serious character and indomitable energy. Desirous of leading his subjects to God, he makes their Christianization the ideal of his life.

For this, he sees in Gisela, sister of Henry of Bavaria – future Saint and Emperor of the Holy Empire – a faithful companion, who by her piety and elevation of spirit will be able to help him in such a vast work.

Duke Henry had a true friendship for Stephen and sees no impediment in giving him his sister as his wife.

However, Gerberga, the king’s aunt and abbess of the convent of Gandersheim, where the young woman resided, repulses the project of giving her niece to a recently converted barbarian chieftain, and decides to put the sincerity of her faith to the test.

Knowing that he had come to visit Gisela, the superior sent the girl to pray in the monastery gardens. When Stephen arrived, he saw her back to him, at an angle she could not perceive his presence, and did not dare to interrupt her.

In silence and on his knees, he waited for her to finish her conversation with the King of kings, and only then approached her to greet her.

This attitude of faith and respect, which the abbess observed from afar, completely dismantled her opposition to the marriage, which took place shortly thereafter.

Creating the conditions for the blossoming of the Faith

In 997, with the death of Geza, Stephen becomes chief of the Hungarians. According to Magyar custom, a ceremony is held in which he brandishes his sword to all four sides, pledging to defend the country to the fullest extent.

Being at once deep and kind, calm and zealous, the young king soon realizes the supernatural dimension of this promise and decides to spare no effort to lead his subjects to complete conversion.

On horseback, with a cross in his hands, he rides through towns and villages preaching the true Faith. Aware, moreover, that men’s hearts are moved by example and grace, he covers his nation with monasteries, so that the strength of the monks’ lives and the help of their prayers will create the ideal conditions for the full blossoming of Religion.

Finally, he issues a decree prescribing that the chiefs, the warriors, and all the people abandon the ancient cults and receive Baptism. He knows that this will not come about without difficulty, but he is not afraid, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary for the triumph of God in his lands.

Thus, he reacts immediately when he learns that his relative Koppány, not submitting to the decree, has taken up arms against him, under the pretext of having a right to the throne.

Stephen gathers his army and advances against the rebels. In the camp, already facing the enemy’s, he is knighted and given the sword that he will wield from now on.

“For God, for Faith!” are the cries that are heard when the signal to attack is given. After several hours, the battle ends with Koppány’s death.

The young king, who had no other aim than the good of his subjects, grants a generous pardon to all the defeated who accept Baptism.

The Pope recognizes his evangelizing work

Having established his reign on firm rock, Stephen lacks nothing to gird the royal crown and have his people included in the list of European monarchies.

With the help of his brother-in-law St. Henry, he carefully prepares an embassy to ask the Pope to grant him this privilege.

The monk Gerber, of French origin, occupied the throne of St. Peter’s under the name of Sylvester II. Upon hearing the account of the significant progress of the Faith in Hungary, he does not hesitate to grant the request, discerning with clarity the design of the Most High that was hovering over those lands.

“Thanks be given to God the Father and to Jesus Christ our Lord, who in our days has found a new David, the son of Geza, a man after his own heart […] Consequently, most glorious son, we gladly grant you all that you have asked of us and of the Apostolic See: the diadem and the title of king, with the power to erect the metropolis of Esztergom and suffragan dioceses,” says the letter dated March 27 of the year 1000.

Along with the missive, the Pope sends him a beautiful cross and the Holy Crown, which will forever be venerated in the country. With these symbols, Stephen and Gisela were crowned in Esztergom at Christmas of the year 1000, receiving the title of Their Apostolic Majesties, with which Sylvester II equated their work of defense and propagation of the Faith with the evangelizing work of the Apostles.

Sylvester II also granted Stephen, in addition to all the rights of royalty, the powers of a papal legate. This privilege was confirmed in the fifteenth century by the Council of Constance, and preserved until the end by the throne of Hungary.

Serious and consistent, the new monarch set about organizing and consolidating his kingdom. Knowing that there are no more perfect laws than those written by God Himself, he carefully drafted the constitutions of the State, based on the Ten Commandments.

Modeling the soul of the successor after the Faith

Stephen knew, however, that more important than recording these laws in codices and parchments was to form someone animated by the spirit that inspired them. To this end, he left written down for his son, Emeric, a set of prudent counsels.

In it, he taught that the perfect kingdom is like a temple with ten columns: the solidity of the faith, the splendor of the Church, the purity and wisdom of the ecclesiastics, the fidelity and fortitude of the barons and knights, generosity to foreigners, the correct administration of justice, the lucid organization of the council, respect for traditions, the help of prayer, and piety and mercy.

These counsels fell on fertile ground. Endowed with rare piety and high spirits, Emeric had assimilated the good examples of his parents from an early age.

When he was only seven years old, he had taken the vow of virginity, and already at that age some singular gifts were evident in his soul, such as the ability to discern the degree of faith and progress in virtue in the people he met.

One day, while visiting the abbey of Pannonhalma with his father, he noticed that the boy greeted the monks in a different way. Upon receiving the child’s answer that this was due to the state of each one’s soul, St. Stephen wanted to verify the truth of this supernatural intuition.

He walked around the monastery at night during the hours of silence and prayers, and when he came across Maurice, a monk whom Emeric had pointed out as being of great virtue, he tried to strike up a conversation with him.

The monk, however, remained impassive, and after the period of silence, he explained, “I could not interrupt the service of the King of Heaven to serve a king on earth.”

Wanting to see how far this monk’s uprightness would go, Stephen went to complain about his attitude to his superior, who rebuked him in the presence of the king.

Maurice heard the admonition with his head down, accepting it in all humility. Full of admiration, the sovereign knelt at the feet of the religious, praised his virtues, and appointed him bishop.

The monarch had rightly placed in his son all the hopes of the kingdom. However, God’s plans were different: a few days before he was to be associated to his father’s throne, a sudden death took him when he was only twenty-three years old…

The secret to obtain Heaven’s help

Very different aspects make up the glorious halo of the sanctity of this king, but they all converge in the monumental evangelizing work to which he was called by Divine Providence.

And whoever analyzes his reign, considering the pagan origins of his people, the barbarian customs deeply rooted in them, and the strong Magyar temperament, realizes that such a great transformation would not have been possible without exceptional help from Heaven.

What was the secret to obtaining it?

In our eyes, only one: a few days after his coronation, St. Stephen consecrated his kingdom to the Blessed Virgin, and made her Great Lady of Hungary. The blessed monarch placed all his domains in Her hands, wishing to transform them into a true kingdom of Mary.

Indeed, devotion to the Mother of God was perhaps the most sensitive point in the sovereign’s soul. He stamped her image on coins, reproduced her on his banners, and slowly managed to imprint her in the hearts of his subjects.

And when in 1038, on the great feast of the Assumption, he surrendered his soul to God, he did so reciting this loving prayer: “Great Lady, Queen of Heaven, it is to you that I address my last prayer and entrust the care of my soul. Take under your maternal protection the Magyar Church, my country and my dear people!”

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