July 13 – Saint Henry – Optional Memorial

973  – 1024

Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White

Walking through the heroic sized doors of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the pilgrim enters a vast interior space, his gaze slowly rising to quietly absorb the richness of detail and sublime architecture. Yet as the pilgrim meanders, head tilted upward, to take in the art above, his feet are walking on art and history too. Near the end of St. Peter’s central nave, embedded in the elaborate marble floor, is a large, deep red disk. It is porphyry, a rich purple granite prized by the emperors and nobles of Rome. This disk was originally used in a Roman home or public building. But the emperor Constantine pilfered it. He had it transplanted to the floor in front of the main altar of the fourth century Basilica he built in honor of Saint Peter, and it has been retained, in a different location, in the present Basilica. It was on this very stone that numerous kings and emperors, including Charlemagne and today’s saint, Henry II, were crowned by popes throughout the centuries. Saint Henry knelt on this deep red circle to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Benedict XIII on February 14, 1014. Kings traveled to Rome, much as the common man did, to seek St. Peter’s blessing, a custom which continues today.

The life of Saint Henry shows that even a king has a King. Even the powerful are under Someone more powerful. Good kings know that, bad ones don’t. King Henry lived a life in many ways typical of the kings of his era. He was involved in nearly constant political maneuverings and military battles to protect and expand his kingdom. There were fights to attain power and to retain it. There were long campaigns in Poland, Hungary, Germany, and Italy. There was court intrigue, a strategic marriage, the envy of nobles, and all the other ingredients inherent to the struggle for power. But Henry is the only Holy Roman Emperor ever canonized a saint for a reason. He had deep faith. He loved the Church. He lived the virtues to a heroic degree in his personal life. He received the Sacraments. He was devoted to Saint Mary.

Saint Henry was outstanding in utilizing his wealth and position to advance the apostolates of the institutional Church. He formed a new diocese, endowed others, founded monasteries, donated land, and had close relationships with powerful bishops. The Church became an arm of the imperial government under him, with bishops of large dioceses even becoming prince-bishops who exercised both civil and ecclesiastical power. This blurring of the lines between Church and state in Germany became problematic in later centuries. Imperial officials tried to manage the church outside of the pope’s control, and secular power was sometimes used abusively to crush heretics. But under Saint Henry the system was mutually beneficial. It created a united love of fatherland and church, of culture and liturgy, of patriotism and faith.

The rich and powerful are subject to the temptations common to every man, of course, but their wealth and position do open other pathways of sin closed to most men. So when a king or queen, a president, prime minister, multi-millionaire, or movie star walks the narrow road, and enters through the narrow gate, there is more to celebrate. What roads are not taken, when they could have been taken, is a cause of rejoicing for every man. We can legitimately indulge in Christian pride for conquering temptation and sin. Many paths opened up before King Henry during his life. He chose the right path, foreswore the others, and thus exalted his royal status to one even higher, that of a saint.

Saint Henry, you were an exceptional benefactor of the Church, living sacrificial generosity to advance her apostolates. May your example help us all to be generous, in every way, when our religion demands such a generous response.


Read also Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

HENRY, Duke of Bavaria, saw in a vision his guardian, St. Wolfgang, pointing to the words “after six.” This moved him to prepare for death, and for six years he continued to watch and pray, when, at the end of the sixth year, he found the warning verified in his election as emperor. Thus trained in the fear of God, he ascended the throne with but one thought—to reign for His greater glory. The pagan Slavs were then despoiling the empire. Henry attacked them with a small force; but angels and Saints were seen leading his troops, and the heathen fled in despair. Poland and Bohemia, Moravia and Burgundy, were in turn annexed to his kingdom, Pannonia and Hungary won to the Church. With the Faith secured in Germany, Henry passed into Italy, drove out the Antipope Gregory, brought Benedict VIII. back to Rome, and was crowned in St. Peter’s by that Pontiff, in 1014. It was Henry’s custom, on arriving in any town, to spend his first night in watching in some church dedicated to our blessed Lady. As he was thus praying in St. Mary Major’s, the first night of his arrival in Rome, he “saw the Sovereign and Eternal Priest Christ Jesus” enter to say Mass. Sts. Laurence and Vincent assisted as deacon and sub-deacon. Saints innumerable filled the church, and angels sang in the choir. After the Gospel, an angel was sent by Our Lady to give Henry the book to kiss. Touching him lightly on the thigh, as the angel did to Jacob, he said, “Accept this sign of God’s love for your chastity and justice;” and from that time the emperor always was lame. Like holy David, Henry employed the fruits of his conquests in the service of the temple. The forests and mines of the empire, the best that his treasury could produce, were consecrated to the sanctuary. Stately cathedrals, noble monasteries, churches innumerable, enlightened and sanctified the once heathen lands. In 1022 Henry lay on his bed of death. He gave back to her parents his wife, St. Cunegunda, “a virgin still, as a virgin he had received her from Christ,” and surrendered his own pure soul to God.

Reflection.—St. Henry deprived himself of many things to enrich the house of God. We clothe ourselves in purple and fine linen, and leave Jesus in poverty and neglect.