1271 – 1336
(Celebrated July 5 in the U.S.A.)
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
Beautifully placed in the center of a graceful arch, behind the high altar in the Franciscan convent of Saint Clare in Coimbra, Portugal, is an impressive silver and glass sarcophagus. Circular windows cut into the upper portion of the finely wrought box allow the pilgrim to peer down into its contents. You see rumpled printed cloth. You struggle to discern what else you are looking at. But then…you see…the form of a body, covered by a shroud. It is her. You are looking at a sleeping Queen, Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. Only a hand protrudes from under the cloth. It is a right hand. It is visible. It is white. It has refused decay. It is incorrupt. The rest of her body? Only God knows, and maybe the local bishop.
Today’s saint was also known as Elizabeth of Aragon. She was born into a royal Spanish family that had a saint in its bloodline. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary was her great aunt and her namesake. In a pious age, Saint Elizabeth’s piety stood out. She loved the Lord and all that it meant to be Catholic. She was wed to the King of Portugal at a tender age, moved to his land, and bore him two children. The holy child became a holy adult. She involved herself in matters of war, state, and politics. But she was more concerned with her own soul, with the poor, and with the sick.
Elizabeth had the luxury of leisure due to her wealth and noble status. She could dedicate time to the Mass, to prayer, and to other spiritual practices. Her resources of time and money also allowed her to assist the poor, which she did generously, even to the annoyance of her husband, the King. It is easy to say that money doesn’t matter when you have money. Only people with money, in fact, say that money is not the only thing. Money did not matter to Elizabeth, precisely because she did not lack it. She simply gave it away. And she fortified that financial generosity with her personal example of prayer, fasting, poverty, and holiness which edified her people. She was not an advocate of social justice, but justice. She did promote charitable giving, but living charity itself.
After her husband died and her children were grown, she entered the very convent of the Poor Clares which she had founded in Coimbra. She took vows as a Third Order Franciscan, abandoned her royal status, and lived in obscurity with the other sisters. Coimbra had a long attachment to the Franciscans. It is where Fernando of Lisbon, an Augustinian, decided to become Anthony, a Franciscan, the future saint whose shrine is in Padua. Only about a century after his death in 1226, the influence of Saint Francis of Assisi is being felt far from central Italy, and not only among the poor. This is remarkable. Following the example of Saint Francis, the Queen of Portugal gives away her wealth, cares for the poor and the sick, is devoted to the Sacraments, actively promotes peace in her domain and in her family, establishes a female Franciscan convent, and herself becomes a lay Franciscan. After Elizabeth gave away all that she had, she gave away herself. She was a model Catholic Queen.
Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, help us to see all wealth, of time or money, as a gift and an opportunity to serve the Lord and our fellow man. You promoted peace in your realm, and in your family, in the spirit of Saint Francis. Help us to do the same.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ELIZABETH was born in 1271. She was daughter of Pedro III. of Arragon, being named after her aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At twelve years of age she was given in marriage to Denis, King of Portugal, and from a holy child became a saintly wife. She heard Mass and recited the Divine Office daily, but her devotions were arranged with such prudence that they interfered with no duty of her state. She prepared for her frequent communions by severe austerities, fasting thrice a week, and by heroic works of charity. She was several times called on to make peace between her husband and her son Alphonso, who had taken up arms against him. Her husband tried her much, both by his unfounded jealousy and by his infidelity to herself. A slander affecting Elizabeth and one of her pages made the king determine to slay the youth, and he told a lime-burner to cast into his kiln the first page who should arrive with a royal message. On the day fixed the page was sent; but the boy, who was in the habit of hearing Mass daily, stopped on his way to do so. The king, in suspense, sent a second page, the very originator of the calumny, who, coming first to the kiln, was at once cast into the furnace and burned. Shortly after, the first page arrived from the church, and took back to the king the lime-burner’s reply that his orders had been fulfilled. Thus hearing Mass saved the page’s life and proved the queen’s innocence. Her patience, and the wonderful sweetness with which she even cherished the children of her rivals, completely won the king from his evil ways, and he became a devoted husband and a truly Christian king. She built many charitable institutions and religious houses, among others a convent of Poor Clares. After her husband’s death, she wished to enter their Order; but being dissuaded by her people, who could not do without her, she took the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis, and spent the rest of her life in redoubled austerities and almsgiving. She died at the age of sixty-five, while in the act of making peace between her children.
Reflection.—In the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar St. Elizabeth daily found strength to bear with sweetness suspicion and cruelty; and by that same Holy Sacrifice her innocence was proved. What succor do we forfeit by neglect of daily Mass!
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.