Saint Stephen of Hungary

Feast Day August 16

Saints Stories for All Ages

At the turn of the second millennium, St. Stephen succeeded his father as leader of the Magyars in Hungary. Looking to strengthen his authority, he determined to consolidate the state and extend Christianity throughout the land. In 1001 he arranged to have Pope Sylvester II name him king of Hungary. The pope obliged. As an additional sign of support, Sylvester had a special crown fashioned for Stephen that has become world famous.

Stephen extended his control over Hungary by restricting the power of the nobles. By creating dioceses and establishing monasteries, Stephen strengthened the church and positioned it for expansion. Politically, he aggressively used his power to establish Christianity as Hungary’s religion. He ruthlessly abolished pagan customs, outlawing adultery and blasphemy. Stephen ordered everyone to marry, except religious, and forbade marriages between Christians and pagans.

But Stephen had a kinder, gentler side. Like St. Louis IX, he made himself accessible to his people. He also took personal concern for the poor. He used to walk the streets in disguise so he could give alms to needy people. Once he barely escaped when some beggars beat and robbed him. But he refused to stop the practice. Stephen was a family man. In 1015 he had married Gisela, the sister of emperor St. Henry II. The couple had one son, Emeric, whom Stephen groomed as his successor. In the following letter to his son, Stephen lays out his vision of what a Christian monarch must be:

My dearest son, if you desire to honor the royal crown, I advise, I counsel, I urge you above all things to maintain the Catholic and apostolic faith with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God and that all the clergy may rightly call you a man of true Christian profession. However, dearest son, even now in our kingdom the Church is proclaimed as young and newly planted; and for that reason she needs more prudent and trustworthy guardians. . .

Finally, be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down. Be humble in this life, that God may raise you up in the next. Be truly moderate and do not punish or condemn anyone immoderately. Be gentle so that you may never oppose justice. Be honorable so that you may never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness of lust like the pangs of death. All these virtues I have noted above make up the royal crown and without them no one is first to rule here on earth or attain to the heavenly kingdom.

Sadly, Emeric died in a hunting accident, leaving Stephen no successor. After the saint’s death in 1038, a series of Magyar kings undid much of his work.

from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi