Wednesday, November 17, 2010

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patroness of the Secular Franciscan Order (along with saintly King Louis IX). She was born in 1207, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary. According to the custom of the time, while still a child she was betrothed to Louis, a German prince and landgrave of Thuringia and Hesse, leaving her family and homeland to be raised at her future husband's castle. Elizabeth very early became aware of God and was drawn to Him by love. She was fascinated by the chapel of the castle and would find every excuse she could, even while playing a game, to enter and genuflect before His presence. Even though she was raised in wealth and luxury, she also became aware of her duties toward her neighbour. When she won something in a game, she would share it with children who were poor. Elizabeth’s growing love for God led her to want to sacrifice for Him. She stopped wearing some of her finery as a sacrifice. Even at this early age she began the process of conversion and penance that is at the heart of Christianity and the Franciscan vocation.

Elizabeth took seriously her royal duties, and ruled with gentleness and prudence. Any spare time she had she devoted to the care of the poor, the sick, and especially the lepers. She built a hospital to take care of the sick, and at times would even take patients into the palace in order to care for them. During a famine she personally fed hundreds of needy people daily. The story is told that once when she was on her way with her cloak full of good things for the poor and sick, she met her husband, who teasingly blocked her path until she would show him what she was carrying away this time. When she unfurled her cloak, instead of finding food, he was astonished to behold fresh, fragrant roses, even through it was midwinter. Overcome, he reverently permitted Elizabeth to go on her charitable way. Louis gave his wife full liberty to do all the good her heart desired. But after his sudden death in battle, Elizabeth was driven out of the palace by her in-laws. She had nowhere to turn. Those whom she had helped dared not give her shelter fearing the resentment of their new masters. Though destitute and homeless after her husband’s death, rather than go home to Hungary she chose to live in her new country, where she could fulfil the choice of life she had made on behalf of the poor.

She was given refuge by a convent of Franciscan friars, and there found renewed inspiration for the work that she had already set her heart upon. Though eventually reinstated of her royal privileges, Elizabeth had so learned to love poverty and seclusion that she had no desire for worldly greatness. Her children returned to the palace, but she and her two maids remained in a small house near the Franciscan church in Marburg. There she led a quiet religious life, nursing the sick in the hospitals, and submitting her whole life to the direction of the learned and devout Friar Conrad.

Elizabeth died on November 19, 1231, when she was only 24 years old. The miracles that took place at her tomb were so numerous that Pope Gregory IX quickly canonized her in 1235.

The example of her enduring love and patience in the midst of disappointment and persecution is the enduring legacy of St. Elizabeth. Her conformation to the mind and heart of Christ her Saviour, who came not to be served but to serve, was evident throughout her life of charitable works. May we be inspired by her life, and be moved to give ourselves completely to the Lord as she did, in preferential love for the poor and lowly.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us.

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