Saint Henry, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (13th July)

Saint of the Day, Wednesday, January 14, 1970

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.


Sacramentary of king Henry II [1002-14] – München BSB Clm 4456 Seite 33c: King Henry II (Wikipedia)

I would like to explain how I choose texts on Saints of the Day to comment.

People, in general, have a very erroneous idea of holiness. They think holiness consists in smiling, agreeing with everything, and forgiving everything. They have no idea of​​what holiness is. In part, that is due to factories that produce images or statues of saints with such pitiful faces that you don’t even understand how people like that could have existed.

Saints are depicted with long, delicate faces and made to look like poor things. But when you look at their real lives, they are completely different. They were saints with extraordinary personalities that marked their time, yet they are presented like that. When visiting the famous sanctuary of Saint Anthony of Padua, in Italy, many years ago, where St. Anthony is buried, I saw a painting by Giotto, a great painter almost contemporary to the saint.

Giotto painted Saint Anthony naturally according to the tradition of the latter’s time, and it is the closest known image of his countenance. He was a tall, powerful man with a stern face and a Herculean attitude. I bought a photograph of this painting representing Saint Anthony and went to the sacristy. They sell holy cards depicting him as a beardless little boy with a rosy little face who looks like he is afraid of something.

They always present saints without personality, boldness, or any of the virtues required to be a saint. A saint is someone declared a hero in the practice of the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues. Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity. Cardinal Virtues: Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence. Therefore, the virtue of fortitude is indispensable for a person to become a saint. It consists precisely in fighting against self, against the enemies of the faith and the Church, and against those who are our enemies unjustly, opposing them with the necessary strength.

In the eyes of TFP members, we need to restore the true countenance of a saint, which includes courage. Yesterday, we chose an admirable model of feminine courage, Princess Elisabeth of France. Today we will look at a male model of courage, a sovereign of the Middle Ages. It is Saint Henry, Emperor of the Holy Roman German Empire.

Saint Henry placed his army under the special blessings of God and availed himself of the protection of his people’s great favorite saints. He chose Saint Hadrian, a martyred officer whose sword was jealously kept in Valbach as a relic since ancient times. Thus armed, he organized an army to suppress barbarian invasions by northern peoples and defeated them in Poland and Bohemia. When facing the Slavonians, much superior in strength, Saint Henry ordered collective prayers and his army to receive communion.

When the first troops presented themselves for combat, a sudden panic struck their enemies. Disorganized, they fled in a stampede. The angels fought and defeated the Slavonians, who surrendered and left Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland tributary to the Holy Roman Empire. He then promoted a meeting of bishops in Frankfurt to foster ecclesiastical discipline in their states. Twice he had to subjugate the Lombards, who threatened the Papal States. After subduing them for the first time, he was crowned king of Lombardy in Pavia, wearing that kingdom’s famous iron crown.

The second time, his action went beyond pacifying the Lombards. The Church was afflicted by serious problems. The antipope Gregory was trying to unseat the legitimate Pope, Benedict VIII. When visiting the Pope in 1014, deep in the Middle Ages, St. Henry and the empress received one of the greatest honors of their lives: he solemnly crowned them Emperors of the Romans. The pontiff presented the saint with a pearl-studded golden globe surmounted by a cross, an emblem of imperial dignity. To perpetuate the memory of the event, the monarch, dignified by so many honors, passed on the globe and crown to Saint Odilo, abbot of Cluny, thus endowing that famous monastery.

The Emperor had yet another opportunity to foster the good of Christendom. He approached Stephen, King of Hungary, a prince who was still a pagan and needed to join the union of Christian nations with his people. St. Henry offered him both an alliance and his pious sister, Gisela, for a wife. St. Stephen’s conversion was wonderful, as he became a great king for the Church and a saint for heaven.

In Italy, St. Henry had again to engage in military campaigns. While he consolidated the states in the interior [of his empjire] and ensured peace with its eastern neighbors, the Lombards, allied with Greeks and Normans, ravaged Italian provinces. The monarch prepared punishing expeditions and defeated them in several battles. He subjugated Lombardy, reinstated the Church in possession of invaded lands, occupied Naples, Salerno, Benevento, and restored peace on the peninsula.

On his return to Germany, he had a famous encounter on the Meuse River with Richard the Good, King of the French. The two princes talked amicably about Europe’s major Christian issues and political problems. The ceremonial called for the meeting to take place in the middle of the river, each in his boat. But Saint Henry, in consideration of the virtues of the French king, decided to break the rigorous protocol. He crossed the Meuse with his entourage and met the King of France on the opposite bank.”

This text is a little long because the life of this saint is so full of memorable acts that one could not have an idea of it without mentioning several elements of his biography. To understand these events well, we need to place them in their historical context. We are in the Middle Ages, in the year 1014.

As you know, the Middle Ages began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was rotten with ferments that still remained from paganism. It was invaded by an incalculable number of barbarians as savage as some Indians in regions of Brazil and other South American countries. These barbarians settled in the empire’s territory and subjected the Romans to their dominion.

Little by little, the ancient Roman population also fell into barbarism. The roads no longer had anyone to take care of them. The aqueducts that brought water to the cities broke down; cities sank into the dirt; palaces were inhabited by savage barbarians and completely degraded; works of art lay broken in the streets. Everything that could represent civilization and culture was miserably liquidated. In this situation, Europe fell into illiteracy and wild, brutal customs. It took centuries to bring Europe back to a civilized state.

The Europeans grew up little by little under the influence of the Church, the only organization that remained after everything fell apart. Under that influence, the barbarians gradually converted and progressed more or less like a completely savage Indian tribe when a missionary arrived. As the missionary preaches the catechism to them, the Indians become civilized little by little through generations and acquire culture. The same happened with European peoples. In the year 1000, civilization was already quite advanced relative to the original state of barbarianism. However, it was still far below what it would be two or three hundred years later.

So they were in a semi-barbaric situation. Some European peoples were more civilized and had some civilization, while others were still savage. Within the European continent, there were islands of Christianity, an incipient Catholic civilization surrounded on all sides by conglomerates of pagan barbarians constantly attacking and making life very difficult for Catholics.

The Germanic people were one of those that converted the earliest. They occupied more or less the territory that today encompasses Germany, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. These Germanic peoples became civilized and constituted a political entity called the Holy Roman German Empire. It was an Empire because its vastness should contain all peoples of the earth. It was not an empire meant to dominate, but a federation of free peoples led, but not governed by, a shared political leader elected by the heads of state. He was the Emperor of the German Holy Roman Empire.

That empire was a league of all Christian peoples against barbarism. They called it an empire because that league covered a large territorial expanse. It was Roman because it was reminiscent of the ancient Roman empire that once encompassed the entire land. It was German because the core nations that constituted that empire were mainly Germanic. It was holy because its primary purpose was to defend the Catholic Religion against pagan aggression.

Here you see a saint elected Emperor of the German Holy Roman Empire. When it comes to the lives of saints, he is in an uncommon situation. As the head of all political organizations in Europe of his time, he was Europe’s most powerful man. At the same time, he had an obligation to be the best politician, the best warrior, and the best son of the Church because he was the son of the Church par excellence who had to protect her against barbarism. And like all saints, he carried out his duties magnificently.

Barbarian peoples from around Russia continually attacked his people. He formed an army and, as a Catholic hero, led several wars against them. He had faith and knew it was not enough to fight with human forces but with supernatural resources, so he asked God for the strength needed to win.

Medieval battle techniques were profoundly different from ours. The world population was much smaller, and armies usually comprised three to five thousand men. Battles had something grandiose and theatrical. In a Catholic army, Mass was said before engaging in battle.

Before the battle started, soldiers in the two camps would rise to their feet. Then, out of the ranks of each army would come a herald and sing an improvised song explaining why his country was waging war on the enemy present there. Everyone listened. A herald would come out of the other side and reply when he finished. When both hostile songs had kindred mutual bellicosity, the heralds would rejoin their respective army ranks and the fight would begin.

That fight was not today’s anonymous combat from trench to trench. It was hand-to-hand combat because firearms did not exist. It was a tremendous grab-and-kill melee in which knights cut off each other’s heads. Foot soldiers would try to pull riders by the leg to make them fall because the weight of their armor and weapons would render them powerless. They would also try to kill enemy horses and all kinds of tricks. In the end, the strongest would win.

God worked a miracle to show how pleased He was with St. Henry’s prayers. The Catholic Germans faced much more numerous Slavonian troops ready for combat and risked being decimated. But when the battle started, the Slavonians suddenly fled. Angels had appeared and struck terror into them. That was God’s way of saying that He appreciated prayer so highly that this time He even dispensed His heroes from combat.

That battle emptied pagan pressure from Russia and liquidated one of the pagan claws closing in on Catholics. But there was another claw, the Lombard nation, a kingdom of heretics with Milan as their capital city. They were not pagans but Aryan heretics, enemies of the Catholic faith who often attacked the Pope, sovereign of Rome at the time.

Saint Henry went to Lombardy, attacked the Lombards, broke their power, and went to Rome to visit the Pope. On this occasion, the Pope crowned him and his wife as Emperors of the Holy Roman German Empire. At a ceremony with great splendor, he gifted the Emperor’s wife with a pearl-studded golden sphere representing power over the whole earth. However, showing his love for the Church, Saint Henry did not keep that treasure. He immediately sent the precious gift to St. Odilo, the holy abbot of Cluny venerated throughout Christendom. Cluny was the largest religious Order in Europe.

When returning to Germany, Saint Henry inflicted yet another defeat on the Lombards, which definitely broke their power.

Now you will see how this great fighter was also a fine politician.

There was in Hungary a king who,  though a heathen, was famous for his virtue. St. Henry understood that virtue could only attract that king to the Catholic Religion. So, instead of attacking him, Saint Henry asked for an interview with the king and offered his sister Gisela, known for her great beauty and virtue, to marry. Stephen, King of Hungary, accepted Gisela, who fulfilled her mission to convert him. He converted to the point of becoming a saint of the Catholic Church who converted all of Hungary, a nation that became definitively Catholic. With this brilliant and very skillful maneuver, St. Henry extended the bounds of Christendom beyond the Danube while at the same time gaining a friend where he used to have an enemy.

So you see how he carried out a splendid political maneuver together with an act of apostolate. On the other hand, as you know, there already existed the centuries-old rivalry between the Germans and the French that more or less still remains today. They are different peoples with different natures and temperaments, with complicated border issues. There were always complex problems between Germans and French. However, at that time, France was ruled by a very good king, and a good and saintly emperor ruled the Holy Roman German Empire. As a result, it was easy for them to reach an agreement. Emperor Saint Henry, an outstanding diplomat, called for a meeting with the French king to settle all political problems in Europe, as Germany and France were the two leading countries in Christian Europe.

They decided to meet by the river Meuse. The two were important sovereigns, and protocol dictated that neither should go to the other’s land as it would be seen as paying homage to the other’s importance. The protocol called for the meeting to be held in the middle of the river in two separate boats. It is a calm watercourse where they could meet comfortably. The Emperor’s barge was readied, and so was the King of France’s.

The Emperor was more important than the King of France, although the King of France was very important too. Strictly speaking, the Emperor could claim that the King of France should go to his territory. However, as a man full of Catholic spirit and diplomacy, Saint Henry did the opposite as a surprise for the King of France. He boarded the barge, crossed the river, and landed in France.

The one who was more thus paid homage to the one who was less. With that cordial attitude, he made the latter feel that his counterpart was full of good dispositions and good intentions. They held very cordial talks that contributed to peace between the two countries and to settling all of Europe’s problems at the time.

A great Catholic and a great saint, St. Henry died in God’s peace after rendering all these services. He was a great Catholic king, a great soldier, a great warrior, a great diplomat, a great politician, and died hallowed with all sorts of successes.