On this 17th of November we, as Franciscans, joyfully celebrate the feast of St Elizabeth of Hungary, a tertiary of our Order.
Elizabeth was born on 7 July 1207, of Thuringia. Her father was none other than Andrew II, the mighty and mighty King of Hungary and his wife was the German Countess Gertrude of Andechs-Meran, who was wife to the Duke of Silesia. From her very young age she already showed an avid interest in administering to the poor.
Elizabeth got married at the age of 14 to Landgrave Hermann’s son, Ludwig. Even if their marriage was done for political reasons, by time a sincere love erupted between the young newlyweds. What surely helped their relationship to grow and blossom was their ardent faith and their heartfelt wish to do God’s will. At the age of 18, following his father’s demise, Ludwig saw himself the sole leader of Thuringia.
Instead of stifling her strong love for Jesus in the poor, court life made that love flourish and touch many people’s lives. To begin with, their marriage celebrations were as simple as they could be. The main reason being that the funds that were intended for the banquet was given to the poor. The suffering Christ in the poor was something that Elizabeth could not bear seeing. In fact, torn as she was between the faith she professed and the real poverty around her, once, at the Feast of the Assumption she entered the church, took off her crown and put it before the Crucifix. Meanwhile she prostrated herself to the ground. When her mother-in-law admonished her about her apparent silly gesture Elizabeth retorted: How can I, a wretched creature, continue to wear a crown of earthly dignity, when I see my King Jesus Christ crowned with thorns?
Her life testimony amply shows that for Elizabeth there was a perfect congruency between how she behaved with God and her subjects. In the Sayings of the four maids we encounter this powerful gospel witness: She did not eat any food before ascertaining that it came from her husband’s property or legitimate possessions. While she abstained from goods procured illegally, she also did her utmost to provide compensation to those who had suffered violence (nn. 25 and 37).
Such a life based solidly on the indubitable certainty that should exist from Gospel to life and from life to Gospel, led Pope Benedict XVI made the following relevant comment about her during his weekly catechesis of Wednesday, 20 October 2010 at St Peter’s Square: She is a true example for all who have roles of leadership: the exercise of authority, at every level, must be lived as a service to justice and charity, in the constant search for the common good.
Elizabeth kept growing in her love for Christ thanks to the countless acts of mercy she did, such as donating food and drink to those who came to her for help, providing clothes, paying off debts, caring for the sick as well as burying the dead. As a true monarch she loved her people by visiting their homes to give them food, meat, flour and any kind of food they requested from her. Elizabeth wanted to be physically close to the poor by personally giving it to them, while making sure that the clothing and mattresses the poor were given fitted them. Upon hearing all these things her husband Ludwig kept supporting her. He told her accusers: So long as she does not sell the castle, I am happy with her! Within the context of her love for the poor, Ludwig said to Elizabeth: Dear Elizabeth, it is Christ whom you have cleansed, nourished and cared for.
For her impressive commitment to Christ in the poor Elizabeth had to pay a very harsh price. When her husband died at the age of 27, her brother-in-law ousted the young widow of three children with the cruel excuse that she was incapable of ruling Thuringia. After being banished from the Castle of Wartburg, two of her ladies who were close to her entrusted her three children to the care of her deceased husband. On the other hand, Elizabeth went around in the villages, working with her hands, caring for the sick, cooking and spinning thread.
Along this harsh calvary, Elizabeth kept trusting in God. Thanks to the help of her few relatives who really were loyal to her, with the income she received it was sufficient for her to retire in the family’s castle in Marburg. It was here that she met Br Conrad who lived there. How eloquent is the following otestimony he gives of the holy life of Elizabeth!
From this time onward Elizabeth’s goodness greatly increased. She was a lifelong friend of the poor and gave herself entirely to relieving the hungry. She ordered that one of her castles should be converted into a hospital in which she gathered many of the weak and feeble. She generously gave alms to all who were in need, not only in that place but in all the territories of her husband’s empire. She spent all her own revenue from her husband’s four principalities, and finally she sold her luxurious’ possessions and rich clothes for the sake of the poor.
Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, Elizabeth went to visit the sick. She personally cared for those who were particularly repulsive; to some she gave food, to others clothing; some she carried on her own shoulders, and performed many other kindly services. Her husband, of happy memory, gladly approved of these charitable works. Finally, when her husband died, she sought the highest perfection; filled with tears, she implored me to let her beg for alms from door to door.
On Good Friday of that year, when the altars had been stripped, she laid her hands on the altar in a chapel in her own town, where she had established the Friars Minor, and before witnesses she voluntarily renounced all worldly display and everything that our Saviour in the gospel advises us to abandon. Even then she saw that she could still be distracted by the cares and worldly glory which had surrounded her while her husband was alive. Against my will she followed me to Marburg. Here in the town she built a hospice where she gathered together the weak and the feeble. There she attended the most wretched and contemptible at her own table.
Apart from those active good works, I declare before God that I have seldom seen a more contemplative woman. When she was coming from private prayer, some religious men and women often saw her face shining marvellously and light coming from her eyes like the rays of the sun.
Before her death I heard her confession. When I asked what should be done about her goods and possessions, she replied that anything which seemed to be hers belonged to the poor. She asked me to distribute everything except one worn out dress in which she wished to be buried. When all this had been decided, she received the body of our Lord. Afterward, until vespers, she spoke often of the holiest things she had heard in sermons. Then, she devoutly commended to God all who were sitting near her, and as if falling into a gentle sleep, she died.
It was November 17 1231 when the great Elizabeth left this Valley of Tears to get her much deserved heavenly reward. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his catechesis about her: St Elizabeth invites us to rediscover Christ, to love him and to have faith; and thereby to find true justice and love, as well as the joy that one day we shall be immersed in divine love, in the joy of eternity with God.
St Elizabeth of Hungary, a great champion of the poor, pray for us!