St. Stephen

by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.


St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”  Or, to put the same wisdom more positively, “Iron sharpens iron.” Again the wisdom of Solomon says, “Two are better than one.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.” And again: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”  You get the gist. If we surround ourselves with good companions, we thrive, we grow stronger, we are not easily or quickly defeated. But if we do not make our peers out of good men, if we prefer the company of the wicked, we will perish.

In the late 900’s, when a man named Wojtech from Bohemia was named archbishop of Prague, he took the name of Adalbert, after the archbishop of Magdeburg under whom he had studied.  Because Adalbert the younger was a reforming bishop, he was exiled not once but twice. Eventually he was martyred in Prussia, and his body was ransomed for its weight in gold by Boleslas I of Poland, perhaps because St. Adalbert was the author of a Polish war song, but that’s another story.

In 985 this St. Adalbert, during one of his exiles, was sent by the Pope to the Magyars in Hungary, where he baptized the Magyar chief Géza and his ten year-old son, who thereafter took the name Stephen.  Ten years later, young Stephen married the sister of the future Holy Roman Emperor, St. Henry II. Two years after that, Stephen came to the Magyar throne himself, and in order to establish Hungary as a Christian nation, he sent his friend, the abbot St. Astricus, to petition Pope Sylvester II to bestow on him the title of king, which he did, and so Stephen was crowned king of Hungary on August 17, 1001.

Stephen was personal friends with St. Bruno of Querfurt, second apostle to Prussia and martyr, not to be confused with the St. Bruno who founded the Carthusians.  Incidentally, St. Bruno of Querfurt was also a disciple of Adalbert of Magdeburg and a friend of St. Adalbert who baptized Stephen. But again, that goes too far afield.  Another of Stephen’s friends was the abbot, St. Odilo of Cluny, the one who first established All Souls Day.

Such spectacular friends and acquaintances resulted as you’d expect.  Stephen set himself to establish charitable institutions across the known world.  He worked to uproot idolatry in his lands, himself preaching as a missionary. He declared that all his lands were under the special patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, praying to her every day for God’s blessings on the Hungarians.  He built a church in her honor, in which Hungarian kings were both crowned and buried.

Not surprisingly, the nation of Hungary to this day is one of the most Christian—one of the only Christian—nations left in Europe, a thousand years after its founding.  In fact, the first bullet point in the preamble of the Hungarian constitution says, “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.”  Perhaps most touching of all is that St. Stephen’s son Emeric is himself a canonized saint. Such are the far-reaching effects of having holy friends, of surrounding yourself with people of saintly character.

It is for this reason that we religious live in community, surrounding ourselves with holy companions, and for this we constantly invite and challenge others—students and our lay friends—to do the same.  Not only will it help save our own souls that we all strive to be saints together, but it will also contribute in mysterious and unseen ways to the sanctification of our culture for generations to come.

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