A Servant King
Imagine for a moment what it would be like to live in a pre-Christian time, in a society where violence and war were commonplace, where cruelty was often rewarded with praise and power. Now imagine that it’s your responsibility to change that culture, to civilize it, to bring it to Christianity. Well, that’s the story of St. Stephen of Hungary.
He was born in present-day Hungary around the year 975 and was given the name Vajk by his father Geza and mother Sarolt. His grandfather Arpad had conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late 800s and had install Geza as his heir to rule the Magyar people, which is what Hungarians call themselves. In 985, for political reasons, Geza decided to convert to Christianity, and so the whole family was baptized. Young Vajk took the name Istvan, or Stephan, and, unlike his father, took his Christianity very seriously. But he had an uphill battle as there was no Church structure in that part of the world only a few missionaries like St. Methodius and St. Adalbert. He needed to unite his people under one rule to keep them from killing each other, and he needed to bring them to Christ.
Stephan married Gisela of Bavaria, the daughter of the Emperor Henry II, became the king of the Magyars, and built the parishes, chapels, and shrines of his land. With the help of the pope, he established seminaries for young Magyars interested in the priesthood, and he completed the Benedictine monastery in Martinsburg. He passed laws against violence, murder, theft, and other public crimes. But he also cared for the poor.
Once, while distributing alms, which was something he did in disguise and by himself, he was attached by some ruffians who stole everything on his person and injured him a bit. Though his nobles begged him to stop this work, he refused and laughed off the event as just a little cross to bear for the privilege of meeting Jesus in the poor.
He died after a long illness on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, so we celebrate him on August 16.
Today, we might judge some of the deeds of St. Stephen harshly, particularly as he tried to enforce law and order. But then we don’t live in a pre-Christian time, in a society where violence and war are commonplace. St. Stephen showed heroic virtue in establishing the Catholic Church in Hungary which still functions there today, after decades under Soviet influence. The faith is alive there and protected, no doubt, by St. Stephen patron saint of Hungary.