Saint Louis adoring the Christ-Child. In his right hand he holds the relic of the Sacred Crown of Thorns.
It was his Christian Faith that made Saint Louis IX so great a prince. You that are the judges of the earth, think of the Lord in goodness, and seek Him in simplicity of heart (Wisd. 1: 1). Eternal Wisdom, in giving this precept to kings, rejoiced with divine foreknowledge among the lilies of France, where this great Saint was to shine with so bright a luster.
Subject and prince are bound to God by a common law, for all men have one entrance into life, and the like going out (Wisd. 7: 6). Far from being less responsible to the divine authority than his subjects, the prince is answerable for every one of them as well as for himself. The aim and object of creation is that God be glorified by the return of all creatures to their Author, in the manner and measure that He wills. Therefore, since God has called man to a participation in His own divine life, and has made the earth to be to him but a place of passage, mere natural justice and the present order of things are not sufficient for him. Kings must recognize that the object of their civil sovereignty, not being the last end of all things, is, like themselves, under the direction and absolute rule of that higher end, before which they are but as subjects. Hear therefore, ye kings, and understand: a greater punishment is ready for the more mighty (Wisd. 6: 2, 9). Thus did the Divine Goodness give merciful warnings under the ancient Covenant.
In the New Covenant, Eternal Wisdom—Jesus, the Son of Man, Whose Blood paid the ransom of the world—is now, by the contract of the sacred nuptials which united Him to our nature, the only source of power and of all true justice. And now, once more, O ye kings, understand: says the psalmist; receive instruction, you that judge the earth (Ps. 2: 10).
"It is Christ Who speaks," says Saint Augustine. "Now that I am King in the Name of God My Father, be not sad, as though you were thereby deprived of some good you possessed; but rather acknowledging that it is good for you to be subject to Him Who gives you security in the light, serve this Lord of all fear, and rejoice unto Him."
It is the Church that continues, in the name of our ascended Lord, to give to kings this security which comes from the light; the Church who, without trespassing upon the authority of princes, is nevertheless their superior as mother of nations, as judge of consciences, as the only guide of the human race journeying towards its last end. Let us listen to the Sovereign Pontiff Leo XIII, speaking with the precision and power which characterize his infallible teaching: "As there are on earth two great societies: the one civil, whose immediate end is to procure the temporal and earthly well-being of the human race; the other religious, whose aim is to lead men to the eternal happiness for which they were created: so also God has divided the government of the world between two powers. Each of these is supreme in its kind; each is bounded by definite limits drawn in conformity with its nature and its particular end. Jesus Christ, the Founder of the Church, willed that they should be distinct from one another, and that both should be free from trammels in the accomplishment of their respective missions; yet with this provision, that in those matters which appertain to the jurisdiction and judgment of both, though on different grounds, the power which is concerned with temporal interests must depend, as is fitting, on that power which watches over eternal interests. Finally, both being subject to the eternal and to the natural Law, they must in such a manner mutually agree in what concerns the order and government of each, as to form a relationship comparable to the union of soul and body in man."
In the sphere of eternal interests, to which no one may be indifferent, princes are bound to hold not only themselves but their people also in subjection to God and to His Church. For "since men united by the bonds of common society depend on God no less than individuals, associations whether political or private cannot, without crime, behave as if God did not exist, nor put away religion as something foreign to them, nor dispense themselves from observing, in that religion, the rules according to which God has declared that He wills to be honored. Consequently, the heads of the State are bound, as such, to keep holy the Name of God, make it one of their principal duties to protect religion by the authority of their laws, and not command or ordain anything contrary to its integrity."
Let us now return to Saint Augustine's explanation of the text of the Psalm: "How do kings serve the Lord with fear, except by forbidding and punishing with a religious severity all acts contrary to the commands of the Lord? In his twofold character as man and as prince, the king must serve God: as man, he serves Him by the fidelity of his life; as king, by framing or maintaining laws which command good and forbid evil."
In all this teaching we are not losing sight of today's Feast; for we may say of Saint Louis IX as an epitome of his life: He made a covenant before the Lord to walk after Him and keep His commandments; and cause them to be kept by all (2 Paral. 34: 31-33). God was his end, faith was his guide: herein lies the whole secret of his government as well as of his sanctity. As a Christian he was a servant of Christ; as a prince he was Christ's lieutenant. The aspirations of the Christian and those of the prince did not divide his soul; this unity was his strength, as it is now his glory. He now reigns in Heaven with Christ, Who alone reigned in him and by him on earth.
Saint Louis was anointed king at Rheims on the First Sunday of Advent 1226; and he laid to heart for his whole life the words of that day's Introit: To Thee, O Lord, have I lifted up my soul: in Thee, O my God, I put my trust. He was only twelve years old; but Our Lord had given him the surest safeguard of his youth in the person of his mother, that noble daughter of Spain, whose coming into France, says William de Nangis, was the arrival of all good things. The premature death of her husband Louis VIII left Blanche of Castille to cope with a most formidable conspiracy. The great vassals, whose power had been reduced during the preceding reigns, promised themselves that they would profit by the youth of the new prince, in order to regain the rights they had enjoyed under the ancient feudal system to the detriment of the unity of government. In order to remove this mother, who stood up single-handed between the weakness of the heir to the throne and their ambition, the barons, everywhere in revolt, joined hands with the Albigensian heretics; and made an alliance with the son of John Lackland, Henry III, who was endeavoring to recover the possessions in France lost by his father in punishment for the murder of prince Arthur. Strong in her son's right and in the protection of Pope Gregory IX, Blanche held out; and she, who the traitors to their country called "the foreigner" in order to palliate their crime, saved France by her prudence and her brave firmness. After nine years of regency, she handed over the nation to its king, more united and more powerful than ever since the days of Saint Karl the Great. Saint Louis, in order to become the glory of Heaven and earth on this day, had but to walk in the footsteps of Blanche; the son had but to remember the precepts of his mother.
There was a graceful simplicity in our Saint's life, which enhanced its greatness and heroism. One would have said he did not experience the difficulty that others feel, though far removed from the throne, in fulfilling those words of Our Lord: Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 18: 3). Yet who was greater that this humble king, making more account of his Baptism at Poissy than of his anointing at Rheims; saying the Office, fasting, scourging himself like his friends the Dominicans and Franciscans; ever treating with repect those whom he regarded as God's privileged ones—priests, religious, the suffering and the poor? The great men of our days may smile at him for being more grieved at losing his breviary than at being taken captive by the Saracens. But how have they behaved in the like extremity? Never was the enemy heard to say to any of them: You are our captive, yet one would say we were rather your prisoners. They did not check the fierce greed and bloodthirstiness of the jailers, nor dictate terms of peace as firmly as if they had been the conquerors. It is peculiar to the admirable reign of Saint Louis, that disasters made him not only a hero but a Saint; and that France gained for centuries in the East, where her king had been captive, a greater renown than any victory could have won for her.
The humility of holy kings is not forgetfulness of the great office they fulfill in God's Name; their abnegation could not consist in giving up rights which are also duties, any more than charity could cast out justice, or love of peace could oppose the virtues of the warrior. Saint Louis, without an army, felt himself superior as a Christian to the victorious infidel, and treated him accordingly; moreover the West discovered very early, and more and more as his sanctity increased with his years, that this king, who spent his nights in prayer, and his days in serving the poor, was not the man to yield to anyone the prerogatives of the crown. "There is but one king in France," said the judge of Vincennes rescinding a sentence of Charles at Anjou; and the barons at the castle of Bellême, and the English at Taillebourg (pictured above right), were already aware of it; so was Frederick II who, threatening to crush the Church and seeking aid from the French, received this answer: "The kingdom of France is not so weak as to suffer itself to be driven by your spurs."
St. Louis' death was like his life, simple and great. God called him to Himself in the midst of sorrowful and critical circumstances, far from his own country, in that African land where he had before suffered so much; these trials were sanctifying thorns, reminding the prince of his most cherished jewel, the Sacred Crown of Thorns which he had added to the treasures of France. Moved by the hope of converting the king of Tunis to the Christian Faith, it was rather as an apostle than a soldier that he had landed on that shore where his last struggle awaited him. "I challenge you in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of His lieutenant Louis, King of France;" such was the sublime provocation hurled against the infidel city, and it was worthy of the close of such a life.
The Christian army, victorious in every battle, was decimated by a terrible plague. Surrounded by the dead and dying, and himself attacked with the contagion, Saint Louis called to him his eldest son, who was to succeed him as Philip III, and gave him his last instructions:
"Dear son, the first thing I admonish thee is that thou set thy heart to love God, for without that nothing else is of any worth. Beware of doing what displeases God, that is to say mortal sin; yea thou ought rather to suffer all manner of torments. If God send thee adversity, receive it in patience, and give thanks for it to Our Lord, and think that thou hast done Him ill service. If He give thee prosperity, thank Him humbly for the same and be not the worse, either by pride or in any other manner, for that very thing that ought to make thee better; for we must not use God's gifts against Himself. Have a kind and pitiful heart towards the poor and the unfortunate, and comfort and assist them as much as thou canst. Keep up the good customs of thy kingdom, and put down all bad ones. Love all that is good and hate all that is evil of any sort. Suffer no ill word about God, Our Lady or the Saints to be spoken in thy presence, that thou dost not straightway punish. In the adminstering of justice be loyal to thy subjects, without turning aside to the right hand or to the left; but help the right, and take the part of the poor until the whole truth be cleared up. Honor and love all ecclesiastical persons, and take care that they be not deprived of the gifts and alms that thy predecessors may have given them. Dear son, I admonish thee that thou ever be devoted to the Church of Rome, and to the Sovereign Bishop our Father, that is the Pope, and that thou bear him reverence and honor as thou ought to do to thy spiritual father. Exert thyself that every vile sin be abolished from the land; especially to the best of thy power put down all wicked oaths and heresy. Fair son, I give thee all the blessings that a good father can give to a son; may the Blessed Trinity and all the Saints guard thee and protect thee from all evils; may God give thee grace to do His Will always, and may He be honored by thee, and may thou and I after this mortal life be together in His company and praise Him without end."
Joinville informs us that after Saint Louis had instructed his son Philip, his illness began to increase greatly; he asked for the Last Sacraments, and received them with a sound mind and right understanding. This was evident by the fact that he took part in the recitation of the Seven Penitential Psalms. He then called upon the Saints to aid him, especially Saint James, Saint Denis of France and Saint Genevieve. After this the holy king had himself laid on a bed strewn with ashes, and placing his hands upon his breast and looking towards Heaven, he gave up his soul to his Creator, at the same hour wherein the Son of God died on the Cross for the salvation of the world.
Joinville also tells us that Saint Louis had earlier said: "I would rather a stranger than my own son should rule my people and kingdom, if my son is to rule amiss." It was the grandson of Saint Louis, Philip IV, who began the spiritual decline of the rulers of France. Also known as "Philip the Fair," his reign was infamous for cruelty, greed, and treachery against the Church. His sons died before him, and thus this royal family came to an end, and the prayer of Saint Louis was answered.
The body of Saint Louis was translated to Paris where it has been venerated in the celebrated church of Saint Denis, while the relic of his head has been kept in the "Sainte-Chapelle"—the royal chapel which also houses the Sacred Crown of Thorns.
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