One of the Patron Saints of the Third Order Secular of the Franciscan family, St. Elizabeth of Hungary (d. 1231) is a model for what leadership should look like in the public sphere. Elizabeth was quite literally a princess,the daughter of the Hungarian King Andrew II. In many ways her childhood and young-adult life resembled that which was typical for a woman of her stature and place in thirteenth-century society. She was arranged to be married to a German nobleman, and did so at the age of fourteen. Around the same time her mother Queen Gertrude was murdered, which affected Elizabeth in a profound way. Her biographers note that it was in the wake of that grief and shock that her spiritual life began to blossom and her commitment to prayer grew.
As a young woman she encountered the Franciscan friars, whom she found fascinating and inspiring. She desired to use her social position and the wealth of her royal family to do good for the unfortunates of her time: the abject poor, the physically ill, the disenfranchised. She convinced her husband, Ludwig, to agree to this commitment. And from that point onward, as one account has it, “Elizabeth took charge of distributing aid to victims of disease and flooding that struck Thuringia. She took charge of caring for the afflicted, even when this required giving up the royal family’s own clothes and goods. Elizabeth arranged for a hospital to be built, and is said to have provided for the needs of nearly a thousand desperately poor people on a daily basis.”
At the age of about 20, Elizabeth’s husband died suddenly, leaving her widowed and her children orphaned. At first she resolved to continue living the traditional noble life of a princess, to remarry and move ahead. But further discernment led her to join the Third Order of St. Francis (today: The Secular Franciscans) in a formal way, which was her way of responding to the desire to be more faithful to the Gospel.
She lived very simply from that time forward, eschewing the trappings of royal life and luxury for the ordinariness of Franciscan secular life. Having earlier built a hospital for the sick, she increasingly spent more time working there and tending to the needs of the poor and ill. She died at the very young age of 24, having contracted an illness while caring for the sick. So evident was her example of Gospel life and holiness, the church officially canonized her just four years after her death.
The Secular Franciscan branch of the worldwide Franciscan family recognizes Elizabeth as patroness of the Order. And with good reason. But I believe that in a time such as ours, when some in civil leadership appears to sow division rather than unity, fear rather than peace, hatred rather than love and acceptance, Elizabeth’s example remains a powerful one for all those in authority.
Furthermore, we could really use her intercession after such a divisive and shocking election in the United States. So, on her feast day we pray: St. Elizabeth of Hungary, ora pro nobis.