George F. Riley, O.S.A.Feast of Saint Louis - August 25, 2007
George F. Riley, O.S.A.

When somebody says “Saint Louis” you are likely to think of a city, or a baseball team or a ballad. The last thing most of us think of is a saint. Yet, in the beginning, Saint Louis was of course Saint Louis. And he was not only a saint but a king. In these democratic days when kings are in rather sour repute, it might be comforting to remember one monarch who managed to hide a halo under his crown, King Louis IX of France.

He started with a superlative advantage: his mother was a saint, too. If you do not think that this makes a difference, some day casually consult such a knowledgeable authority as the police officer who patrols your street or cruises your neighborhood. He will tell you with blunt directness that where there are good parents you usually find good children. Not just because of heredity, but because of devotion to, and supervision of, the children.

The mother of Saint Louis was Blanche of Castile, she of the coal-black eyes and the olive skin, a radiant princess who crossed the Pyrenees at the dawn of the 13th century to marry the King of France. As young Louis stretched into youth, Blanche not only prayed for him but guided him. Amid the splendors of a palace, temptation had always woven its silken webs. From the word “court” comes the sordid word courtesan. And in those days when the whim of a king was a command, when shameless eyes beckoned behind many a jeweled fan, life was doubly dangerous for the young man whose father was dead and who found himself with so much power and so little experience. But always, Blanche, sweet in temperament but strong in character, went ahead of him like an ice-breaker, opening the way and guiding him carefully to the safer open waters of his maturity.

Tall, slender, handsome of smiling face, he not only acted the part of a king but looked the part. He was a curious combination of sense of humor and deep responsibility. Few knew that behind his pleasant countenance and smiling grace, he kept within him the memory of the sufferings of Christ. Eventually he stooped his tall head long enough to pass under the bridal arch. He sired a family of eleven children. The fact that he was faithful to his wife awed his biographers. He lived in an era where it would have been a royal privilege to wander through strange orchards to sample what fruits he chose. For many men freedom from sin is merely absence of opportunity; for Louis it was dedication to right. He saw to it that his crown was not tarnished. Pious but manly, just yet kindly, he went on to become not only the idol of France and the toast of Christendom, but won the admiration of the Muslim world as well.

Louis was not a castle king. He was often in the saddle, riding through his realm to see how his subjects fared. He dined with beggars, sat with merchants, and read to the lonely blind in the home he started for them. At night when the rest of the country slept he knelt in prayer. When he was stricken with a strange disease, the medical men around him despaired. The King faded and faded, no pulse could be found and the clock of his heart gave no tick. Just as they drew the monogrammed sheet up over his statue-like face, as he lay ashen on his deathbed, the king sat upright in bed and said to the bishop who had administered the last rites, “Lay upon my shoulders the red cross of the Crusade. I will go to the Holy Land.” So they laid the red cross upon him, which in those days was the wordless ceremony whereby a man took solemn vow to fight for the recovery of the Tomb of Christ from the infidel Turks. He went on to fight and fought he did until again he was struck down, only this time with the dreaded plague that ravaged the land and killed hundreds of victims. At the end of August in the broiling heat of Algiers he stretched out his arms in the form of a crow and asked to be anointed with penitential ash so that he could meet his God.

None of us here today have been born of royalty, and few of us will ever amass a fortune. But we all touch those lives around us. In our lifetime will never know how many lives we influence, how many maps we re-chart by our actions, how many souls we penetrate. But because no man is an island, and because God has ordained that we work side by side with our fellow men, we do penetrate the lives and philosophies of others. We have the power to decree by good example. It is our right and our duty to walk in humility and to bear the burdens that face us each day. We have the saints to look to for example. Their example shows that true royalty arises from the grace of Jesus Christ, the free gift of the Cross, and the peerless call to an eternal life which we begin to enter in this life, whenever we pray, serve the poor, work for justice, teach the truth, and walk through the world’s temptations with our hearts set on the King of kings.