A Christian King

King Stephen of Hungary

Feast Day: 16th August

In the early Middle Ages many kings and rulers were cruel despots who abused their power and cared nothing for their subjects. One outstanding exception was King Stephen of Hungary, who set such a fine example of Christian kingship that the Church has recognised him as a saint.

He was born around the year 975, the son of Geza, Duke of the Magyars. Geza was converted to Christianity in 985 and Stephen, then aged 10, was baptised at the same time. Geza's conversion may well have been prompted by political expediency, but young Stephen genuinely embraced the faith. In 995, when he was 20 years old he married Gisela, sister of the Duke of Bavaria, and two years later he succeeded his father as ruler of the Magyar people.

At first he had to contend with squabbles between rival factions, but once he had established peace in his country he began his life's work of strengthening and building up the Church. He sent Astrik, who was to be his first archbishop, to Rome to seek the approval from Pope Sylvester II for a properly organized ecclesiastical hierarchy. At the same time he asked the Pope to confer on him the title of king of Hungary. The Pope granted both requests and in 1000 sent Stephen a royal crown with his blessing.

King Stephen began his programme of founding churches and setting up episcopal sees. It was a gradual process, allowing for Magyar clergy to be trained and ordained. In the city of Szekesfehervar he built a church in honour of the Mother of God, in which all the kings of Hungary were later crowned and buried. He introduced a taxation system to help support local churches and their clergy, and to assist the poor. He himself paid for the furnishing of the churches.

It is clear from his writings that King Stephen ruled his country with wisdom, justice and true Christian values. He reorganised the administration and revised the laws of the land, always having in mind the good of his subjects. His views on the responsibilities and duties of kingship are set out in the instructions he wrote for his son and heir. "I advise you above all things to preserve the Catholic faith with such care that you may be an example to all the subjects given you by God. Be gracious, not only to your family, to princes, the rich, your neighbours, your countrymen, but also to strangers and everyone who approaches you. Show mercy to all who are suffering from violence. Be patient with everyone, not only the powerful, but also with the weak and feeble. Do not be puffed up by prosperity nor cast down by adversity. Keep humble in this life so that God may exalt you in the next."

Unfortunately, his son was killed in a hunting accident in 1031, and the last years of Stephen's life were marked by sadness and ill health. He died on the feast of the Assumption in 1038, aged 63, and was buried at Szekesfhervar beside his beloved son.

The legacy of Saint Stephen is his example of virtuous living and good government. He has much to teach all those who hold positions of authority and power, and we can ask him to pray for all rulers and leaders. He was a good father who tried to teach first and foremost through example. Whatever our walk of life, we can all learn from this truly Christian king.