St. Henry


Few kings have been canonized. As far as I know, the only emperor-saint was Henry II. He ruled the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans from 1002 to 1024.

Henry was the son of Henry, Duke of Bavaria. Educated by St. Wolfgang, the bishop of Ratisbon, (he was perhaps at first planning to enter the clergy), the younger Henry succeeded his father in the dukedom on the latter’s death in 995. When his cousin Otto III died on 1002, Duke Henry was elected emperor.

Those who headed the Holy Roman Empire had to engage in constant wars to keep its constituent states at peace. Henry II deliberately abandoned the project of Otto III to win control of all Europe. Nevertheless, he had to deal with border disputes regarding Lorraine, Flanders and Luxembourg; with the personal ambitions of Polish Duke Boleslav Chrobry of Poland; with the counterclaims of Count Ardoin of Ivrea to the crown of Italy; and with the intrusions of the Greeks into southern Italy. Successful as a soldier and ruler, Henry, responding to the plea of Pope Benedict VIII, marched to Rome in 1013 to put down a rebellion. The pope rewarded him in 1014 by bestowing on him the imperial crown.

What was remarkable about Emperor Henry was the deeply conscientious view he took of his duty as a major ruler. Despite the detailed attention he gave to his multiple political duties, he carefully maintained his own spiritual life.

In those days, the Benedictine monks of Cluny were heading a movement to reform and renew the Church. Henry appreciated their program and gave it his backing, even when his support led him into conflict with those opposed to the reformers.

He also warmly encouraged the efforts of St. Stephen to Christianize Hungary.

In both Italy and Germany he appointed bishops who were loyal to him and to his ecclesiastical views, and he endowed their diocese generously. If, on the other hand, dioceses or monasteries did not live up to his expectations, he cut them down or even suppressed them ruthlessly. Herein lay his chief defect: his occasional intervention into church affairs and his use of the church for political ends. Such interventions, however, were in keeping with the practice of the times. I suppose it is inevitable that even the worthiest politicians will play politics. After all, they are not monks but laymen.

The city of Bamberg was the apple of Henry’s eye. He founded the see of Bamberg in 1006, and built for its bishop a magnificent cathedral. He also established a monastery there. In these works he had the assistance of his empress, St. Kunigunde. Naturally, the citizens of Bamberg were devoted to such a benefactor, and in their subsequent folklore about him they tended to gild the lily.

Nevertheless, the veneration of this devout man and truly great ruler was not misplaced. Pope Eugene III canonized him in 1146. The tombs of St. Henry and St. Kunigunde are side by side in the handsome cathedral that they erected. Bamberg remains the center of their cult, although they are also commemorated in other dioceses of southern Germany and Switzerland.

One might wish that American Catholic political figures would adopt this notable Christian ruler as their model. It is not likely, however, that as members of a modern democratic nation they would find a kindred spirit in a medieval emperor.

I guess we must wait until an American president or legislator is proclaimed. This may take a while!

--Father Robert F. McNamara