Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on August 24, 2018.
Addressing the Scouts d’Europe in 2016, Cardinal Sarah presented Louis IX (1215-70) as a worthy model for aspiring young men of the 21st century. “These words of your ceremonial,” the cardinal told youths gathered at Vezelay for pilgrimage,
evoke other words that, long ago, king Saint Louis himself, when he was young, pronounced for his knight oath. It was in mid-November 1226, in Soissons, on his way to Reims where he was going to be sacred king of France. Like you, Saint Louis liked to come to Vézelay in pilgrimage, and the last time was in 1270, the year of his death. At the beginning of the anointment ceremony, Saint Louis had heard these words pronounced by the bishop: “If you look for riches or honours, you are not worthy of being anointed as a knight”. After bowing down in front of the baussant, this standard which is still yours, with the eight-point Cross representing the eight Beatitudes, Louis IX had then promised to protect the holy Church and to believe in all its teachings, to defend the weak, especially widows and orphans, to be courteous and respectful towards women (by the way, I remind you the 5th article of the scout law : “the scout is courteous and chivalrous”); he had also promised to be frank and to fight evil and injustice. In other words, for the knight of medieval Christianity, it meant to conform his life to these three words that you know very well: “frankness, selflessness, purity” which are the three main “virtues” of scouting.
The boy who embraced high-minded virtues in 1226 became a man who would epitomize them. Today even the Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe – hardly a specimen of Francophile Catholic hagiography – acknowledges the virtues of Saint Louis, famed for his “intense devotional piety, a concern for justice and peace, his reputation as a crusader and exponent of the sanctity of kingship.”
Unlike today’s foreign policy wonks Louis had no interest in starting wars for other men to fight, but instead took part himself in two crusades to the Middle East, with a burning ambition to restore Egypt to Christendom. It was during the last expedition in 1270 that he lost his life from pestilence, leaving behind a historical legacy too substantial to relate in a short post. It was Louis who spent four years fortifying the Christian coastal cities in the Holy Land; it was Louis who commanded his royal guardsmen to defend the Dominican monastery of Saint Jacques from rioters; it was Louis whose generosity to the peasantry and concern for the common good fostered vibrant, vivacious, and tenacious Christian France, the land of Lourdes and Saint Therese.
For Americans, too, Louis is of special interest, insofar as he truly is counter-cultural, a sign of contradiction. After all, if overenthusiastic partisans of feudalism once conflated the throne with the altar, today many more Catholic democrats conflate said altar with the Lincoln Memorial. When too many churchmen are wont to throw crusaders under the bus, feminism has eviscerated the chivalry commended by Cardinal Sarah, and liberal democracy is mistaken for a moral absolute, we need the feast of Saint Louis to remind us that the Church has on occasion seen fit to canonize knights, crusaders, and monarchs. Charity and justice are transcendent, universal, and eternal; the specific social and political traditions through which they express themselves are not. This should be of great comfort to troubled Americans, because it means that even we modern republicans can request the intercession of medieval saint-kings.
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