Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the liturgical memorial of St. Louis, August 25, 2020, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
Today the Church honors the memory of St. Louis IX of France, knight, crusader and king. The “cancel culture” has gone after him, as it has for so many others; of course, as usual, these folks know little or nothing of what they are attacking. So, let’s consider this evening the man himself, the Crusades, and his homeland, all the while making some applications to our own contemporary situation.
Four years ago, Cardinal Robert Sarah addressed the Scouts of Europe and presented Louis as a model for those young men. At the age of twelve, Louis was to be crowned King of France but first had to make his pledge as a knight. Cardinal Sarah highlights these aspects of the ceremony:
At the beginning of the anointment ceremony, Saint Louis 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 bauçant, this standard which is still yours, with the eight-point Cross representing the eight Beatitudes, Louis IX 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. . . ; he 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.
Now, lest you think that the Cardinal was engaging in blind hagiography or, worse, deception, listen to how the Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe – not known for advancing the Catholic cause – 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.” Indeed, Louis is the only King of France ever to be canonized.
That leads us into a brief but important disquisition on the Crusades.
When Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade in 1095, you see, he envisioned it as a defensive action, designed to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims and to protect the lives of Christians living there and of pilgrims going there. It is interesting that what we call “crusades” were never called that by the participants; that term doesn’t appear until the seventeenth century! Those answering the call of the Pope saw themselves as the fideles Sancti Petri (the faithful of Saint Peter) or the milites Christi (the soldiers or knights of Christ). The Pope asked them to make a vow and, as a sign of that vow, to sew onto their garments a cloth cross, which became known as “the taking of the cross” for their iter or peregrinatio (journey or pilgrimage). And so, the cross became the overriding symbol for the entire endeavor, with Deus vult (God wills it) as the battle cry. Pope Urban launched the First Crusade on the feast of the Assumption in 1096.
The crusades were more successful at some times than at others. Unfortunately, some of the participants engaged in acts not called for by the Holy See but actually roundly condemned by Pope Innocent III and other popes, even excommunicating offenders; those abuses have been used to give a black eye to the whole project. It is likewise important to note that the vast majority of the crusaders were good, holy, altruistic men and women, who endured great hardships, including the dangers of a long and perilous journey, potentially dying in battle, and not a few upon return, discovering their wives had been taken by another man. Let’s not also forget that there was an 80% casualty rate among the crusaders. Simply put, this was no “Club Med” vacation. The overwhelming positive nature of the crusades has caused an historian like Karen Armstrong – again, no apologist for traditional Catholic things – to declare:
With the Crusades, the West found its soul. It began cultivating its own literary, artistic and spiritual traditions. This was the age of St. Francis of Assisi, Giotto, Dante and the troubadours. Until the Crusades, Europe had been a primitive backwater, isolated from other civilizations and lost in a dark age. . . . By the end of the crusading venture, Europe had not only recovered but also was on a course to overtake its rivals and achieve world hegemony. This recovery was a triumph unparalleled in history, but it was also a triumph that involved great strain and whose unfortunate consequences reverberate even today.
St. Louis participated in the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, dying in 1270 from pestilence while on the Eighth Crusade. Clearly, Louis had embraced “the Cross.”
If interested in some good, objective analyses of the Crusades, I would recommend two works: the first, Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades; the second, Jonathan Riley-Smith’s What Were the Crusades?
The Crusades sought to regain for Christians what had been stolen by the Muslim hordes. In a sad twist of fate, the descendants of St. Louis in France, dubbed “eldest daughter of the Church,” have so squandered their spiritual heritage that a Muslim take-over of the nation is not an unrealistic possibility, with the now-regular church-burnings there being but a prelude to far worse. That long-evolving secularization of France prompted St. John Paul II to chide the French on his first pastoral visit there: “France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?”
Sadly, France is not alone in making itself ready fodder for Islamicization. The first point to consider is how ISIS and their ilk can recruit so effectively. The answer is simple: They have been able to paint the West and the United States, in particular, as “The Great Satan.” In what does that portrait consist? That formerly Christian nations – and I stress, “formerly” – have succumbed to and export pornography, abortion, birth control, sexual immorality, family breakdown and secularism. To be sure, that is an inaccurate and unfair generalization, but it is true enough in the main that it can be used to portray the West – the “Christian” West – as evil, an evil to be fought and conquered. What is the antidote? Producing saints.
Which brings us back to our saint of the day. The royal father of eleven crafted a last testament to his eldest son, which forms part of the Office of Readings for this liturgical observance. Give ear to this:
My dear son, in the first place I teach you that you must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your strength; unless you do so you cannot be saved. You must guard yourself from everything that you know is displeasing to God, that is to say, from all mortal sin. You must be ready to undergo every kind of martyrdom rather than commit one mortal sin.
If God sends you tribulation, you ought to endure it, giving thanks, realizing that it is for your good, and that, perhaps, you have deserved it. If however the Lord confers some benefit on you, you must humbly thank Him, and be on your guard not to become the worse for it, either through vainglory or in any other way. You must not offend God with the very gifts He has given you.
Assist at the Divine Office of the Church with joyful devotion; while you are present in church do not let your gaze wander, do not chat about trifles, but pray to the Lord attentively, either with your lips, or meditating in your heart.
Be compassionate towards the poor, the destitute and the afflicted; and, as far as lies in your power, help and console them. Give thanks to God for all the gifts He has bestowed upon you, so that you will become worthy of still greater gifts. Towards your subjects, act with such justice that you may steer a middle course, swerving neither to the right nor to the left, but lean more to the side of the poor man than of the rich until such time as you are certain about the truth. Do your utmost to ensure peace and justice for all your subjects but especially for clergy and religious.
Devotedly obey our mother, the Roman Church, and revere the Supreme Pontiff as your spiritual father. Endeavor to banish all sin, especially blasphemy and heresy, from your kingdom.
Finally, my dear son, I impart to you every blessing that a loving father can bestow on his son; may the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all the saints, guard you from all evil. May the Lord grant you the grace to do His will so that he may be served and honoured by you, and that, together, after this life we may come to see Him, love Him and praise Him for ever. Amen.
What king, president or simple father today would think of leaving that kind of holy counsel to a son? Does that sound like the advice of the evil man whose statue should be torn down? No, the Woke “culture” needs to wake up. That will only happen when Catholics like you wake up: Learn your Catholic heritage. Be proud of your Catholic heritage. And most importantly, live your Catholic heritage.
As we might suspect, Cardinal Newman can help us put it all together:
It is the compensation of the disorders and perplexities of these latter times of the Church that we have the history of the foregoing. We indeed of this day have been reserved to witness a disorganization of the City of God, which it never entered into the minds of the early believers to imagine: but we are witnesses also of its triumphs and of its luminaries through those many ages which have brought about the misfortunes which at present overshadow it. If they were blessed who lived in primitive times, and saw the fresh traces of their Lord, and heard the echoes of Apostolic voices, blessed too are we whose special portion it is to see that same Lord revealed in His Saints. The wonders of His grace in the soul of man, its creative power, its inexhaustible resources, its manifold operation, all this we know, as they knew it not. They never heard the names of St. Gregory, St. Bernard, St. Francis, and St. Louis. In fixing our thoughts then, as in an undertaking like the present, on the History of the Saints, we are but availing ourselves of that solace and recompense of our peculiar trials which has been provided for our need by our Gracious Master.
May this holy king we honor today deliver his beloved homeland – and all formerly Christian lands – from their collective amnesia. May all Christians become truly “Woke.”
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