This Tuesday, August 25 the Church celebrates the feast of St. Louis, King of France. Having lived and worked in the Archdiocese of St. Louis for a number of years I came to know more about this revered leader of 13th century France. St. Louis was born April 25, 1214 and died August 25, 1270. Upon the death of his father, King Louis VIII, Louis became king at 12 years of age and assumed the throne at 19 years of age. He married Marguerite of Provence. Together they had eleven children.
As a youth, Franciscan friars were his instructors and Louis was greatly influenced by the life and message of St. Francis to live the Gospel. The early Dominican and Franciscan professors at the University of Paris were supported by King Louis. Franciscan professor Bonaventure and Dominican professor Thomas Aquinas were honored guests at his table and lively discussions on the Church and faith kept the King and these revered saints talking well into many nights.
As king of France, Louis sought to rule his kingdom in light of Gospel values. Louis frequently invited those who were poor to dine with him and his family. In 1248-1245 Louis led a Crusade to recover the Holy Land. Though initially successful he was captured and taken prisoner. Eventually he was released and returned to France. On his return to the Kingdom he instituted just laws and procedures in the governance of the Kingdom. He founded hospitals, visited the sick and was able to keep the nation at peace.
Along with being a just and fair ruler of his kingdom, Louis was deeply dedicated to his children and never failed to remind them of the dignity of their baptism even over that of their noble birth. Louis became a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and is today revered as the patron of the Secular Franciscan Order. In 1267 he left for another Crusade and died in Tunis on August 25, 1270. He was canonized a saint in 1297.
The city of St. Louis was named after St. Louis (the saint) in 1764 when Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau established a trading post on the Mississippi River in the location of the present city of St. Louis. Recently, as with many controversies surrounding names and statues in many places in the USA (e.g. Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, St. Junipero Serra, etc.), there have been calls to remove the statues of St. Louis and even rename any places associated with his name.
The sudden urge to rename places, take down statues, and condemn some of those who have gone before us seems to me to be rather hasty and without merit unless we examine the whole story of these various historical people. Some of those whom we have honored over the years we have discovered through further examination of historical facts that perhaps they have significant faults to call into question why we honor them today. Others we honor we may discover upon deeper examination their human frailties that may not make them the "perfect" person we thought but who have other redeeming qualities that invite our following their examples today.
As with all the saints that we honor in the Church we need to keep in mind that they are human beings like us. They suffered doubts, sinned and were people of their times. So we honor them, not for their faults, but for their attempts, sometimes imperfectly, to follow the Gospel call of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus we have only to look at the folks Jesus surrounded himself with when he walked here upon the earth. The Apostles were far from perfect and their behaviors reflected the culture and world in which they lived. St. Francis of Assisi, who is often called "Alter Christus" (another Christ) acknowledged his own sinfulness and was a man of his time.
We need models of good behavior today. We need to give good example to others and especially to the impressionable young. But I believe we also need to embrace our humanity knowing we are not saints yet but only on the way to sainthood (hopefully!).
While St. Louis was a man of his times and some of his behaviors we would find unacceptable in our own day and age, he also was a man of deep faith. Though King and holding great power over his subjects he showed great compassion to the poor of his kingdom. He promoted education for the people of his kingdom in a time when only the royalty, wealthy and church leaders were educated. In a time when marriages were often completed only for power and political conveniences, he was in love with his wife and deeply devoted to his children and all people in his household.
I conclude these thoughts with these words from a touching letter St. Louis gave to his eldest son, Philip III, before Louis left for the Crusade to Tunis in 1270. In that letter Louis reminded Philip of his duties as a Christian and future leader. St. Louis' letter continues to have as valid a message today in the 21st century as it did in the 13th century. The letter is below.
My Dearest Son,
Since I desire with all my heart that you be well instructed in all things, it is in my thought to give you some advice in this writing. For I have heard you say, several times, that you remember my words better than those of anyone else.
My first instruction is that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. … If the Lord has permitted you to have some trial, bear it willingly and with gratitude, considering that it has happened for your good and that perhaps you well deserved it. If the Lord bestows upon you any kind of prosperity, thank him humbly and see that you become no worse for it, either through vain pride or anything else, because you ought not to oppose God or offend him in the matter of his gifts.
Be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can. Thank God for all the benefits he has bestowed upon you, that you may be worthy to receive greater. Be just to your subjects, swaying neither to right nor left, but holding the line of justice. Always side with the poor rather that with the rich until you are certain of the truth. See that all your subjects live in justice and peace . . . Be devout and obedient to our mother the Church of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff as your spiritual father. Work to remove all sin from your land, particularly blasphemies and heresies.
In conclusion, dearest son, I give you every blessing that a loving father can give a son. May the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and all the saints protect you from every evil. And may the Lord give you the grace to do his will so that he may be served and honored through you, that in the next life we may together come to see him, love him and praise him unceasingly.
- St. Louis IX, King and Patron of the Secular Franciscan Order