What a Great Catholic Leader Looks Like

Blessed Charles the Good, Wikimedia Commons

How should a leader lead? That is, how should a president, elected representative, executive board member, office superior, or other leader behave, make decisions, and treat the people he or she governs, at least from a Christian perspective?

Unfortunately, today’s culture does not often use a Christian perspective in its understanding of leadership. Instead, our culture encourages us to judge our leaders by all the wrong metrics. For example, modern media gives us endless access to public leaders’ off-the-cuff remarks, daily physical appearance, family squabbles, and many other personal matters that do not really indicate whether those individuals’ leadership is good, bad, or indifferent.

The teaching of the Church also allows considerable leeway in how a leader can approach many issues. For example, there is no magic percentage of taxation that is always permitted or prohibited. There are some boundaries involving faith and morals which a Christian leader can never cross, but those boundaries apply to every other follower of Christ as well.

However, as Christians, we should hope that our leaders will pattern themselves after the perfect leader: the King of Kings Himself. Three of the saints who are celebrated in the month of March—Blessed Charles the Good on March 2; Saint Cunegund on March 3; and Saint Matilda of Saxony on March 14—show us what a good leader should look like, at least for a Christian leader.

The father of Blessed Charles the Good was both a king and a saint. Canute, king of Denmark, died a martyr during a rebellion, and his son, three-year-old Charles (1083-1127), was taken to the nearby court of Flanders (modern Belgium) for his safety. Charles became a knight in the service of his uncle, Robert II, count of Flanders, and accompanied him to free the Holy Land from Muslim control during a crusade. Charles returned home and married Margaret, the daughter of a French count. After his uncle and cousin died (and after fighting and defeating other claimants to the throne), Charles succeeded them to become count of Flanders.

Why is Charles known as Charles the Good? Because that’s what his subjects called him. Charles recognized that his great duty as a Christian leader was to establish peace, justice, and charity for the wellbeing of his people. He established laws that protected the helpless poor from the greedy rich, and he enforced those laws so sternly that the rich and powerful were afraid to break them. Interestingly, one of his compassionate and innovative decisions was to prohibit children from being taken away from their parents without their consent. During a time of famine, he distributed large quantities of food to the poor, ordered the planting of fast-growing crops, and punished nobles who attempted to hoard food and sell it at exorbitant prices. In the end, it was those greedy nobles who plotted his death and sent knights to murder him in a church in Bruges. But Charles died as he had lived, doing his best as a Christian leader to protect those who were poor.

Saint Cunegund (978-c. 1033) was the daughter of the count of Luxembourg and married Henry, duke of Bavaria. Both Henry and Cunegund were devout Catholics. Although some traditions say that they lived as brother and sister, it is perhaps more likely that they were simply unable to have children. Childlessness was surely painful for them, particularly since having an heir would have encouraged stability for their nation.

Henry was a duke when he married Cunegund, but he later became king of Germany, then king of Italy, and then Holy Roman Emperor. Cunegund was much more than merely the wife of an emperor; she was Henry’s closest advisor, participated in imperial councils, and provided generous endowments for monasteries of nuns from her own resources. She negotiated with the pope for privileges for certain cities, and some said that protection granted by the empress was stronger than the walls of the city itself. Cunegund was a true helpmate to her husband, but she was also a wise woman who set a high standard for faith and morals for an entire empire simply by the way she lived her life.

A year after Henry’s death, Cunegund put aside her crown and entered a Benedictine monastery that she had newly founded. She spent the rest of her life living humbly in that monastery.

Saint Matilda of Saxony (895-968) was also born into the German nobility and married Henry I, king of Germany. Like Cunegund, she was well-matched in her faith by her equally pious husband. Unlike Cunegund, Matilda was not childless. There may have been moments when she wished otherwise.

Matilda also advised her husband and was generous in her support of monasteries. Two of her daughters married into other noble families, and one of her sons, Bruno, became bishop of Cologne, Germany, and is now considered a saint. But her eldest two sons, Otto and Henry, were in constant conflict after the death of their father, each wanting their father’s throne. Initially, Matilda supported her second son to succeed his father, thinking Henry would be better suited to be king. This favoritism caused even more trouble between the sons, although Otto was eventually named king. Otto and Henry later reconciled, at least outwardly. They also criticized their mother for her generosity with the poor and sent spies to spy on her. She patiently joked that at least her sons were united about something for once in their lives.

To put an end to their accusations, Matilda renounced her inheritance and retired to the country. But when multiple disasters occurred afterward in Germany, many people thought that this was due to God’s displeasure over the mistreatment of the widely loved Matilda. Her son Otto, encouraged by his wife, asked for his mother’s forgiveness, and Matilda was able to return to court. And she continued to help the poor, whether her sons liked it or not. Later in life, she retired to one of the monasteries that she had founded, where she died.

What does it mean to be a Christlike leader? These three saints remind us that while it is difficult for a leader not to be intoxicated by power or greedy for money, it is possible to be neither of those things. Sometimes being a good leader simply means ensuring just treatment of those under your control, helping those who need extra help, or patiently dealing with impatient people. That is how our Lord lived His life, and it’s what these three saints remind us to work toward in the month of March.

Posted in Saints.