July Saints: What makes a great (Catholic) leader?

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, distributing alms,
Circle of Francesco Pittoni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the advantages of reading about a few saints each day is that you learn about hundreds of saints in the course of a year. One of the disadvantages is that it becomes difficult to “see the forest for the trees”; that is, it’s hard to notice what similar saints teach us.

In the month of July, we celebrate some great saints who were also great leaders. They were holy men and women who did not live in a cloister or a desert, but in the middle of a very busy, powerful world. Their public decisions affected entire nations, and their personal example influenced all their countrymen.

For example, Saint Elizabeth of Portugal (1271-1336, feast day celebrated July 5 in the US) was a Spanish princess who was married to Denis, the king of Portugal, in an arranged marriage. She faithfully fulfilled her public duties as queen, and she was generous in personally serving the poor. But she privately suffered a great deal through her marriage. Her husband’s repeated unfaithfulness to his marriage vows caused scandal, and his illegitimate children caused resentment between their legitimate son and his father the king.

Saint Henry II (973-1024, feast day July 13) was the duke of Bavaria and became Holy Roman Emperor in 1014. His reign was spent in complicated political and military actions to improve the stability of the Holy Roman Empire. But he was personally devout and such a supporter of monasticism that he eventually told an abbot that he wanted to resign his office and take an oath of obedience, living as a simple monk.

Saint Olaf of Norway (d. 1030, feast day July 29) was also a fervent Catholic, and when he became king of Norway, he strongly encouraged the introduction of Christianity in his country. Many of his pagan countrymen resisted the Christian faith, just as strongly.

Clearly, being a powerful leader did not keep these saints from knowing great challenges in life, and God did not miraculously resolve their problems. But God did give them the grace to deal with their challenges in a holy way.

Saint Elizabeth, like the longsuffering mother of Saint Augustine, exemplified the virtue of patience. She did not overlook her husband’s failings, but she treated him with respect and charity for decades. At the end of his life, she cared for him personally, and her unfailing kindness finally moved her husband’s heart to repentance over his past infidelities before his death.

Saint Henry, as the Holy Roman Emperor, could have demanded that the abbot accept his request to renounce his title. But Henry knew the value of obedience from both sides—both as a leader and a follower—and he acquiesced when the abbot told him he would please God more by remaining emperor than by becoming a monk.

Saint Olaf died a martyr in battle, fighting for his vision of bringing the faith to all his countrymen. He chose to give up life rather than give up his faith, but in so doing, he planted the seeds of Christian faith in Norway.

All three of these saints show us that it is possible to live a life of holiness even when you are surrounded by power, pleasure, politics, and selfish people. The first step is not to change “power structures,” but to change yourself. Despite their wealth, they all cared for the poor. Despite their status, they all knew personal suffering. Despite the heavy weight of their responsibilities, they all witnessed to their love of God through prayer.

Even if our personal “kingdom” is one family, not an entire nation, we can strive to lead those around us through patience, humble obedience, and courage, even when we are humiliated or outnumbered.

Saints Elizabeth, Henry, and Olaf, pray for us!

Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor,
Axel Mauruszat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons