Seven things to know about St. Louis (the actual saint, not the arguably perfect city)

When most people think of St. Louis, they think of an idyllic town nestled in a glorious tetrad of magnificent rivers and blessed by God Himself with some of the best people, food and sporting teams in this great nation (no media bias—this is all fact. Also, I’m from STL). However, there was also a man named St. Louis, and as today is his feast day, perhaps we should all take a few minutes to learn some interesting facts about him.

  1. He provides succor and a good example to seminarians on “National Kiss and Make Up Day.”

From a seminarian at Kenrick-Glennon in St. Louis:BFFLstatus

  1. He was the king of France. His mother was the queen of Catholic guilt.

St. Louis was born in 1226, and is officially St. Louis IX in the long King Louis of France lineup. His mother ruled for him after he became king at age 12. She loved her son, but it appears that her love language was setting the golden standard by which all future Catholic mothers would guilt their children into holiness. Some of the advice he heard growing up include:

–The sins of his people were actually a reflection on him as their monarch.

–She would rather see him die than commit a mortal sin.

One can only assume she rounded out the stereotype by informing the young monarch he was making Our Lord cry by not finishing his escargot.

  1. He really, really loved God

This might seem like a given for a canonized saint, but look back at what he grew up hearing. By all accounts, he should have been scrupulous and filled with that awful loveless faith that can be so enticing to public figures. But he wasn’t. He was really in love with Jesus.

In addition to running his country, he prayed the Divine Office and heard two Masses every day. Best of all, his faith wasn’t something that he kept locked away in the palace chapel.

He instituted a law that would allow serfs to be freed. He personally fed the poor from his table, and would wash their feet. He even mediated disputes between other European rulers, including Pope Innocent IV and Emperor Frederick II, also known as the “Chump City of Emperors” (starting now). Frederick was actually excommunicated multiple times; probably because he would do things like drive the Pope out of Rome and capture a hundred bishops on their way to meet with the Pope.

Pope Innocent fled to Lyons, France (ie, Louis’ turf) where Innocent was able to hold a council and declare Frederick deposed. He also declared a crusade against Frederick. This was good news for St. Louis, because…

 

  1. He was all about crusading.

I know. That sounds horrible. But I think we’ve lost sight of what the crusades actually were.

In St. Louis’ time, religion wasn’t something you shopped for after you had already decided what all of your political and cultural ideations were going to be. Religion was your culture and identity. It was the foundation by which you related to God and fellow man, and people were keenly aware of it. The way a people worshiped defined them. Also, once a people had the Truth revealed to them, they needed to share it. Think about it–if you had just realized that your faith held the answers to all of life’s questions, wouldn’t you be kind of a jerk for keeping that to yourself?

It wasn’t just Christians who felt this way. Muslim armies had spread from the Middle East to Northern Africa, and were starting to make inroads into Europe. The united Christian monarchs (ie, Christendom) did not like this, so they pushed back. In fact, they decided they were going to take back the holy cities and reopen pilgrimages. These conquests were called Crusades, and much of our information about St. Louis comes from his actions in them.

  1. He wasn’t afraid of would-be assassins, and he proved it multiple times

At one point during his crusading adventures, St. Louis was captured. While he was being held in Egypt, an Emir rushed into his tent and demanded St. Louis knight him or be stabbed. St. Louis calmly informed him that only a follower of Jesus Christ could perform the duties of a Christian knight.

Later, his captors offered him his freedom if he would swear an oath that implied a blasphemy. They held their swords to his throat and threatened to massacre Christians, but St. Louis still refused to blaspheme. I would like to propose that this action is worth making him the patron saint of stone cold bruisers everywhere.

After he was ransomed, he started another crusade, because he gave exactly zero cares. He won a battle in Tunis, but died of a fever there. He received Viaticum kneeling next to his camp-bed, the very picture of a humble and pious ruler.

Sidebar: a fun way to judge political candidates is to imagine them dying like he did. If you burst out laughing, they may not be the one for you.

  1. He helped end some really weird movements and heresies back home.

Crusades were a really popular idea, but sometimes they got a little weird. For example, in 1251 tons of poor people called “pastoraux” (shepherds) crusaded around France demanding the release of Holy Places and killing clergy. They were led by an elusive figure named the Master of Hungary. St. Louis shut that weirdness down.

France also hosted one of my personal favorite heresies in Church history: Catharism (also known as Albigensianism, just to confuse us). Catharism was more of a church than a heresy, with its own clergy, dioceses, etc. They believed that two opposing deities ruled the world. They thought the biblical God was the God of evil and the Church was the invention of Satan, because they also apparently believed that heretics should go big or go home.

They also hilariously taught that sex was inherently evil, and that having children was a sin because it trapped a soul in a body. St. Louis fought them, and they eventually learned the hard way that a movement that condemns having children is doomed to destroy itself.

  1. He has an awesome legacy, including one of the great American cities

It’s true. The guy had eleven children, and remains the only canonized French monarch. He even introduced the “innocent until proven guilty” concept to law, which is a pretty big deal.

Most importantly, in my unbiased opinion as a native St. Louisan, is the magnificent city named for him. St. Louis is the proud owner of the first Cathedral west of the Mississippi, although the diocese built a new and even more beautiful one in the 1900s. Missionary sisters, priests, and bishops came to help educate the people, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne among them. In 1891, the first archbishop of the city was greeted by a torchlight parade of 20,000 people. In short, this city is Catholic. And what’s more, St. Louis the city has provided the world with the best entrée and dessert known to man, and created sports teams that have clearly been blessed with divine favor. Even more amazingly, they did it without pyromaniacal cows or dumping raw sewage on their neighbors, unlike some Midwestern cities I could name (looking at you, Chicago). What a legacy.

 

St. Louis de Poissy, roi de France, priez pour nous!

 

 

 

PS: Go Cardinals.

 

 

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”