By Larry Peterson
There are many saints named Henry, but the greatest of them all may well be King Henry II. Besides being a faithful and just king, Henry was one of the great supporters of the Benedictine Order. He had wanted to be a Benedictine but his destiny was to become king. As king, he built numerous monasteries and restored others during his reign. More than a thousand years later, Pope St. Pius X declared Henry the patron saint of all the Oblates of the Benedictine Order. So who was St. Henry II, aka Henry the Exuberant; Henry the Emperor, Henry the Good, and Henry the Pious?
Henry was born in 972 and would be the oldest of four children. His father, the Duke of Bavaria, (also known as Henry the Quarrelsome), had a bit of a temper and had revolted against two previous emperors. This caused him to spend a lot of time in exile. Consequently, young Henry was raised by St. Wolfgang, the bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg). The bishop baptized him and dedicated himself to Henry’s upbringing, instilling virtue and discipline into the young man he knew would one day be king. Wolfgang sent Henry to the cathedral school at Hildesheim, where he seriously considered becoming a priest. That would not happen.
In 995, Henry’s father died, and he succeeded him as Duke of Bavaria. Soon after, he met and married Cunegundes, a holy woman who he knew God had sent his way. Henry and Cunegundes observed perfect chastity throughout their married lives, and their combined love and devotion to their subjects were unparalleled.
Then in January of 1002, his cousin Otto III, who had become a Holy Roman Emperor, died in Rome. Henry, who was on his way to Rome to help Otto regain control of Italy, managed to get control of the insignia of Otto’s office and, with some help from friends in high places, secured his election and was crowned King of Germany.
Henry was indeed a church reformer. Using the bishops to secure his position as king, he was determined to rule for God’s greater glory. Trained with respect and a healthy fear of God, he proved that a good king could be a heavenly gift. Henry prayed often, meditated upon the law of God, and never allowed himself to become a prisoner of the grandeur that came with being the king.
Henry turned again to reclaiming Italy. He drove out the anti-pope who had claimed the papacy and brought Benedict VIII back to Rome. Two years later, he claimed the title, King of Italy. In 1014, Henry was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Benedict VIII in St. Peter’s Basilica
Henry’s custom when he arrived in any town was to find a church dedicated to Our Lady and spend the night there. The church he stayed in was Saint Mary Major. Henry said that he saw the “Sovereign and Eternal Priest-Child Jesus” enter the sanctuary to say Mass. He said St. Lawrence and St. Vincent assisted Him.
Henry continued that countless saints filled the church and that after the Gospel an angel was sent by Our Lady to give Henry the scared book to kiss. The angel touched Henry lightly on his thigh and said, “Accept this sign of God’s love for your chastity and your justice.” From that moment on, King Henry always walked with a limp.
Henry’s support for moral reforms began with what was known as the Cluniac Reforms. These reforms affected not only monastic life but the life of the entire church. It helped the church fight simony (the buying of church goods and positions) and promoted clerical celibacy. In 1022 he and Pope Benedict VIII presided over the Council of Pavia, and published seven canons against clerical concubinage. He restored episcopal sees and founded the diocese of Bamburg. He also was instrumental in having the Creed introduced to Sunday Mass.
In 1024 Henry lay on his death bed with his wife and her elderly parents by his side. Henry lifted her hand toward her parents and said, “a virgin still, as a virgin, he had received her from Christ.” He gave St. Cunegundes back to her parents. Then he closed his eyes and died.
St. Henry II was canonized by Pope Eugene III in 1146. He is the patron saint of the Benedictine Oblates, and his feast day is on July 13.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2020