July 13th was the feast day for somewhat of a lesser-known saint: St. Henry. Saints come in all shapes and sizes, but most of the time, they are poor, ascetic, and part of a religious order. St. Henry was none of these things. He was rich, powerful, and the king of nothing less than the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the first millenium AD.
In a way, one wonders how he got on the “saints” list. It’s not that Catholics don’t believe all sorts of people are in Heaven we know nothing about, but a saint is typically lifted up to be recognized by the church because of how he or she shows heroic virtue and stands out. St. Henry was a politician. And when I say politician, I encourage you to think of every angle of that description. He made laws. He took advantage of those laws. He used the customs of his office to make power plays. He engaged in the messiness of life and did the best he could with it.
None of that really sounds like the stuff of saints. And it sounds even worse nowadays, when our political candidates for president seem to be so lacking in integrity, and so full of hot air. But for however repugnant the bad aples in the bunch are who make laws, and for however hamstrung our representatives seem to be in trying to accomplish anything, politics is still something God calls men and women to. We still need leaders. We still need laws. So we still need politicians.
But perhaps at no other time – in recent history at least – has a picture of the “good politician” been more needed: the man or woman who is both innocent and shrewd, both reasonable and visionary. In this post, I want to outline how St. Henry, for however flawed he may have been at times, is a saint we can look to. So what does St. Henry’s life teach us?
1. A good politician makes him/herself available to the need of the times.
For being the leader of one of the most powerful empires of the time, it’s surprising that growing up, Henry was not groomed for kingship. He and his father were set on him being trained for the priesthood – which is just about as far from “king” as you can be. But due to unforseen circumstances, Henry turned out to be the man everyone knew had to take the throne. And so he did. It’s not clear that he even wanted the throne. Later in life, legend has it that he attempted to join a monestary, which could mean that religious life was never too far from his mind. But that was not what the times required of him.
Being a good politician means asking yourself the hard questions: “Am I needed here? Would someone else do a better job with this responsibility?’ And not simply (or not at all), “Can I get away with this? Is this the right time to advance my career?” These are questions that often can only be answered in the heart of the representative, senator, or candidate himself. But for such an important job, it needs to be asked. Goodness, for the sake of 300,000,000 people, it needs to be asked.
2. A good politician can mend relationships.
King Henry did not ascend to the throne entirely without strife. His brother attempted to usurp him and Henry was forced to face him on the battlefield. Henry’s troops routed his brother’s forces, and, at that point, he could have done whatever he wanted with him. Especially for someone who had committed what amounted to treason, death would have been completely appropriate. But instead, Henry reconciled with his brother, and the two became friends again.
Recently, I was talking to a lawyer who works in the Sacramento Capitol building with lawmakers. I asked him what was interesting to him about his job, because it seemed to involve a lot of tedious reading of documents, paperwork, stuff like that. He said that it was interesting to see how petty many of the lawmakers could be. Some would shoot down someone else’s proposal even when he agreed with it because he didn’t want that person (perhaps someone from a different political party) to be able to go back to his constituents and say he got something done. Other lawmakers had shot down the proposals of fellow representatives for personal grudges.
This is stupid, to say the least. These lawmakers, however many or few they are, are putting up fences in places they should be pulling them down. They are creating division where there should be reconciliation for the sake of the greater good of the state. After the campaigns have been waged, and the attack ads have quieted down, lawmakers would do well to follow Henry’s example, bury the hatchet, and get to work.
3. A good politician leaves room for freedom of religion.
King Henry was not always liked by the leaders of the church. As was the custom of the time, he appointed priests who were not the Pope’s first choice, to say the least. He also, at times, used his political power to pressure the church in areas where he felt he needed something accomplished that the church could help him with. But the assessment overall is that the church, by and large, flourished under his reign. As I mentioned earlier, ecclesiastical life was not foreign to him – he was being trained to be a priest. Churches were built and the faith was largely left untouched and uncorrupted by him. This may seem like a small thing, but for the first millenium after Christ, the Popes were in one conflict after another with emperors and kings over theological issues (with the emperors and kings being largely on the wrong side of the dispute). Henry dodged this and was canonized not long after dying. All to say, Henry largely kept out of the way when it came to the freedom of the Catholic Church to do it’s job. He created an environment where the church could flourish and often contributed to that flourishing.
I am grateful, very much, for the immense religious freedom we have in the United States. There are areas where we may even get too much favor from the government. Churches get tax breaks that normal businesses don’t. But as the case brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor before the Supreme Court illustrate, the government can overstep it’s bounds and force the church to transgress against it’s conscience when following it’s conscience places no undue burden on anyone. In other words, the Catholic Church often wishes the government would just leave it alone to do it’s job, or even work with them for some common good – like alleviating poverty, or helping single mothers. This is incredibly important not just for the Catholic Church, but for any group the government tries to regulate against their conscience. Unless there is a truly compelling reason to do so, the government just needs to back off. And it is part of the job of politicians to make sure they do so.
4. A good politician helps bring unity and stability to the country.
King Henry took the reigns of a superpower in Europe at a time when, though it was incredibly formidible, was nonetheless in decline. He had to wage war just to keep the borders where they were and hold on to his territorial claims. But while protecting his subjects, he also tried to help the masses, and he traversed his empire trying to do so even at the cost of his declining health. He was known for his generosity, as well, in all of this. And he was reasonable enough not to have ambitions of conquest and empire-building. In other words, Henry sought stability. He sought to make life for the average person bearable and liveable, without the upheaval that comes from war and other disasters.
In a time of great divisiveness in America, his example desperately needs to be emulated. Playing to every tribe’s fear of the other – fear of illigal immigrants, or transgender people, or religious people – does not do anyone any good. A good politician unites. A good politician seeks to bring reconciliation between groups, not use inflamatory language to incite people against one another. A good politician seeks stability where there is great unrest. This is not an easy thing to do, and I don’t want to pretend like I have some golden answer to how this can be accomplished. But I know that calling a particular group of people out who make up a large portion of the country and shaming them – like illegal immigrants or Muslims – is a step in the wrong direction.
5. A good politician lives both his/her public and private life with integrity and fidelity.
One of the legends attributed to King Henry is that he, after not being able to have children with his wife, decided with her to live a life of chastity. He was also said to be a pious man who practiced fasting and prayer. These things, to our modern ears, don’t mean much – or even seem extreme. But the point is that Henry cared very much about not just doing good in his public policies and actions, but also cared very much about being good.
This is a presidential standard it seems many of us have simply given up on. It’s just a given that politicians will have scandals following them in their wake. But we cannot pretend that a person can let sin run rampant on the inside without it affecting how he or she acts on the outside. The heart is a whole. Lying to one’s spouse makes it that much easier to lie to one’s colleagues or country. What you are on the inside counts. It matters immensely. We need leaders who understand the value of both doing good and living a good life.
6. A good politician never forgets that politics is just politics.
As I said further up, Henry at the beginning of his life was headed for the priesthood. And at the end of his life, he sought to retire to a monastery to dedicate himself to prayer and the religious life. If that later point is true, it tells us a lot about the kind of man he was. They are like bookends between which we can decipher the heart of a man who was in the world, but who’s heart was yearning for Heaven. When you are cloistered in a monastery, spending every day praying and reading Scripture, it’s understandable that you will be drawn to spiritual things. But how much of a saint do you have to be to be king of an empire, but still realize that it is, at the end of the day, just an empire? It passed away in due time. In fact, Henry was the last king of that unified land. But he himself is remembered not because he was a king. There have been many kings who have been forgotten. No. He is remembered for being holy. He is prayed to because we as Catholics believe that in his holiness, he has outlived his empire. He fulfilled his duties as best he could, but he never forgot that his real home was not on earth – that living for God was really all that mattered.
It is so easy to get caught up in the world of politics. We all have an opinion. And I imagine, it must be hard for politicians – especially presidents – to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. To realize that they are only flesh – that from dust they came, and to dust they shall return. But politics is still just politics. America is just America, even if it is true that it is the greatest country in the world. If it is like pretty much every other country that has ever existed, it will decline and fade just like they did. But what we do, how we live, how we love our neighbors and illuminate the often dark and difficult lives of our fellow countrymen will follow us and propel us to Heaven, which is the only country that will never decline and die. Our lives may very well be remembered years from now, in countries that don’t even exist now, by people we could never imagine would know about us, and inspire them to greatness.
But not if we treat politics like a reality TV show. Not if we treat it like some kind of playground game where there are winners and losers. May our politicians look to the example of St. Henry, and to Jesus, the one who inspired him and the church he loved and followed. And may we, as Catholics, ask for St. Henry’s intercession on behalf of our lawmakers, that they, in the messiness and difficulty of their craft, create an environment in our country where we can all flourish under God’s loving grace.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Am I right? Wrong? Let me know in the comments below.