Feast Day: August 16th | Patron of Hungary, Kings, Stonemasons/Bricklayers, Protector against the Death of Children
To continue our remarkable story from last week for a final time, it was there right at the end of the year 1000 AD, that a pagan prince surrounded by only recently settled barbarians, received his blessing, anointing, and crown from Pope Sylvester II. Historians argue whether the crown Stephen received that day was the same famed 4 lb, gold and enamel, circlet once protected in Fort Knox, now housed in the Hungarian Parliament, and universally known as the “Crown of St. Stephen”. Certainly, we can trace it back almost that far, and perhaps things are muddled because only part of Saint Stephen I, King of Hungary Feast Day: August 16th | Patron of Hungary, Kings, Stonemasons/Bricklayers, Protector against the Death of Children the crown came from the Pope and it has been embellished in the centuries since. In any case, we can trace what that crown symbolizes from St. Stephen all the way to today. Already, when Stephen wore it at his coronation, that gold crown, topped with a cross, with its images of Christ the King reigning over the angels, it seemed to those who could see him then that already he was crowned with the halo of a saint. His sanctity, of course, would have to be won over the intervening years – as he worked to evangelize his people, suffered the loss of all his children, and slowly learned that the greatest good he could do as a king was to serve the poorest of his constituents and pray for them.
But those years, with all their crosses, did turn him into a saint! On his deathbed, having lost much, and gained much, in a dramatic moment never forgotten by the Christian people that came after him, St. Stephen lifted the crown from his head and offered it to Christ, and Our Lady. Ever since that day, his gold crown remains a symbol of Hungary’s true King: Christ, and Queen: Mary. All the 50 kings of Hungary since crowned with those jewels, have known that they are truly only deputies of their country’s true king, and that their highest goal is to join the first of their line in offering their kingship to His reign. Stephen’s right arm, perhaps at first a somewhat macabre relic, is housed with honor in the Cathedral of Budapest because it was his hand that entrusted that kingdom into the hand of Christ.
Amazingly, something of that truth was communicated as the United States returned Stephen’s crown to Hungary in 1978. We did not give it to the Communist dictator in charge of Hungary. In fact, János Kádár (said dictator) was not invited to the handing-over ceremony! Rather, Cardinal Lekai, the Roman Catholic primate of Hungary, was there to welcome the crown home, as part of the group receiving it back for the Hungarian People, from the American People. That crown, symbolizing the autonomy, and Christianity, of Hungary, was not fit to crown an authority contrary to Christ, but was a fitting treasure to return to the many faithful people who had endured so many attacks against their faith during the prior two decades.
Cd. Lekai, to add a final amazing twist to this whole story, was the immediate successor to Cd. Mindszenty, the embattled Catholic leader of Hungary who had endured torture and had been sentenced to life imprisonment for being a traitor to the Communist State. His show-trial in 1948 was lambasted for its injustice around the globe. Beaten by rubber truncheons, the cardinal was coerced into admitting that he had schemed to overthrow the Party, start World War III, become the supreme power after said war, … oh, and also stealing the Hungarian Crown Jewels. The Cardinal actually took asylum in the American Embassy in Budapest for 16 years to avoid being killed or exiled by the communists (staying there from 1956 to 1971!) Three black communist cars waited outside of the gate of our embassy in Budapest for the entirety of that decade and a half waiting for a chance to scuttle him off to a soviet prison, or worse. The Vatican actually paid $50 each day to the Americans who agreed to stay overnight in the embassy so that he wouldn’t be kidnapped! Perhaps none of them knew that the crown jewels so desired by his communist persecutors were actually safe and sound in the country where under whom he had found protection! Cd. Mindszenty was declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2019. He was a fitting successor to the first saint of Hungary, whose crown has taught us an awful good story, and been the epicenter of an amazing amount of grace down through the centuries.
Fr. Dominic Rankin got to know some of this story in 2016 when he had the chance to visit Budapest, and the relics of St. Stephen. One other memory of that trip, amongst many, was the incredibly deep metro system under Budapest. Only now to I know that it was placed so deep underground precisely because of the threat of bombing, nuclear or otherwise, during the Cold War.