On July 4, the Catholic Church celebrates St. Elizabeth of Portugal, a queen who served the poor and helped her country avoid war during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Elizabeth of Portugal was named for her great-aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who was canonized in 1235. Their lives were similar in some important ways: both of them were married at very young ages, they sought to live the precepts of the Gospel despite their status as royalty, and finished their lives as members of the Third Order of St. Francis.
The younger Elizabeth was born in 1271, the daughter of King Pedro III of Aragon and his wife Constantia. Even in her youth, Elizabeth showed a notable devotion to God through fasting, regular prayer, and a sense of life’s seriousness. While still very young, she was married to King Diniz of Portugal, a marriage that would put her faith and patience to the test.
King Diniz was faithfully devoted to his country, known as the “Worker King” because of his diligence. Unfortunately, he generally failed to live out the same faithfulness toward his wife, although he is said to have repented of his years of infidelity before his death. Diniz and Elizabeth had two children, but the king fathered an additional seven children with other women.
Many members of the king’s court likewise embraced or accepted various forms of immorality, and it would have been easy for the young queen to fall into these vices herself. But Elizabeth remained intent on doing God’s will with a humble and charitable attitude. Rather than using her status as queen to pursue her own satisfaction, she sought to advance Christ’s reign on earth.
Like her namesake and great-aunt Elizabeth of Hungary, Elizabeth of Portugal was a devoted patroness and personal friend of the poor and sick, and she compelled the women who served her at court to care for them as well. The queen’s bishop testified that she had a custom of secretly inviting in lepers, whom she would bathe and clothe, even though the law of the land barred them from approaching the castle.
Elizabeth’s commitment to the Gospel also became evident when she intervened to prevent civil war in the kingdom on two occasions. Alfonso, the only son of Diniz and Elizabeth, resented the king’s indulgent treatment of one of his illegitimate sons, to the point that the father and son gathered together rival armies that were on the brink of open war in 1323.
On this occasion, St. Elizabeth placed herself between the two opposing armies, insisting that Diniz and Alfonso come to terms and make peace with one another. In 1336, the last year of her life, she intervened in a similar manner to prevent her son from waging war against the King of Castile for his poor treatment of Alfonso’s own daughter.
Following King Diniz’s death in 1325, Elizabeth had become a Franciscan of the Third Order, and had gone to live in a convent that she had established some years before. The testimony of miracles accomplished through her intercession, after her death in 1336, contributed to her canonization by Pope Urban VIII in 1625.
The work of promoting peace is anything but a calm and quiet endeavour. It takes a clear mind, a steady spirit and a brave soul to intervene between people whose emotions are so aroused that they are ready to destroy one another. This is all the more true of a woman in the early 14th century. But Elizabeth had a deep and sincere love and sympathy for humankind, an almost total lack of concern for herself, and an abiding confidence in God. These were the tools of her success.