It can’t be easy for kings to become saints. Most are also husbands and fathers, and so you have all the challenges that come with those callings, plus the enormous headaches and perpetual consternation associated with ruling a people. Raise taxes, lower taxes? Go to war, sue for peace? Statecraft, diplomacy, court intrigues – how do Gospel values square with all that? Just pack up the fam, head to the hills, and camp out near some monastery or other, that’s what I say.
Of course, I’m not in danger of inheriting any royal titles any time soon, so there’s that.
Anyway, despite the hurdles involved, there are plenty of royals who’ve run the race and won the prize of heaven, and on May 18 we commemorate a notable example: King Eric IX of Sweden. His story is no doubt instructive for kings (and other political leaders) who seek holiness, but I think it’s also edifying for us commoner dads who are equally earnest in aspiring to sanctity.
Born into wealth, Eric married a princess, yet it was his personal merits that earned him the crown of the realm around 1156. Although thrust into power and all the responsibilities accompanying it, the young king’s chief concern was his relationship with God, and he was known for his extensive mortifications and fasting in addition to regular times of prayer and contemplation. These practices buttressed his efforts to fortify the practice of the Faith among his subjects, which included building churches and restraining vice.
Eric was a solicitous king who is remembered for his care of the poor – sometimes through direct visits and almsgiving. Also, he promoted impartial justice for all and, toward that end, supervised a definitive collation of laws – the Code of Uppland – that strengthened the Swedish social order.
When that social order was threatened by pagan raiders from neighboring Finland, King Eric took up arms in defense of his people. Even so, Eric sought the good of his foes by inducing St. Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, to accompany him into battle and then stay behind after the victory to evangelize the Finnish populace – a missionary enterprise that met with success, but which also won Bishop Henry the crown of martyrdom.
King Eric similarly suffered martyrdom at the hands of those who rejected Christian faith and values. A group of irreligious rebels in league with a Danish prince hatched a scheme to murder Eric and take control of the Swedish throne. King Eric was attending Mass when he received word that the insurgents were gunning for him. “Let us at least finish the sacrifice,” was his reply according to Alban Butler. “The remainder of the festival I shall keep elsewhere.” Following the liturgy, Eric abandoned himself to God and, to minimize casualties among his loyal supporters, insisted on facing his enemies alone. As soon as they saw the monarch exit the church, the mob attacked, knocked him to the ground, and cut off his head. It was May 18, 1161.
The tomb of King Eric became a site of pilgrimage where many healings were reported, and he was deemed the patron saint of Sweden until the Reformation. He’s still a saintly template for those in authority, both royal and otherwise – especially dads. As Fr. Butler notes, “every father, master of a family, magistrate, or king, is accountable to God for those under his charge,” and St. Eric’s biography is like a paternal mini-catechism. Like the King, we fathers are obliged to maintain order at home, make adequate provision for our families, and defend them against harm.
Yet, even more fundamental is our duty to foster fidelity to Christ and growth in virtue among those we care for. That can’t be accomplished perfectly, but it can hardly be accomplished at all without our own personal example, and that example will necessarily, almost by definition, involve sacrifice – putting the needs of others before our own, for example, trusting in God’s providence even when we can’t see a way forward, loving those difficult to love, extending ourselves without heed of reciprocity.
In other words, fatherhood always entails martyrdom in one form or another, and here again St. Eric leads the way. Maybe we won’t get our heads chopped off like the Swedish sovereign, but our path to sanctity will nonetheless require death to self. Over and over, day after day, imperfectly, sometimes grudgingly, but consistently and perpetually. Good thing we have intercessors like King St. Eric who understand what we’re up against. Let’s lean on them; let’s lean on each other.