October 31 does not receive much attention as a saint’s feast day in the United States. The ostentatious festivities of Halloween are, of course, difficult to compete with—as is the Holy Day it vigils. Besides being a night of merry devilry and the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31 commemorates the feast of one saint who, like ancient Halloween traditions, juggled evil to good purpose.
Similarly, as Halloween’s liturgy has been overshadowed by its lore, so has the life of this saint been overshadowed by his legend. St. Wolfgang of Regensburg’s story has become, in a sense, more significant than his history.
The Life of St. Wolfgang
St. Wolfgang was born circa 934 in Swabia, Germany. He was a student at the famous Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau before taking up studies in Würzburg, where he became a teacher at the cathedral school of Trier. His ascetic tendencies led him to join the Benedictines at Einsiedeln, where he was appointed head of the monastery school.
Wolfgang was ordained in 968 by St. Ulrich, who sent him with a party of monks to preach to the Magyars of Hungary, whose resistance to the faith was a threat to the Empire. In 972, Emperor Otto II appointed Wolfgang Bishop of Regensburg, in which position he was known for his zeal as a teacher, reformer of monasteries and convents, and almoner. As his life drew to a close, Wolfgang became a hermit in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. He died in Pupping, Austria, on October 31, 994, and was canonized by Pope St. Leo IX in 1052.
The Legend of St. Wolfgang
In former times of Salzburg, near Strobl and Sankt Gilgen town, by Schafberg Mountain and the Lake Abersee (now called the Wolfgangsee), there lived a holy hermit and Wolfgang was he named. He dwelt in caves by Falkenstein though he wore a bishop’s ring and held the crook of Regensburg.
One day, Wolfgang saw a church within his heart, which church he vowed to build. Straightway he took up an ax to clear land. Up Schafberg’s slopes went he, his soul keen to find a fitting site. Having gained the summit, however, no place had he found. Then, as the world lay at his feet, Wolfgang raised his ax on high with broad day blazing in the blade. “I cannot break through heaven’s floor to ask God where to build,” said he. “Therefore I vow upon this mountain to build where this shall drop!”
The Bishop cast his ax to earth—a bolt from Schafberg’s peak. It spun and clove through sun and cloud till it fell out of sight. Then down through winding waldschrat tracks went Wolfgang for his ax. At length, he found it wedged in an outcrop of ground between the mountain and the lake.
A shock of grey shot through the wood hard by—a Wolf it was upon the run. “O Wolf!” the Bishop hailed. “A boon! Cease roaming as the Waldgeist roams. To build a church upon this place is what I have in hand. Wilt thou assist me in this task?”
The Wolf growled, “No help from me wilt thou receive. The Hunter follows and I must hence.”
Away from Wolfgang flew the Wolf. Anon there came a Hunter, armed to the teeth, togged in skins, and the chase burning in his eyes.
The Bishop shouted, “Ho there, good Hunter! This day God hunteth after thee. Help me build a church for His glory. Broad art thou belike the Rübezahl. Therefore, do join me in this task. Put by thy restless pursuit and heed the Lord’s call.”
The Hunter sneered, “A pox on thy pious plot! My prey lies in my crossbow range. I want his hide and claws. Besides the Wolf I long to slay, some evil dogs me so I durst not linger here.”
Then off he went, as clouds obscured the sun and through the murk his stalker came: Master Urian, known as the Evil One. “Wolfgang,” Urian cried, “what brings thee, Bishop, here?”
Spoke Wolfgang, “Avaunt, thou alp! Though men are feared of thee like lambs when lightnings flash, such fear dwells not in me. A goodly church here will I build, and as thou art up to no good, I ask thy help.”
Said Urian, “Thou biddest me to build a house of God?”
“I do,” quoth Wolfgang.
Then Urian, “I consent! But mark! The first soul that enters it must be mine.”
“Agreed,” said Wolfgang then and there. “This pact I place in God’s good hands. So, monstrous though it be, that first soul goes to thee.”
To work went Master Urian without another word. The clamor of his hammer clanged. His saw-blade buzzed. With chiseled stone and lumbered wood, the Devil by his hallmark built: irregularity that is a joy to see. His lines were straight but strange. North of a flawless nave and roof, a crooked passage wound to cloisters tucked behind. He raised a steeple squat and square. The walls were wintry white.
At last, completed was the church and gleamed with strength and grace in timber, stone, and tile, and Romanesque in style. Then Wolfgang looked upon that church as there it shone in Schafberg’s shade on the Lake Abersee—his vision come to be.
To Master Urian he said: “Truly, one immortal soul is a price too high.”
“Thou dissembler!” scoffed Urian. “For lesser things than this pale church men butcher droves of men! One soul is owed—not one thousand! O Wolfgang, fie on thee for shame! The hypocrite is the earliest church bird.”
Then Wolfgang’s crozier cracked the earth. “Enough!” the Bishop said. “Though to our bargain I stand bound, to Him I cling whose Body is our Bread. Leave off they hateful homily. Good will triumph in the end. The first soul still is yours that passes through those doors.”
Just then, a cry came trilling on the air out from the wood. Again it called, but nearer now—it was a hunting horn. Wolfgang rushed to the church and, laying hand on the door-ring, he drew aside the latch and threw the portal ajar.
Out tore the Wolf, a beast at bay—the Hunter was on his heels. And as the brute sped by the church, the door stood open and so it plunged inside.
“’Tis done,” the Bishop pronounced. “This terror of the flock is, nolens volens, thine, though none of Adam’s stock. A soul I promised unto thee that in this church first came, so drag this wolfish soul down to thy domain.”
Then Urian with choler cried, “Thou cheating churlish priest! A curse on thee and on thy church!”
“Tarry all!” the Wolf whined. “Speak thou of the fiery pit? Wherefore must I go?”
“A bone have I to pick as well!” the Hunter rushed to say. “For years have I this quarry sought! Take thou my prize when I have won the day?”
“To each goes as is due,” came Wolfgang’s wise reply. “Thou, Urian, still fail to learn thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Thou, Wolf—thy deeds in blood are drenched; but when we met, thou spared no thought to make amends. To God thy tail thou tossed and thus thy soul is damned. Thou, Hunter—man must give, not take; but when to thee I called, thy glory, not thy God’s, thou chose. And for thy pride, thy trophy is denied.”
Master Urian stormed down the nave and seized his howling prey. The Fiend then grasped the door and slammed it to with such vehemence he snapped the ring in twain—which crack is there unto this very day.
Once those two had disappeared to Dis, the Hunter at the church looked hard; then hung his head and went his way. Alone was Wolfgang with his church of Urian’s peculiar design. The steeple stands with Schafberg’s height and shimmers in the Abersee (now called the Wolfgangsee).
Lives vs. Legends
Saintliness is fantastic, and so its portrayal in fantasy is fitting. The truth of sanctity is, in many ways, more accessible through wild and wonderful tales that surpass the bounds of truth as we know it—for sanctity is of a higher truth. The stories of saints should offer a heightened element to the lives of saints, allowing them to appear clearly as citizens of two worlds—two worlds that they helped to bring together in Christ.
The action of legend renders the invisible aspects of sainthood more visible, tangible, and attractive, giving the heroes of the Church a dimension that goes beyond mere history and mere humanity. By exaggerating the extraordinary features of our holy ancestors, pious legends emphasize the very reason why they are saints.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with kind permission.