|“We Have Come to Believe in Love”
To all brothers and sisters of the Franciscan family,
all the brothers and sisters of the Third Order Regular
and the Secular Franciscan Order
who are honored to have Saint Elizabeth as their patroness,
and to all her devotees and followers:
may God’s mercy fill your hearts.
1. The Eighth centenary, 1207-2007
1.1. During the coming year 2007, we will celebrate the eighth
centenary of the birth of St. Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary, Langrafin
of Thuringia and Franciscan penitent. The Jubilee year will begin on
November 17, 2006 and will end on November 17, 2007. The
Franciscan Third Order honors her as its Patroness and the whole
Franciscan family counts her among its glories. We would like to take
this unique opportunity to present her exceptional devotion to God
the Father, in the following of Christ and in the dissolution of her
whole being in the God who is Love. We want to recall the
consumption of all her energies in the practice of charity raised to the
point of heroism.
We have come to believe in God’s love: In the encyclical which forms
the program for his pontificate, Deus caritas est (DC 1), Pope Benedict
XVI has recalled to us that these words express the fundamental
option of a Christian. Love was the axis around which Saint Elizabeth’s
whole life revolved. If, as the Pope says, the beginning and
strengthening of our Christian life are marked not by an ethical
decision but by a meeting with a person, our desire is that the year
2007 may be a meeting with Saint Elizabeth, one which brings us to a
better personal understanding of God’s love, so that our faith in His
love may emerge strengthened, and encourage us to become
instruments of his mercy. Let’s hope that we can make even more our
own this saying, which captures Elizabeth’s whole life: We have come to
believe in love.
Saint Elizabeth’s star shines with its own brilliance in the heavens
of sanctity, and in the field of humanity and mercy. Her praiseworthy
qualities transcend the borders of the Catholic Church: they are also
admired and venerated by the Lutheran confessions. We even discover
in her universal guidelines for charity, fraternity and common life that
can mark out new paths in the field of social commitment for all those
who dedicate themselves to sowing the seeds of consolation among
Her life was a crossroads of actions which literally reflect the
Gospel of Jesus Christ. With daring courage, she accepted the
postulates presented by Jesus on the lordship of God Father, on the
need to strip ourselves of everything and make ourselves like little
children in order to enter the kingdom of the Father. She emptied
herself until she made herself available to all the needy. She discovered
the presence of Jesus in the poor, the forsaken of society, the hungry,
and the sick (Mt. 25). The whole commitment of her life consisted of
living the compassion of the God who is love and making it present in
the midst of those who did not know human compassion.
1.2. In the most genuine manner of St. Francis, Elizabeth sought the
radical following of Christ, who, though he was rich, made himself
poor. She renounced the false appearances and ambitions of the world;
the pomp of her court, comforts, riches and luxurious dress. . . She
descended from her castle and planted her tent among the rejected and
the distressed in order to serve them. Elizabeth was the first Franciscan
woman to be canonized; the first woman who made the ideals of
Francis of Assisi a reality, a woman forged in the furnace of the Gospel
life that he lived and taught.
Certainly the date we are celebrating at this anniversary is lost in
the shadows of a remote past, enveloped in legends, but we are
convinced that if we can bring the saint and what she did back to life,
we will emerge enriched in our souls and our work. Authentic holiness
and love of humanity without bounds are outside of time, they
transcend every culture. The message of her life crosses the eight
centuries that separate us from her birth. Nevertheless, in order to
rightly understand and evaluate Elizabeth, we cannot lose sight of the
fact she is a daughter of her time, the thirteenth century, when religious
values were the supreme ones in society.
We want to go deeper into her spirit and her heart, and to
discover the source of her compassion and her love without limits or
distinctions. We want to praise and thank God for Elizabeth’s
uniqueness, for her uncompromising resolution, for her daring to be
different in her society. These are the reasons for this celebration and
for this letter addressed to the Franciscan family and, especially, to the
brothers and sisters of the Third Order, both Regular and Secular.
2. Life and legend of Elizabeth
2.1. Elizabeth’s life is interwoven with legends, which, although they
are the fruit of veneration and imagination, capture important aspects
of her personality. However, starting from our realistic and pragmatic
way of thinking, we want to investigate the history hidden behind
those legends. If imaginative creation has embellished Elizabeth to the
point of putting her outside the bounds of humanity, it was done in
order to highlight her personality, her genius and her unique and
provocative holiness. We cannot discard the legends that surround her
and her works like a crown. The legends are the vivid colors of her
portrait, they are a metaphor for the facts. However, we also want to
sift through and understand the biographical bricks that form the
structure of her life. The essential thing is not the miracles, but the love
that they reflect.
We will sketch her life with broad strokes, but we will examine
some of her most characteristic traits in depth, and we will follow in a
summary way the most decisive stages of her life. We will approach her
as a wife and mother, as an instrument of God’s compassion, as a
Franciscan penitent and founder, and as a saint. Under every one of
these aspects, Elizabeth is an exceptional personality.
2.2. Who was Elizabeth? A Hungarian princess born in 1207, the
daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his wife Gertrude of
Andechs-Meran. We do not know for certain the day, month, or place
of her birth, we are certain only of the year. According to Hungarian
tradition and the general opinion of many historians, she was born in
the castle in the town of Sárospatak, one of the favorite residences of
the royal family, located in northern Hungary. Others, with less
certainty, indicate Pressburg, or modern day Bratislava, the capital of
Slovakia. Tradition usually indicates the date of her birth as July 7.
That same year, Francis of Assisi was struggling in his search for
a new identity. He had already turned his life completely around and
committed himself wholeheartedly to living a life of penance and
teaching it among the people.
Among Elizabeth’s ancestors, on both her paternal and the
maternal side, are a number of men and women saints, as well as
Following the customs prevailing among the medieval nobility,
Elizabeth was promised in marriage to a German prince from
Thuringia. When the young princess was four years old (1211), she
began the journey to her new country, surrounded with every type of
gift prepared by her mother. The little princess was entrusted to the
German delegation at Pressburg, at that time the westernmost
stronghold of the kingdom of Hungary. This fortress was therefore
only a place to stop and rest during the trip to Thuringia.
She was brought up at the Thuringian court with the other
children of the Landgraf’s family, including her future husband, as was
the custom at that time. At the age of fourteen, she married Ludwig
IV, the Landgraf of Thuringia. They had three children. Elizabeth was
left a widow at the age of twenty. She died in 1231, when she was
twenty- four and was cannonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1235. A
record of a rich life, one in which she was crucified and rose to the
greatest height of sanctity, so that she might come to be presented as
an imperishable example of abnegation and devotion.
A misunderstanding has taken root in the Christian people, due
to popular and not very rigorous biographies, which say that Elizabeth
was the queen of Hungary. Of course, she was never queen of
Hungary, or of Thuringia, but princess of Hungary and Landgrafin of
Thuringia in Germany. She is traditionally represented with a crown,
not as a queen, but as a princess or Landgrafin, which was also
3. Wife and mother
3.1. Elizabeth’s companions and attendants describe for us how her
pilgrimage towards God started when she was still very young (L):
from her earliest childhood all her games, dreams and prayers were
directed towards a life beyond. During the different stages of her life,
she clearly set out on an ascending road of ascesis, renunciation and
purification, as if she urgently need to grow towards a Gospel identity.
Her short life is marked by resolute steps of interior and exterior
detachment, until she arrived at a complete stripping bare like Christ
on the Cross; until she achieved the union of her heart with the
Crucified, who is also present in the poor and in children.
How can we describe concretely her journey of elevation and
purification? In general, we may say that Elizabeth accomplished the
life program preached by Jesus in the Gospel: “For whoever wishes to
save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that
of the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35; Lk 17:33). “Whoever wishes to
come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”
(Mk 8:34). The culmination of her life consisted of giving and lavishing
it completely, forgetting herself, crucifying her life by doing good to
others. Her gaze was fixed on the God who is Love, from whom came
all the light which shone on her face and was reflected on the
3.2. From 1221 to 1227, Elizabeth was an exemplary wife, mother
and Landgrafin of Thuringia; one of the women of highest lineage in
the empire. Her pre-eminent position came to her as much from her
status as the daughter of a king, as from her position as the wife of a
German prince elector, the Landgraf Ludwig IV of Thuringia.
Their wedding was celebrated in the church of Saint George in
Eisenach. Elizabeth was then fourteen years old. She had been raised
by Princess Sophia, Ludwig’s mother, as a member of the family.
Ludwig and Elizabeth grew up together and shared life as brother and
sister. So their ordinary way of addressing each other was “dear
brother” and “dear sister”.
Their relationship as a married couple did not follow the
common style of the time, ordinarily marked by motives of politics or
convenience, but was one of authentic fraternal and conjugal affection.
They both shared the same ideals of living the faith. She liked to dress
her best for her husband when he came back from a long journey.
The sources contain a series of details which demonstrate that
her marriage was not an imposition accepted out of obedience, but
something that responded to a fully lived and shared state within a
Christian vision of married holiness. Here we have one of the
distinguishing features of Elizabeth’s sanctity. At that time, marriage
was not considered by the Church as a path towards holiness, as were
virginity, martyrdom and the monastic life. From her bull of
canonization, however, it can be deduced that the Pope considered
married life one of the elements that gave novelty to Elizabeth’s
What is striking about her marriage is the perfect harmony
between them both, their affection, respect and complete acceptance
of one another. The earliest sources emphasize Ludwig’s
understanding of his wife’s inclination towards devotion and works of
charity. He shared her religious and compassionate ideals. However, he
was also a soldier of the empire, and a lord and judge in his palace and
his dominion. After his death (1227), his subjects venerated him as a
3.3. Already as a married woman, Elizabeth devoted a great deal of
time to prayer, even far into the night, as she knelt praying beside their
marriage bed. She knew that she belonged completely to Ludwig, but
she had already heard the call of “the other husband” who had
addressed to her the evangelical “Follow me!” Deep joy and complete
satisfaction sprang from this double-sided love, however, not a conflict
from being divided in her soul. Now, looking back, we may say that
Ludwig was for her the tender, sensitive, immediate earthly love of her
life, but a love contemplated in the great existential context of a life
and a world guided by God. Above all human circumstances, what
really mattered was the love of God, the absolute Good, all Good,
Supreme Good. God was the supreme and unconditional value that
strengthened Elizabeth’s other loves for her husband, her children and
The miracle of the roses woven by legend does not accurately
represent their relationship in their marriage. When Elizabeth was
surprised by her husband with her skirt full of bread, there was no
reason at all to hide her errand of mercy from him. He had always
supported her extraordinary works of charity, as became clear during
the famine in 1226, when she emptied the granaries of her husband’s
lands in her his absence. When Ludwig returned and listened to the
accusations of his subordinates, he unconditionally supported his
wife’s actions. Therefore, there was no reason for the miracle of the
bread turning into roses to exist. God does not perform useless
miracles. But of course, her works of charity fell like roses into the
hands of the hungry and on the wounds of the suffering. Roses
became one of the pictorial attributes in the iconography of this unique
3.4. When Elizabeth was fifteen, she had her first child, Hermann,
heir to the throne. Two daughters, Sophia and Gertrude, followed; the
latter was born when Elizabeth’s husband had just died (1227). At that
time she was only 20 years old.
When her husband died, the princess died as well, and the
penitent sister came to the foreground. Her life changed radically.
Elizabeth was expelled from the castle by her brother-in-law Heinrich
Raspe, or she may have left the castle voluntarily to follow her ideals of
renunciation and evangelical poverty. Biographers have debated
whether she was expelled or left of her own will. Then she ceased
being the Landgrafin and began an important period of her life in her
journey towards total immersion in God and conversion into one more
poor woman among the poor and needy. She was able to realize in part
the ideal of poverty and compassion, learned from Francis, which she
cherished in her heart. She went down into the valley, to her own
people but her own did not welcome her. Her answer to loneliness and
abandonment was the song of gratitude which she asked to have sung
in the chapel of the Franciscans, the Te Deum.
4. Elizabeth as a Franciscan penitent
4.1. Elizabeth of Hungary is the woman who most authentically
embodied the penitential spirit of Francis. It has been debated whether
or not she was a Franciscan tertiary. We must clarify that during
Elizabeth’s lifetime, the word tertiary was not yet commonly used. Nor
did there exist in the Church an official category of female Franciscan
penitents living a common life. Perhaps for this reason, or because
they do not keep in mind the nature of the medieval order of penitence
revived by St Francis, there are historians who, without foundation,
globally deny that she was a Franciscan. Nor do they take into account
that Elizabeth was a pioneer in the creation of a new form of common
and penitential life devoted to works of mercy, which through the
centuries has formed one of the pillars of the Franciscan tertiary
charism. However, it is known that at the time of Elizabeth’s death and
canonization, many penitents in various European cities were guided
by Friars Minor and other priests.
4.2. A first attempt by the Friars Minor to penetrate Germany in 1219
failed due to the lack of preparation. A few years later, in September
1221, twenty-five friars renewed their intention in a second and better
organized expedition under the leadership of a German brother,
Cesarius of Speyer. By 1225, there were already eighteen Franciscan
foundations in Germany. They were not large monasteries with
convents, but humble and informal centers for preaching. That same
year they also arrived in Eisenach, the capital of Thuringia, where the
Landgraf’s court, presided over by Ludwig and Elizabeth, was located
in Wartburg castle.
Fra Giordano da Giano, who was part of this expedition, wrote
in his chronicle on the foundation of the order in Germany (1262) that
“a lay man, called Rudeger,” joined the order, “who later became
Elizabeth’s master of spiritual teaching and taught her to preserve
chastity, humility and patience, and to keep watch in prayer and apply
herself to works of mercy” (FF2352). Even though Giordano tells us
that Rudeger was a layman when he was admitted, it does not mean
that he could not have been ordained a priest later and could have
come to be Elizabeth’s confessor. Fra Giordano himself entered the
order as a layman and was ordained a priest in 1223.
The Friars Minor preached to the people the life of penance, that
is, giving up worldly life, and engaging in prayer, mortification and
charitable works. This, as Fra Giordano confirms, was the teaching
that Rudeger offered Elizabeth, teachings he had learned from Francis
of Assisi, which penetrated her soul, already predisposed towards the
values of the spirit. Let us recall that in 1225, Elizabeth was eighteen
and already married.
4.3. The Franciscan sources tell how Francis chose the life of
penance, which consisted in an intense and committed living of the
faith. A person entered the state of penance through a propositum or
formal renunciation of the world; as did Francis himself, who always
refused to become a monk. The other significant act was taking a habit
of penance. A person firmly resolved to follow Jesus, who, although he
was God, did not flaunt his divine condition but made himself poor
and lowered himself by becoming one of the many (Phil. 2:6-7).
Francis showed that holiness can flourish among the people, if they
abandon worldly interests. He made it clear that sanctity is not the
possession of monks or hermits alone. The first rule of the penitents,
the Memoriale propositi, was approved in 1221, the year of Elizabeth’s
This saint experienced in the flesh the descent of God into the
humanity of Jesus Christ. She too came down from her throne and
identified herself with the disinherited of society, becoming incarnate
among them and making herself one of the many. She had already
demonstrated that it is possible to live faith in Christ under the
lordship of God the Father even in palaces and castles; but, she later
did it by living in abandonment and poverty, in joy and suffering.
4.4. A whole series of converging testimonies tells us that Elizabeth
was a Franciscan. To deny this is to do violence to the texts and
references regarding her life and to be ignorant of the institution of
penance promoted by Saint Francis. The Friars Minor guided her to
the life of penance and through them she learned about the personality
of Francis. If Franciscans did not guide her towards penance, towards
what did they guide her? Those who want to see her as a “semireligious
woman” with ties to the Cistercian Order have no convincing
But the evidence that she was a Franciscan, which appears in the
earliest sources for her life, is undeniable. We cannot understand
Elizabeth apart from this fundamental aspect. We will indicate some,
though not all, of the most significant of this evidence:
— Brother Rudeger became her spiritual guide when the
Franciscans settled in Eisenach.
— Conrad of Marburg, the priest who became her spiritual
instructor and confessor, after she met Brother Rudeger, in a letter to
the Pope, also called the Summa vitae, testified that Elizabeth gave a
chapel in Eisenach to the Franciscan friars.
— Elizabeth spun wool for the habits of the Friars Minor and
clothes for the poor. One question: was this behavior a consequence of
the teaching of Francis, who, in his will, exhorts his brothers to live on
their own manual labor or, in case of need, to resort to begging?
— When she was expelled from her castle, alone and abandoned,
she turned to the Franciscans and asked them to sing the Te Deum as a
thanksgiving to God.
— Master Conrad declared that she made her public profession
on a Good Friday, March 24, 1228, in the Franciscan chapel. Present at
this solemn act were the friars, her relatives (her handmaids) and her
children. In front of all of them, of her own free will, placing her hands
on the bare altar, she renounced the vanities of the world. As an
external sign she put on the gray habit of the penitent. This was the
color of the habit that the friars and penitents wore at that time.
—The four handmaids, who were questioned during the
canonization process, also took this gray habit. Conrad alludes to this
“humble tunic” in which Elizabeth wanted to be buried. This habit
was for her a symbol of great importance: it expressed the religious
profession that had conferred her new identity on her.
— She placed the hospital she founded in Marburg (1229) under
the protection of Saint Francis, who had been cannonized nine months
— The anonymous Cistercian author of Zwettel (1236) says that
Elizabeth “wore the gray habit of the Friars Minor.” The gray
Franciscan color is to be understood in a very generic sense, with a full
range of tones that can be obtained by various mixtures of natural
black and white wool. The historical references of the time suggest this
sense. Those who support the idea that Elizabeth was a Cistercian
penitent have not considered this quotation.
— The commitment Elizabeth demonstrated in living in poverty,
giving away all her possessions and devoting herself to begging – are
these not the demands Francis made of his followers?
4.5. In the biographical sources, we find two professions by Elizabeth
and two ways of professing used at that time: in the first one, when her
husband was still alive, she placed her hands in those of her superior,
Conrad, who received her vow. In the second profession, more solemn
and requiring greater commitment, she placed her hands on the altar.
Profession could also be made by placing a written declaration on the
In the face of all this evidence, we would be violating the texts if
we did not admit that Elizabeth was guided by the Friars Minors, and
showed confidence and affection for them. From them she learned
about the personality of Saint Francis and the life of penance he
taught. If she was a religious woman, as the Pope said and as we will
explain later, of what Order was she a part?
After her husband’s death, she could have entered a convent, as
her mother-in-law Sophia did and become an abbess as her aunt
Mechtilde did. This is what many noble ladies of her time did when
they were widowed. But Elizabeth rejected this idea. Monastic life was
not for her, any more than it was for Francis. She decided to remain
among the people without being one of them, to be close to those who
suffered, until she identified herself with them.
4.6. The Franciscan family has never had any doubt that Elizabeth
was a Franciscan. Since the thirteenth century, it has always declared
she is one of its most eminent members. However, it is the Franciscan
Third Order, both Regular and Secular, which honors her as its patron
saint and has always considered her a distinctive pioneer in the exercise
of its charism: evangelical conversion and works of mercy.
This tradition is confirmed by iconography and literature, by the
devotion of all Franciscans, by the lists of Franciscan saints. . . It would
take too long and it would be almost impossible to present a synthesis
of all this evidence here. For this one can consult the abundant
Even many non Franciscan authors and artists present Elizabeth
as a Franciscan. An example is the anonymous Cistercian author
mentioned above, who wrote the first life of Saint Elizabeth as early as
1236, a year after her canonization. He says that “she wore the gray
habit of the Friars Minor.” We may ask ourselves once more: which
Franciscan form of religious life, with no convents or monasteries, did
Elizabeth join then, if not the one of penance preached by Saint
Francis and his friars?
5. Founder of a religious community
5.1. Whether along with the Franciscans, or after them, Conrad of
Marburg became her confessor and spiritual director. He was a poor
and austere preacher, a secular priest or perhaps a Cistercian. The Pope
named him visitator of the German monasteries and convents, preacher
of the crusade, and later inquisitor general. Ludwig, Elizabeth’s
husband, entrusted the care of his family to him during his absence
(1226), when Elizabeth accepted him expressly of her own free will as
a guide and confessor, precisely because he was poor (L). She promised
him obedience and was faithful to his orders, though interpreting them
in her own way, as the Lord inspired her.
Under his guidance, Elizabeth lived the life of a penitent in
Wartburg castle. Freely and spontaneously she followed the footsteps
of Francis, dedicated to prayer, austere renunciations, and service to
the most humble and forsaken. Even though she had learned this way
of life from the Franciscans, she made her first profession as a penitent
in Conrad’s hands, but she did not make it alone.
She could have become a solitary penitent, but that is not what
happened. Like Francis, she too had some companions with whom she
shared her first plan of penitential life. Also her ladies-in-waiting, Guda
and Isentrude and the servant Elizabeth made vows of obedience and
celibacy to Master Conrad, and also vowed not to use goods that had
been acquired unjustly. Thus, together with Elizabeth, they formed a
penitential community in Wartburg castle. Conrad became the visitator
of that little fraternity, as established by the ancient rule, the Memoriale.
This Rule organized the Order of Penance into fraternities placed
under the jurisdiction of the bishop and the visitator named by him.
Visitators did not necessarily have to be Franciscans. In the Regula non
bullata (1221), St. Francis states that “no woman in any way should vow
obedience to any friar, but once given her spiritual advice, she should
carry out her life of penance as she likes” (chapter 12). So we can
understand well why Elizabeth’s penitential profession was made in
It was a small fraternity of prayer and ascetic life, with Conrad
as superior and visitator. Elizabeth established what they could eat or
drink, after she had checked the source of the foods, faithful to the
orders of the master (L). After the death of her husband, Ludwig, her
attendants followed her in her exile from the castle, towards the
kingdom of the poor. In the bitter hours of loneliness and
abandonment, they supported the soul of the mendicant princess and
were urged by her to do the will of God.
5.2. With her second public profession as penitent, on Good Friday
1228, the fraternity became a community of sisters who professed as
she did, dressed as she did and who committed themselves to the same
resolution to spread the compassion of God. It was a full religious life
for professed women without strict cloister, who dedicated themselves
to social work: service to the poor, the marginalized, the sick, pilgrims,
to education and teaching...
The many clear allusions to a religious community contained in
the Libellus are sufficient. If we are correct in these inferences, we must
recognize that Elizabeth founded a congregation of female penitents.
Let’s not forget that the penitents were consecrated persons, as can be
deduced from the bull of Gregory IX and those of his predecessors.
They were not simple lay people, nor “semi- religious” men or women,
as has been written sometimes by those who are not well-informed on
the subject of the order of penance.
However, canonical approval for this form of common life,
without strict cloister, took centuries. Religious institutions for women
devoted to the care of the sick and the needy and the raising and
education of children and youth, as well as many other charitable
works, were not recognized by the Church until after the rigid concept
of papal cloister, decreed by Council of Trent for all professed nuns
and religious women, had been overcome.
5.3. In his bull of canonization, Pope Gregory IX states that
Elizabeth was clothed in the habit religious women wear: “religionis
Her four handmaids, who were her companions in religious life,
and who testified during her process of canonization were Guda,
Isentrude, Elisabeth and Irmengarde; they lived the longest in her
company, but she appears to have had at least two more. It is
expressly stated in their testimony that they were all religious women
and were recognized as such. The four of them refer to the habit they
took along with Elizabeth, the habit of penance. They lived a religious
life in common with her: they worked and ate together, they went out
together visiting the houses of the poor and she sent them with food
to divide among the needy. When they returned home, they all met in
prayer. The relationship with her handmaids was a very loving one.
Elizabeth acted with them as with dear friends and told them to
address her familiarly, even though she was a titled lady.
Guda, Elizabeth’s childhood friend, took the habit along with
her. Isentrude had been her lady-in waiting for five years, even while
her husband was alive. It was she who demonstrated that she had a
profound knowledge of the details of Elizabeth’s inner life: her intense
prayer and piety; her moderation in eating and drinking; her use of the
discipline; the pastimes she enjoyed as a child; her spinning of wool
with her own hands for tunics for the Franciscans and clothes for the
poor; her assistance to lepers, the abandoned and the children; her
warnings to parents; and her rigorous treatment by her spiritual
director, Conrad of Marburg, his beatings and zeal to “break her will.” ...
The handmaid Elisabeth stated that she had also taken the habit
in this religious community, and gives us a precious detail: the Saint
prepared the meals for the poor together with her handmaids “devoted
to God in the gray habit.” The Latin expression that the text applies to
her handmaids is “Deo devotis,” which clearly expresses their religious
profession in the life of penance, as was the custom in literature of the
Irmingarde, a “religious woman dressed in the gray habit,” recalls
the affection that Elizabeth, like Francis, felt for lepers, the humiliated,
and those excluded by society. She told how, after Elizabeth’s husband
died, her brother-in-law did not permit her to make use of his goods.
Certainly, Elizabeth could have received, as one poor person more, the
alms distributed by the princely courts, but she refused to do so and
chose to support herself by working with her own hands or begging:
“elegit abiecta esse et opere manuum eius velud questionaria cibum
adquirere” (L). Wasn’t this the advice of Francis to his brothers: to
work and beg?
Hildegunde is another religious woman, but was not called on to
testify during the process. She is the girl who by an error on
Elizabeth’s part had some of her beautiful long hair clipped. At the
distribution of gold and alms in Marburg Elizabeth did not want any of
the poor to receive alms and food twice to the detriment of the rest.
To avoid this, she threatened to cut the hair of any transgressor.
Hildegunde was falsely accused before Elizabeth, who without
hesitation, ordered that her striking long hair be cut off. When
Elizabeth realized Hildegunde’s innocence, she called the girl to her to
console her and invited her to follow a better life and enter the service of
the hospital, “taking the religious habit.”
5.4. In his letter to the Pope, or Summa vitae, Conrad of Marburg
stated that he separated Elizabeth from her dearest companions and
left her alone in the company of a rather uncouth religious woman and
an elderly noblewoman who was deaf and harsh of character, so that
she might practice humility and patience. Even though he stated that
he did it so that she might make progress in virtue, as she desired,
historians have seen this as an irrational act of sadism by Master
Conrad. However, considering that he had been the visitator of
monasteries and convents and that he was carrying out that office in
this community as well, couldn’t this alleged removal of Elizabeth’s
religious companions perhaps be interpreted as a means of dissolving
that incipient congregation that was not in compliance with canon law?
So, instead of attributing this action to the master’s cruelty, it may be
more plausible to think of his zeal for the law, which Elizabeth’s
director took pride in fulfilling in its entirety.
5.5. If Elizabeth really was a religious, as the Pontiff clearly stated in
his bull, if her companions were professed with her and wore the same
habit she did, we may ask ourselves: which religious order did they
embrace? The answer is obvious: they could only have been members
of the Order of Penance, later called the Franciscan Third Order, the
one preached and spread by the Friars Minor.
The Rule of the Penitents, the Memoriale propositi, did not
conceive the penitential institution as a hierarchical order with its own
superiors, but as an entity formed by diocesan fraternities. It did not
include, therefore, any connotation of monasticism, nor of a
community life in convents or monasteries. It was intended to organize
consecrated life in the world. However, the penitents who accepted
this rule and habit were religious men and women, Deo devoti,
committed to the service of God. They were not simple lay men and
women: though they continued living in the world, they were
consecrated persons. They led a life of piety and renunciation. Many of
them dedicated themselves to spreading God’s compassion among the
needy, as Saint Elizabeth did. In order to describe her life and
understand the Order of Penance, we must read the letter Saint Francis
wrote To all the Faithful Penitents from this point of view.
Elizabeth added to all the requirements of the Rule the
community life with her handmaids, in order to make charity and
prayer more effective. She was not the only one to give Franciscan life
of penance a social aim, though she was its most significant founder,
the one who more than anyone else took the practice of charity to
unheard-of extremes. She was a pioneer without knowing it. We may
conclude without reservation that Elizabeth was a professed penitent
religious in the manner of Francis of Assisi. Elizabeth lived intensely
the principal features of Franciscan penitential spirituality and founded
a consecrated community at the service of God and the needy.
5.6. For centuries the Franciscan life of penance has not been
correctly interpreted when it has been presented as an institution
intended only for lay and married people. Current canon law may help
us understand better the life of those penitents as a consecrated life in
Of course, many of these penitents through the centuries have
sought a more committed religious life in hermitages or in community
life, as Francis himself did at first. Elizabeth occupies an eminent place
among these penitents. However, there were many other women who
traveled a similar road. We can mention Rose of Viterbo (1235-1253),
Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297) and Angela of Foligno (1248-1309),
among others, who also formed small communities around them,
made up of companions under the Franciscan Rule of Penance, in
order to practice the works of mercy.
These congregations were not approved by the Church because
religious communities of active life for women were not contemplated
in canon law. The Third Order Regular arose, at different times and
places, from this greater evangelical commitment of the penitents, later
If some historians doubt Elizabeth was a Franciscan, this may be
due to a lack of knowledge of the origins of the Franciscan Order of
Penance. Certainly, the Memoriale was intended for “those living within
their own homes,” but at that time there were already those who left
their homes in order to retire to remote places to live a more intense
life of prayer and renunciation. Others formed communities in order to
live their consecration more deeply. This was the example of St.
5.7. The question we must ask ourselves is this: if Pope Gregory IX
states Elizabeth was a religious, why does he not say which religious
order she belonged to, or why didn’t he approve the fraternity she
founded? At the time, the Church did not contemplate professed
female penitents living in community without papal cloister and
dedicating their lives to the apostolate. All the communities that arose
at that time were channeled into monastic life. The natural and
canonical states for women were marriage or monastic life. A full
religious life outside the convent and public apostleship, spreading
outward from a life in community, were not recognized for women.
Even worse, a woman who was not bound in marriage or enclosed in a
monastery was seen as a danger to men. Women were seen as the heirs
of Eve who had seduced Adam.
During this time, we encounter another follower of Francis,
Clare of Assisi, who had the good fortune of enjoying a personal
relationship with him and was captivated by his message. After years of
uncertainties and seeking, her community, which was a penitential one
in the beginning, encountered the following of Christ through prayer
and contemplation in a cloistered monastic life. Clare chose the service
of Mary of Bethany, and thus she remained enclosed within the walls
of San Damiano, without having the opportunity to translate into
works the same apostolic way of life that Francis and his companions
led, nor to develop it into a charitable work as Elizabeth did. Monastic
life was the sole canonical form allowed by the Church for women’s
Elizabeth, however, was capable of coordinating both
inclinations: that of intimacy with God, like Mary, but also that of
active service in favor of the poor, like Martha with Jesus. If her
existential choice was to consecrate her life to God and exercise active
charity among the needy, there is no other word to define her than the
one the pope used: “religious”.
We know that Cardinal Ugolino, the future Pope Gregory IX,
intervened in the establishing of cloister in many female communities,
among them the Poor Clares. He knew that Elizabeth was not a
cloistered nun and that her religious community did not fit into the
canonical guidelines of the time. The act of approving an institution
like Elizabeth’s would demand some radical changes in the attitude
then current towards women in canon law and as members of the
Church. And these changes did not come about until some centuries
It’s no wonder, then, that Elizabeth’s daughter Gertrude did not
follow her footsteps in the congregation founded by her mother, since
it was not a canonical congregation, nor it had been approved. But in
the end, Gertrude become abbess of a Premonstratensian convent, and
was also proclaimed a saint.
During Elizabeth’s lifetime, the Belgian bishop, Jacques de Vitry,
obtained the approval of a set of regulations for pious women living a
kind of common life: they were called Beguines or beatas. The Fourth
Lateran Council (1215) prohibited the creation of new rules. The
beguinages or beateries in Belgium, however, were conceived of as groups
of individual dwellings and a few common outbuildings, and they were
surrounded by strong walls, therefore, they too, in a way, were
5.8. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent
reaffirmed complete cloister for all convents of professed women.
Later in time, canonical recognition was given to the creativity of
Elizabeth and of many other holy women who devoted their hearts,
hands and words to making the compassion of the Father present
among the needy sectors of society.
Today there are more than 400 women’s congregations of the
TOR, with almost 100,000 professed women who follow Elizabeth’s
footsteps and who may be called her heirs. They are not limited in their
works of mercy by insurmountable convent walls. Nor is there any lack
of followers of Elizabeth in the contemplative life, the other distinctive
aspect of this saint. So it was not for nothing that Elizabeth was
proclaimed patroness of the whole Franciscan Third Order, both
Regular and Secular, since she possessed the whole vast range of the
charisms of contemplation and charity.
6. Princess and compassionate penitent
6.1. Compassion, as has already been mentioned, is the most
outstanding aspect of Elizabeth’s life. On the monumental stainedglass
windows in her basilica in Marburg, Germany, the Saint is
represented practicing the works of mercy. Marburg is the city in which
she spent the years of her widowhood, where she practiced
compassion fully and where she died. Compassion has also formed the
charism of the whole Franciscan Third Order throughout its history. It
is impossible to understand either Elizabeth or the Franciscan Order
of Penance without the servitium caritatis.
Benedict XVI has recalled to us that love is not only a
“commandment”, but the answer to the gift of love through which
God comes to meet us. The service of love is of fundamental importance
in the Church and in every life that prides itself on being evangelical.
“There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and
help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of
material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is
indispensable” (DC 28b).
Elizabeth’s brief life was filled to overflowing with loving service,
joy and suffering. The cry of the poor, the sick and the forgotten
reached the summit of Wartburg castle and resonated ever more
powerfully in Elizabeth’s heart while she was still the Landgrafin. The
atmosphere of the court was one of envy and ambition, wars and
conquests, luxury and wastefulness. Elizabeth’s generosity and her
bond with the needy created a scandal. Many vassals thought she was
mad. Here she met one of her great crosses: crucified between the
society to which she belonged and the society of those who did not
know any compassion.
Making use of her full authority when she was still Landgrafin,
while her husband was away, as we have already said, she had to
confront the calamity of a general famine that devastated the country.
She did not hesitate to empty the granaries of her husband’s lands and
possessions to aid the needy. She sold her clothes and jewels and
provided tools to those who could work. She also demonstrated that
she knew a little about economics, for she knew it was better to give a
hungry person a fishing rod, rather than a fish. On his return, her
husband did not reprimand her, because he knew his wife’s heart and
understood her ideals.
6.2. Elizabeth was not one of those who delegate responsibilities to
others in order to be freed from them herself. She personally served
the downhearted, the poor and the sick both in the hospital and
outside it. She got her own hands dirty. She exercised her charity in
deeds, not words. We contemplate her as she was dominated by a
higher power, by the imperious need to love, to do good, to give
herself to others and to spread goodness.
Her devotion to the needy seems like a natural, effortless action,
but it was not. It cost her horrors to become used to misery and the
wounds of society, to enter foul-smelling huts, to clean and bandage
wounds, to carry abandoned children... She cared for lepers, the
dregs of society, as Francis did. Conrad naively confessed that he did
not know where Elizabeth had learned the art of healing. Perhaps he
never understood that the heart is the great teacher of life. Day by day,
hour by hour, poor person by poor person, Elizabeth lived and poured
God’s compassion into the river of pain and misery that surrounded
Elizabeth discovered Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick,
the lepers and the unfortunate (Mathew 25,40). The concrete sick
person she was tending was Christ for her. He gave her the strength to
overcome her natural repugnance, so much so that she even kissed
purulent wounds. This discovery of Christ present in the poor person
is celebrated by the “legendary miracle” of the leper concealed in
Elizabeth’s marriage bed. When her husband lifted the quilt, he leper
changed into an image of Christ. Who does not recall that Francis
indicated in his Testament that embracing a leper was the turning point
that led him towards a life of penance?
6.3. At the hour of her death, Elizabeth declared expressly that
everything that was still left to her belonged to the poor; with the
exception of her habit of penance, in which she asked to be buried.
Without any goods, property or possessions, she departed to meet the
But Elizabeth made use not only of love but also intelligence in
her work of assistance. She knew that institutionalized charity is much
more effective and long lasting. When her husband was still alive, she
erected a hospital in Eisenach and later one in Marburg, the favorite
work of her widowhood. She knew that people were the decisive factor
for its proper functioning and to this end she founded a religious
fraternity with her female friends and handmaids or servants who aided
her. We saw this previously.
We have also alluded to her work; she performed it with her own
hands; she prepared the meals in the kitchen; she did it in the service
of the poor; she washed the dishes, and she sent away her handmaids,
almost all of low birth, when they tried to stop her. She learned to spin
wool and sew clothes. She offered on the altar the money she earned
by her manual labor. Count Pavia, an emissary of Elizabeth’s father,
who wanted to bring her back to Hungary after her husband’s death,
said: “Never has a princess been seen spinning wool before.”
7. Elizabeth as Contemplative and Saint
7.1. Sanctity appears in the history of the Church as a form of
madness, the madness of the cross that St. Paul speaks about. And
Elizabeth’s holiness is a real madness. A madness the courtiers
surrounding her understood as a provocation, but one which the
humble delighted in and admired. What are the characteristics of
Elizabeth’s holiness? Where is the source from which they flowed? We
can only offer a few indications to stimulate reflection during the
celebration of this anniversary year.
In Elizabeth’s life the supremacy of charity shines with a special
radiance. It is charity which constitutes the marrow of holiness and of
the Gospel. Her life is a hymn to love, a love that is expressed in
service and abnegation, a love that pours itself out in spreading
goodness. But this love has a vertical dimension; it is nourished by
another love, the love that comes from God as well as the one that
rises to Him. It is a single love which burned Elizabeth’s soul in both
its aspects, as Jesus once said. After all, the final examination of our life
will be on love. This is the supreme note of her holiness.
7.2. Continuing in our considerations, if we analyze the declarations
of the eyewitnesses, her handmaids and companions, we see that
Elizabeth wanted to live the Gospel simply, “sine glossa”, as Francis
would say, in all its spiritual and material aspects. She left no writings,
but many phases of her life can only be comprehended through a literal
understanding of the Gospel. She transplanted into her daily life the
demands of Jesus down to the last consequences:
— “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it
to the poor . . . . Then come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21). Isn’t this what
Francis and his companions did? Wasn’t Elizabeth’s obsession to
succor and give to the needy?
— “Whoever loves father or mother . . . son or daughter more
than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). And she separated herself
even from her children in order to give love without reserve to the
— “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand
him your cloak as well” (Mt. 5:41). Wasn’t Elizabeth disinherited by
her own family? Didn’t she renounce everything she possessed to serve
others? (cf. Luke 6,29).
— “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever
loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35).
Doesn’t losing your soul mean sacrificing your will? What else had
Elizabeth done but sacrifice her own will since she was a child?
— God “desires merch, and not sacrifice” (Mt. 9:13). But
Elizabeth offered both to God.
— “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name,
receives me,” Jesus said. (Mark 9:37). It seems that Elizabeth always
wanted to have a little boy or girl near her, in order to experience this
presence of Jesus.
7.3. Elizabeth made her life into a following of Jesus, who “went
about doing good.” She combined the active and contemplative life:
“Mariam induit, Martham non exuit” (L). She put on Mary, without
stripping herself of Martha. Her ardent inner strength grew out of her
contact with God. Her prayer was intense and constant, at times even
reaching ecstasy. Her constant awareness of the presence of the Lord
was the source of her strength and joy, and of her commitment to the
poor. She had someone in whom to trust. But her encounter with
Christ in the poor also stimulated her faith and her prayer.
She was accustomed to praying on her knees. “When she came
from her secret prayers, her face was wondrously radiant, as though
sunbeams were coming from her eyes” (EC). Her handmaids once
surprised her as she was rapt in ecstasy, saying: “Lord, if you want to
be with me, I want to be with you and want never to be separated from
7.4. Her pilgrimage towards God is marked by resolute steps of
interior detachment, until she was totally stripped bare, like Christ on
the Cross. She detached herself from her life at court and from her
home at the Wartburg, from her position of princess; from privileges,
wealth and security; from her reputation before those who accused and
defamed her. She even detached herself from her maternal love for her
children. At the end she had nothing left but the poor gray tunic which
wanted to keep as a symbol and shroud.
The statements of her handmaids, on the joy and peace that
Elizabeth radiated were astonishing. Her face shone with joy and
peace. The depth of her soul was the kingdom of peace. She made the
perfect joy taught by Francis a reality -- in hardship, solitude and
suffering. When the magnates insulted and defamed her as stupid and
mad, she bore it with patience and joy; they accused her to her face of
having quickly forgotten her dead husband and of rejoicing in what
should have saddened her.
“We must make people happy,” she kept saying to her
handmaids-sisters. She was extraordinarily joyful, even though, at
times, tears flowed serenely down her face.
Elizabeth died very young, at the age of twenty-four. She expired
peacefully, surrounded by her beloved companions. She passed
through this life like a luminous meteor full of hope. She quickly spent
all the energies and graces God had entrusted to her. She brought light
into the darkness of many souls. She brought happiness to afflicted
hearts. No one can count the many tears she wiped away, the wounds
she healed and the love she awakened.
Elizabeth is a mirror of perfection, in which married couples,
widows, single women and penitents can look at themselves (L). Her
holiness is a universal example for lay people and religious alike; for
she had first been a laywoman. Her holiness was an innovation rich in
nuances and outstanding virtues, as the Pope emphasized in the bull of
canonization. Now it was not only martyrs and virgins who had access
to the intimate love of God and to the honor of the altars, but also
wives, mothers and widows. The miracles that were recounted after her
death were amazing astonishing. But her greatest accomplishment was
that she set all the strings of her heart vibrating with love, as if it were
the most natural and simple thing in the world.
Her companions were considered handmaids or servants, but like
her, they were authentic religious. Elizabeth made the journey of
perfection of Christian love as a laywoman, wife and mother, but after
her profession, she was no longer a simple laywoman; she consecrated
her life completely to God and to the relief of human misery.
The Third Order of Saint Francis, Regular and Secular, desires to
encourage the remembrance of their holy patroness during the eighth
centenary of her birth and wants to consider her as light and model of
its evangelical commitment. The Franciscan family wants to honor the
first woman who achieved sainthood following the footsteps of Christ
in accordance with the “forma vitae” of Francis of Assisi. Elizabeth
was the woman who emptied herself in order to fill herself with Christ.
If we recall Elizabeth’s birth, her unique personality and her
sensitivity, it is so that through knowledge and admiration, we might
convert ourselves into instruments of peace, that we might learn from
her how to pour a little balm on the wounds of our surroundings,
humanize our circumstances, and wipe away some tears. Let us radiate
heart where the Father’s compassion cannot be found. May the
commitment that Elizabeth lived stimulate our commitment. May her
example and her intercession light our way towards the Father, source
of all love, the Good, all good, supreme good, peace and joy.
Fr. Ilija Živkovic, TOR
Encarnación Del Pozo, OSF
Sr. Anisia Schneider, OSF
President IFC – TOR
1. Conrad of Marburg, Epistola, also called Summa Vitae [Biographical
summary]; this letter to the Pope is the earliest source (EC).
2. Libellus de dictis quatuor ancillarum [Little book of the Statements of
the Four Handmaids] (L).
3. Bertoldus, chaplain, Benedictine monk, Vita Ludovici [The life of
4. Cesarius of Heisterbach, Cistercian, Vita sancte Elysabeth lantgravie
[The life of the Landgrafin Saint Elizabeth], written in 1236.
5. Anonymous of Zwettl, Cistercian monk, Vita Sanctae Elisabeth,
Landgravie Thuringiae [The life of Saint Elizabeth, Landgrafin of
Thuringia], Austria, 1236.
6. Anonymous Franciscan, Vita beatae Elisabeth [Life of Saint Elizabeth]
uncertain date, around the end of the thirteenth century.
7. Dietrich of Apolda, Dominican, Vita S. Elisabeth [Life of St.
Elizabeth], between 1289 and 1291.