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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Hugh The Great

April 26, 2016 saints No Comments


In the 11th century, over 150 years before St. Francis of Assisi received the order from our Lord to “repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin,” the secular rulers sought to control the appointment of bishops, abbots, and even the Pope. During this period of simony and conflict, St. Hugh the Great entered time to be one of the most influential men both within the Church and among the rulers of Europe.
St. Hugh the Great was born in 1024, the eldest son of Count Dalmatius of Semur and Aremberge of Vergy. He was descended from the noblest families of Burgundy, France, located about 200 miles southeast of Paris. As a noble, Hugh’s father hoped that his firstborn son would follow the manly pursuits of hunting and warfare.
On the other hand, his mother was deeply devout and faithfully practiced her faith. She wished that her son would prepare for the priesthood. According to one biographer, Hugh’s mother had a vision indicating that Hugh should become a priest and give all to serve God.
With the special gifts that God bestowed on Hugh and with his mother’s prayers, Hugh developed in intelligence, piety, holiness, and sincerity. The count recognized that Hugh had no interest in knightly pursuits and was more inclined to the priesthood, so he entrusted him to the care of Bishop Hugh of Auxerre, the boy’s grand-uncle.
The bishop monitored young Hugh as he attended the school at the Priory of Marcellus, a monastery. Next Hugh entered the novitiate of Cluny, about 240 miles southeast of Paris. Although he was only 14, this event marked the beginning of a new era in both Church and European history.
Hugh’s remarkable gifts became even more pronounced. His fervor and dedication to the religious life was profoundly elevated. Even given the strict novitiate at Cluny, he was allowed to make his vows after only one year — something never done before.
He achieved another remarkable step in his Church career at the age of 18 when he was ordained a deacon. Only two years later he was ordained a priest.
Hugh’s great talents and gifts, his piety and his zeal for discipline, brought him to the attention of his superiors who readily chose him to be grand prior of the monastery at Cluny. Hugh once again proved his skill at government and he also became the director of the cloister in spiritual as well as temporal matters.
Whenever the abbot left the monastery, he would leave Hugh in charge of all the men. When Hugh was 25 years old, the abbot, St. Odilo, died, on January 1, 1049. Unanimously, Hugh was elected abbot of Cluny. About six weeks later, on February 22, 1049, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Hugh was installed by Archbishop Hugh of Besancon.
Now began Hugh’s relationship with eight Popes in reforming the Church in Europe. Under Pope St. Leo IX (1049-1054), he attended the Council of Reims, denouncing the prevalence of simony and the relaxation of clerical celibacy with such effectiveness that even those who received their offices by simony applauded him.
Pope Victor II (1054-1057) respected the growing work of the Cluny abbey so much that he confirmed all the privileges previously endowed.
In 1057, Hugh then went to Rome to participate in the synod which denounced the Berengarian heresy under the same Pope. When the papal legate came to France, he first went to Cluny to seek Hugh’s advice and then when that legate became Pope Stephen X (1057-1058), Hugh was called to Rome. Hugh was so close to this Pope that the Pope called him to his deathbed — Stephen held him in his arms as he died.
His Successor, Pope Nicholas II (1058-1061), called Hugh to Rome once again to attend the Council of Rome. After the synod, Hugh was sent back to France where, because of the expanding network of monasteries under Hugh, he effectively implemented the decrees from Rome and held councils in Avignon, Toulouse, and Vienne.
Although he also worked with Pope Alexander II (1061-1073), his most memorable work came when Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) enlisted Hugh to reform the Church from its many abuses of simony and sins against clerical celibacy.
Hugh also worked with Urban II (1088-1099), Pope Pascal II (1099-1118), and many other world leaders. In fact, he was godfather to the son of the emperor who later became Henry IV. His stature among the rulers of Europe was so high and his skills so great that he frequently served as arbitrator in disputes at the highest levels.
He spent every moment in service to God. Not only did he serve the highest men in the hierarchy of the Church and the rulers of Europe, but he also oversaw the growth of Benedictine monastic life. Switzerland, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy were some of the countries where new houses were founded. One monastery was founded in England while a full enclosure convent for women was built in Marcigny — one to which his sister belonged.
The Cluniac monasteries were well known for their holiness and disciplined life and continued to grow in number. Given the number of Cluniac monasteries that had been established and their effectiveness, many of their members were chosen to fill church offices — this greatly facilitated any decrees from Rome that needed to be implemented.
Yet Hugh’s most important work was prayer. When he was not in prayer, he was either working for God or neighbor. His disciple, Heribert, wrote of Hugh, “Insatiable in reading, indefatigable in prayer, he employed every moment for his own progress or for the good of his neighbor. It is hard to say which was the greater, his prudence or his simplicity. Never did he speak an idle word: Never did he perform a questionable act. . . . When he was silent, he was conversing with God; when he talked he spoke of God and in God.”
In the spring of 1109, as death neared, Hugh received the last sacraments, bid each of his brothers in Christ goodbye with a kiss and a blessing, and then asked to be taken to the Chapel of Our Lady where he lay down in sackcloth and ashes and died.
His tomb soon became the site of many miracles. Pope Gelasius I (1118-1119) made his final pilgrimage to Cluny, visited the saint’s tomb, and then died at Cluny in 1119. His Successor, Pope Callistus II, when he was installed as Pope, immediately began the cause of canonization of Hugh from Cluny.
St. Hugh’s feast day is April 29.
Dear St. Hugh the Great, pray for us. You served as a priest tirelessly, working to reform the Church. Help the Church today by interceding for us to have good priests, religious, and laity who will work as tirelessly as you did to hold firm to the true disciplines and teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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