Reflection: St. Elizabeth and the Anchor of Franciscan Life

Felix McGrath, OFM Features


For the Nov. 17  feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patroness of the Secular Franciscans, a friar who has served as spiritual assistant to the Seculars for more than 25 years shares St. Elizabeth’s story and how it reminds us of the way that God shows us where he wants us to go.

Some years back, when a group of young men began their Franciscan journey at St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., in 1954, their class patron was St. Elizabeth of Hungary. In all these years, I have never forgotten that. On this feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, one of those young men – now an old Franciscan – is offering this little prayer, this little “thank you” to her for being part of my Franciscan journey and for being part of the journey of many Franciscan men and women. I’m also grateful for her brothers and sisters in God’s great family – saints are for everyone.

St. Elizabeth’s life was like the old saying – “she went a long way in a short time.” She was only 24 when she died. Elizabeth was from a different time and a different world than ours, a world of kings and castles. Marriage in Elizabeth’s time was not the Hollywood rice and bouquets, and far more political than an ordinary “I do.” But, Elizabeth’s marriage has a storybook beginning – the beautiful, young princess marries the handsome prince Louis. They had three beautiful children and were living in a castle – a real Camelot – but God had other plans for the young princess.

Louis went off to the Crusades and died on the way, and Elizabeth was left a young widow with three kids. Scheming relatives wanted her castle and her money. They literally threw her and the children out into a cold snowy night, but God’s poor people took her in.

From the beginning, Elizabeth had a heart for the poor, the sick, the old, the inferior – not exactly popular people then, or even now. She would go down to the not-so-safe neighborhoods to bring food and medicine. Louis, her husband, did not share his wife’s enthusiasm, hence the story of roses tumbling out of her cloak instead of loaves of bread is memorable.

Elizabeth fought her greedy in-laws and got back her castle and possessions. But now God called Elizabeth to make another journey – a Franciscan journey. She would live the rest of her life as a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. This was to be her anchor, as it is in the life of so many men and women of the Third Order of St. Francis, also known as the Secular Franciscans. Elizabeth built a hospital for the sick using her own funds. Until the day she died, she personally cared for the sick and the dying.

A long time ago, St. Francis founded three orders for religious men and women, including one for people living in the world – men and women, clergy, married and single. That’s a lot of diversity. It’s hard to put Franciscans in a box or in a habit. The one thing that we all have in common is that we are all individuals and live the Franciscan life in a unique, personal, surprisingly familial way.

There’s something in the heart and in the mind that brings us together as a family. We are dysfunctional at times – yes, like any family – but we are still a family. We hang on to that, no matter what.

What is this, a vocational talk for the Secular Franciscans? No – these are the thoughts of a Franciscan priest who has spent 60 years hanging onto the anchor of his Franciscan life. This feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Patroness of the Third Order, is just a reminder of the mysterious, beautiful way that God steps into all our lives and teaches us where he wants us to go.

Sometimes life can get very rough and confusing, but God gives us all, like he gave St. Elizabeth the gifts and the anchor of our Franciscan life. God in his wisdom, love and mercy called us all to St. Francis of Assisi, to walk as his little brothers and sisters – this will be our anchor, our guide in life as it was for Elizabeth and all of our Franciscan brothers and sisters who have gone before us.

But we won’t keep it to ourselves – we will open our hearts and lives and be instruments of God’s peace for all our brothers and sisters in the world and in our Franciscan family.

On this Franciscan feast of St Elizabeth of Hungary, it is good to be reminded to be grateful to God, who called us all to be a part of this Franciscan family, no matter who we are or where we are, and no matter what is going on in our lives.

That’s why God called us to be Franciscans — so that God could bring us safe through life and safe home to heaven.



— Fr. Felix, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., has been stationed for 42 years at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York City. He has ministered for more than 25 years as a spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscans.

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