Today is the feast day of Saint Benno of Meissen. Ora pro nobis.
Benno was born to a noble family in Hildesheim, Saxony, (now Germany). Benno was the second son of Count Frederick of Bultenberg.
As a young man, Benno was sent off to his uncle, Bernward, to be educated. Bernward was a bishop at the nearby city of Gildesheim. After completing his education, Benno stayed on until his uncle died. Soon afterward, he joined the monastery in Hildesheim. In 1066, Benno was named Bishop of Meissen.
Soon thereafter, he was appointed Canon to the imperial chapel of Emperor Henry III, a pious ruler who looked to the Church for guidance in political matters. Upon his death, Henry IV ascended to the throne, at the young age of sixteen. Unlike his predecessor, he sought to subjugate the Church to the state, and restrict the legitimacy of the papacy throughout Germany.
However, at that time, one of the greatest of the Church’s popes, Pope Gregory VII, sat on the Chair of Peter, and wished for nothing more than to preserve the role of the Pope in investing bishops—that is, providing bishops with the symbols of their holy office, signifying their marriage to the Church. This “Investiture Contest” spread throughout Europe, and many bishops sided with the political leaders of their regions, rather than the Pope. However, Saint Benno stood alongside Pope Gregory VII, against the Emperor, instituting the reforms of the Church and maintaining the divine duties of the Pope.
One of the most famous legends told of Saint Benno involves his barring the emperor from receiving the Holy Eucharist following his excommunication (the Pope had excommunicated Henry IV, due to his decisions to challenge the Church’s legitimate authority to invest bishops). Henry, however, hoped that the German bishops would take no notice of this `excommunication’ and rode to Meissen—to the cathedral served by Saint Benno—to receive the Eucharist. Saint Benno realized that there was nothing he could do to keep the emperor out, save barring the cathedral to everyone. So that is what he did. He locked the cathedral doors, and threw the keys into the river Elbe. Henry knew that if he attempted to break down the doors to the cathedral, he would anger the crowds gathered, so simply rode away vowing vengeance on the holy bishop.
After he had gone, Saint Benno ordered the local fisherman to cast their nets into the Elbe, and after praying over the water, they hauled in their nets. In the net was a fish that had the keys to the cathedral hanging upon its fins. Benno retrieved the key and reopened the cathedral. It was not soon thereafter that he was both imprisoned and exiled, although would not stray from the teachings of the Church, even under threat of punishment.
Following his death, at the age of nearly one hundred, Saint Benno was buried in the cathedral at Meissen. When the cathedral was rebuilt in 1285, his relics were translated to the new cathedral, and many miraculous cures were reported at that time. His relics were later translated to Munich in 1580, and Saint Benno remains the patron saint of that city today.
Image: crop of Saint Benno, artist: Johann Michael Rottmayr, circa 1702 (3)