The saints, even those canonized, are like the stars: some are of greater magnitude than others. One reason why the monastic reformer St. Hugh is called “the Great” is precisely because his contemporaries recognized him as “a major planet.”
Hugh, the eldest son of a French count of Burgundian background, had so clear a calling to become a Benedictine monk that he entered the monastery of Cluny when only 14. Ordained a priest when only 20, and named prior of the monastery that same year, he was elected abbot in 1049 when only 25: surely a token of high esteem among his brethren.
Pope St. Leo IX soon saw his worth. The two became promoters of monastic reform. Under Pope Leo and his eight successors, Abbot Hugh was constantly traveling to and fro in Europe on missions of great importance to church and state.
Not that he neglected his monastery. Cluny, too, profited by his guidance and example, and under St. Hugh several reformist daughter monasteries were established in various European countries. Hugh also founded a monastery for nuns, presided over initially by his sister; and he opened a hospital for lepers, where he loved to wait on the sick personally.
St. Hugh served his Church and his monks until he was 85. When he knew that he was dying, he asked to be carried to church. There he lay upon symbolic sackcloth and ashes, until death came.
Hugh the Great was canonized only 11 years after his death. That in itself indicates the consensus that he was not only a saint but a great one.
A description of the saint by his disciple Heribert gives us a good idea of why St. Hugh was universally admired.
“Insatiable in reading, indefatigable in prayer,” wrote Heribert, “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. Anger, except against sin, he never knew. His advice, even when addressed to individuals, was serviceable to all. There was in him more of the father than of the judge, more of clemency that of severity. He was tall of stature and striking in appearance, but his spiritual endowments far surpassed his bodily graces. When he was silent, he was conversing with God; when he talked, he spoke of God and in God. He could always deal with whatever he undertook, for he gave it his entire attention. He loved, in their due order: God above and beyond all, his neighbor equally with himself, and the world beneath his feet.”
Many generous people have bequeathed their wealth for the benefit of posterity. How much nobler is the heritage of good example bequeathed to mankind by people like St. Hugh the Great? And how splendid on the part of all of us if we are able to leave to those who survive us the encouraging memory of a blameless life! It is like the heritage left by the risen Christ Himself.
— Father Robert F McNamara