MY. how Pope Paul startled the Catholic world and many a trusting soul outside it when he dropped from the Church's universal calendar of saints not only St. Nicholas (alias Santa Claus), but no less a revered figure than St. Christopher. patron saint of travellers.
There has been nothing like the consternation and indignation since that awful day in 1961 on which St. George, Patron Saint of England, was likewise downgraded. For centuries, his anniversary, April 23, had been marked by an official holiday and a Mass in his honour — fitting tribute to a shining knight, martyred, it was held, in AD 303 after his celebrated joust with the dragon.
The Vatican's demotion of St. Nicholas and St. Christopher means for them what demotion means for unfortunate St. George — they have been left mere "local" or
Without doubt, however, the loss of a place in the calendar will no more affect the world standing of Santa Claus than the loss of an occasional bag of toys by that amiable old gentleman would puncture his universal prestige. And nowhere will he continue to be venerated more than in Bari, on the Adriatic.
St. Nicholas is Bari's patron saint. His body has been preserved there since 1087, when Italian merchants spirited it from Myra (now Demre), Turkey, where the saint was bishop about the year 345. Today, all classes and creeds in Bari — Communists, Socialists Christian Democrats, Monarchists, Fascists and others — adopt a mutually fierce possessive attitude towards him.
Each year, it is customary for a statue of St. Nicholas to be taken to sea in a fishing boat, symbolising the city's ancient trade with the Orient. One year, when Bari was ruled by a Communist-Socialist coalition city council, the local archbishop was rash enough to ask Communist and Socialist councillors, including the mayor, to stay out of what was strictly a Christian festival. There was hell to pay.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and while he reigns, as ever, devoted St. Christopher adherents can lift up their hearts, too. After all, St. George continues to be venerated not only in England (with Cardinal Heenan raising a lance for him), but in Portofino, popular holiday resort on the Italian Riviera. There, the easiest way to court assault and battery is to belittle the local unshakable belief that St. George's body lies in the parish church, where it was placed by homing crusaders somewhere around the 13th century.
How much more, then, is devotion likely to continue in both Catholic and nonCatholic spheres to the globally -entrenched St. Christopher think of all those millions of medallions on car dashboards and dangling from key chains! Nothing is more certain than that what has happened to their hero now will rally his legions even more firmly to his side.
The list of 30 saints removed from the calendar meant some particularly hard knocks for Rome.
The city's American Catholics arc embarrassed. The church officially set aside for them is that of Santa Susanna demoted. too. She was martyred, the story goes. as a young and beautiful girl after incurring the anger of the wicked Emperor Diocletian by refusing to marry his adopted son, another no-gooder. Her body is buried in the church crypt.
Then there is the old church of St. Eustachio, where the saint's relics beneath the high altar have long been venerated. His name was Placidus originally. He was a soldier in the army of Titus, master of the horse under Trajan. and a general under Hadrian. While he was hunting one day. a majestic stag appeared before him, a gleaming cross between its horns. After he became a Christian he was martyred by being roasted alive, with his wife and sons, outside the Colosseum.
Gone from the calendar, too. are St. Alessio, after whom an international college in Rome is named, and St. Prudenza, to whom a sixth century Pope. in all good faith. dedicated a basilica in Rome. In her case. investigating scholars contend that she might not even have existed; there's a theory that someone mistook the adjective prudent for her name. Si. Barbara. patron saint of artillerymen and other armed warriors, has been reduced to the ranks as well.
Fr. Annibale Bugnini,
secretary of the new Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, has explained that the saints have been dropped from the calendar because experts had considerable difliculty in authenticating them and doubted, in some cases. that they had existed at all.
This was the case with St. Philomcna, after whom millions of girls and countless churches were named in all parts of the world. Her cult originated in Mugnano, an Italian village, in 1802, after a body distovered in Rome Catacombs was held to be that of Filumena, a Christian martyr. The body was taken to Mugnano and, in fine, splendour, enshrined there. Pope Gregory XVI recognised the cult in' 1837, after which it spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe and even tually to Asia and America. •
In 1961, the Vatican judged Philomena non-existent. But to this day veneration for her in Mugnano (and elsewhere) is unabated.
The Italian St. Maria Goretti presents an extraordinay case of a saint — about whose existence there is no doubt whatever — being downgraded within 19 years of her canonisation. Pope Pius XII canonised her as a martyr of Christian virtue in Holy Year 1950, after she had been fatally stabbed in 1902 when she was 12, by Alessandro Serenelli, farm hand, whose attempts to rape her she resisted.
Maria forgave him on her deathbed and prayed for his conversion. Her mother was present in St. Peter's when she was canonised. The girl's murderer, who served 27 years in gaol, is still alive, working as a monastery gardener.
Pope Paul gave a warning about what was to happen to the universal calendar when, on April 28, he spoke at the "secret" consistory in which he named 33 new cardinals.
In future, he said, days set apart in the Roman Calendar to honouring saints would be confined to those whose "historical and representative importance is greatest for the whole Church". The other saints, less well known, would be left to local veneration "after a careful review of the historical grounds of their lives and feast days".