Wednesday, 6 December 2006


Today is my onomastico - the Feast of St Nicholas (which is, scandalously, an optional memoria). My patron has been abused and misrepresented over the last century as the benign and bumbling Santa Claus - a result of the Reformation and the collapse of the veneration of the saints.

Santa reminds us that St Nicholas is the patron of children but, in truth, there is little that is fluffy about the saint. When I visited Bari in August, there were no sentimentalised images of the saint or Santa outfits; he came across as a manly, passionate defender of Truth, a powerful intercessor in Heaven and a very human saint with a quick temper (rather like St Peter).
One of the main concerns of his life, for example, was fighting the heresy of Arianism. According to an early biography, ‘thanks to the teaching of St Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.’ There is even a story of the saint attending the Council of Nicaea and becoming so angry at the blasphemies of Arius that he went over to the heretic and punched him in the face. The bishops imprisoned St Nicholas for his assault, depriving him of his Episcopal dignity and burning off his beard. However, in prison he was visited by Our Lord and Our Lady, who restored his office and set him free. It’s a great story, even though St Nicholas is not recorded as attending the great Council, but it says something about the saint’s zeal.

Another example of the saint’s manliness and ‘righteous anger’ was his order to cut down a tree dedicated to the goddess Diana, much to the fury of the Devil. A fine fresco in the saint’s basilica in Bari shows the saint wielding the axe himself (rather like St Boniface cutting down the Sacred Oak).

The people of Bari take St Nicholas very seriously indeed. In particular, there is a strong devotion to the 'manna' of St Nicholas, a liquid that is apparently produced from the saint's tomb. This is extracted every year on 9 May (Feast of the Translation of St Nicholas), diluted and distributed to pilgrims (especially the sick). Between 1954 and 1957 the bones were exhumed during the renovation of the crypt and exposed to the public. The bones were frequently seen to 'perspire' and a linen cloth that was in contact with the bones was found to be soaking wet. The holy manna is traditionally put inside specially painted bottles.

A tenth century Greek wrote that ‘the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honour. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.’

Last May, when Pope Benedict visited Bari on his first papal pilgrimage, he referred to 'fortunate Bari, a city that preserves the bones of St Nicholas, a land of encounter and dialogue with our Christian brethren of the East.' As a saint who unifies East and West, St Nicholas takes on a great deal more significance than the lightweight caricature who can now be seen in a shopping centre near you.

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Anonymous Fr. said...

Will remember you at Holy Mass

Happy feast day

8:34 am  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

Thanks, Father!

10:27 am  
Anonymous Old Dominion Tory said...

Father Nicholas:
Today, at my parish in Virginia, I'm portraying the good Saint in a more traditional manner and distributing bags of chocolate coins as well as a scroll relating facts about the Saint's life. We're actually trying to put some Advent into Advent.
All the best on this day.

3:10 pm  
Blogger elena maria vidal said...

Happy feast day, Father! I always liked the story of how Saint Nicholas slapped Arius! Wonderful article!

3:46 pm  
Blogger Joee Blogs said...

Happy Feast Day!

6:15 pm  
Anonymous Don Marco said...

Buona festa, carissimo Padre! Do treat yourself to something special today!

8:07 pm  
Anonymous Dave Hill said...

Wait till I tell my mother-in-law about this! She'll be on the first flight out of Dublin to Bari tomorrow. Best Wishes.

10:49 pm  
Blogger Paulinus said...

Happy feast day, Father. Will remember you at compline.

10:55 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...


11:08 pm  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Is it an optional memorial in the old rite?

Happy feast day btw..

2:17 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

Optional memorias only came in after Vatican II - in the OR St Nicholas is a 'double' and therefore obligatory on a weekday.

3:01 pm  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Then I take it you celebrated a private old rite mass for your saint then? ;-)

3:46 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

No - I just made sure that the 'option' of St Nicholas was fully taken in our parish liturgy!

4:16 pm  
Blogger Terry Nelson said...

Lovely post on my favorite saint. I have some of his manna and a first class relic of him from the 18th century - papers and all.

Because modern santa is a corrupt image of the saint - I like to emphasize devotion to him as the real Santa.

He remains very active in the life of the Church, dispensing innumerable graces. I also take him seriously.

A belated heartfelt happy feast of St. Nicholas, manly man of Bari and Myra!

10:39 pm  

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