Ask any Catholic to name a sinner who became a great saint and most will…
St. Nicholas is not just for Christmastime
As Advent arrives, Christians in many cultures turn their attention to an ancient bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra. The root of the popular Santa Claus tradition, St. Nicholas is one of the world’s most popular saints.
Since 1087, the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, has preserved the precious relics of the saint greatly revered by both Catholics and Orthodox. While his popularity is related to the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus, modern depictions of Santa sadly seem to have lost their religious origin. Yet, in some regions, the tradition of bringing children gifts from “Santa” takes place on St. Nicholas’ Dec. 6 feast day, reflecting that he remains the essence.
However, there is much more behind why Catholics and Orthodox venerate St. Nicholas, including his being the patron saint of travelers, seafarers, prisoners, the wrongly condemned, children, women seeking a husband, students and more.
Speaking to the faithful during an encounter for all Christian leaders of the Middle East in Bari this past July, Pope Francis recalled, after having venerated the relics himself earlier: “Here lie the relics of St. Nicholas, the Oriental Bishop whose veneration crosses seas and bridges boundaries between Churches. May Nicholas, the wonder-worker, intercede to heal the wounds that so many people bear within them.”
Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Dominican Father Gerardo Cioffari, who is archivist of the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari and leading expert of the saint:
Our Sunday Visitor: Is any other saint venerated as much by Catholics and Orthodox ?
Father Gerardo Cioffari: Other saints are very revered. For example, Sts. George, Mary Magdalene, Martin and Michael the Archangel are saints who in the Middle Ages could compete with St. Nicholas. Until 1250-1300, though even in the West, St. Nicholas remained the most revered.
That only changed when St. Francis and other saints of the 1200s and 1300s came on the scene. The reason is easy enough to understand. The feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, for students was a kind of carnival, celebrated with such craziness that the Catholic Church tried to limit the saint’s following. Today, the countries which venerate him most are Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the Slavic and Greek worlds.
OSV: There are many Russian pilgrims in Bari. Why is this?
Father Cioffari: The Russian interest in Nicholas is genuinely religious. Suffice it to say that in Moscow there are 48 churches of St. Nicholas, whereas the national saint, St. Sergius, has 17 churches. Therefore, the approach of the Russians to St. Nicholas is incomprehensible to the Western World, where he is maybe at the 10th or 15th place when thinking of our favorite saints. For Russian pilgrims, St. Nicholas is unique; that’s why Dostoevsky called him the “Russian God.”
OSV: Given the historical tension between Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians, how has that realtionship played itself out locally in Bari? Or was there always a climate of friendship?
Father Cioffari: The truth is that even before the development of the ecumenical movement, the relationship between Bari and Russia was very strong. During the Soviet Era, I was entrusted with welcoming many famous Russians here in the basilica, including Aleksej Archipovič Leonov, the first astronaut in history to exit the space capsule and remain suspended in space. I remember when he looked up, amazed, inside the Church. During the Soviet Era, many such Russians … asked me to keep private that they had visited. But the astronaut was too famous; he could never hide he was there.
OSV: What happened after the Second Vatican Council?
Father Cioffari: The Catholic Church was really ignoring the importance of St. Nicholas. During the Second Vatican Council, the pope and the cardinals were shocked to see all the participants in the council who voiced, “We want to go to Bari.” Everyone wondered: Why do they want to go to Bari? Now the Catholic Church has completely changed her attitude toward St. Nicholas and the Orthodox world. But before that, the Basilica in Bari was seen as some normal shrine. Now there is no doubt that on an ecumenical level, it is, if you will, “number one.” Hundreds of thousands, more Russians than Italians, come to the basilica. Even Patriarch of Moscow Kirill has come here so many times … that when he sees me, he immediately hugs me!
OSV: What is the importance of St. Nicholas for Bari?
Father Cioffari: We could say that since the arrival of the relics of St. Nicholas, the city has totally identified with its patron, to the point that more than “St. Nicholas of Myra,” we speak even more often of “St. Nicholas of Bari.” And many people, so deceived, think that he was bishop of Bari, instead of Myra, modern-day Demre, Turkey. It is not true!
OSV: It is true that the story of Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas?
Father Cioffari: Of course, even if founded on some misunderstandings. When I was in New York, I always told the children, “I come from the land of Santa Claus!” In reality we in Italy have the “Befana” that brings the gifts; the Greeks, Saint Basil; the Russians, “Grandfather Frost” … . Santa Claus, however, does not come from Bari, but from America, where in the early 1800s, Clement C. Moore wrote a poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” and described St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, bringing his toys in the sleigh being pulled by eight reindeer.
It is true, however, that St. Nicholas is famous in the West for having given the dowry to three poor girls, so that they could get married. For the Christian East, on the other hand, he is above all the defender of the Faith. There are numerous perceptions.
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.