Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas, the model for Santa Claus, of course, but also patron of Russia and one of the most important saints of the eastern churches.
Nicholas lived in the 5th century in Myria, a seaport in Asia Minor, but when the Moslems overran that region in the 11th century, sailors from Bari in Italy took his relics from his shrine there and installed them on May 9,1087 in a shrine in Bari, along the Adriatic coast.
Since then, the Basilica of St. Nicolas has been a place of pilgrimage for eastern and western churches. Russian pilgrims are especially prominent, but pilgrims from other eastern churches also come here. Pope John Paul in his time promoted the basilica as place for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1966, an Orthodox chapel was established in the basilica itself to provide for Orthodox liturgy. In 2018 Pope Francis met with religious leaders from the Middle East to pray for peace and end the conflict in Syria.
In 2007, Vladimir Putin himself came to Bari and knelt as a pilgrim in front of St. Nicholas’s tomb. In 2017, Pope Francis lent relics of Nicholas to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow as a gesture to improve relations. Mr. Putin kissed the glass cased relic at its arrival.
Today pilgrims in Bari from Russia and its allies and Ukraine and its allies mix uneasily around the saint’s grave, according to reports.
As a young seminarian I studied history long ago under Fr. Thomas Berry, CP. He told us the first day of class we had to know the world we’re living in and gave us copies of the Communist Manifesto, then on the list of forbidden books and widely considered the work of the devil in what was currently the McCarthy era, to study.
I remember him saying that though many scholars see the Communist Manifesto a thoroughly secular document and Marx and Engels disclaimed any religious inspiration for it at all, communism is inspired by Old Testament prophets and New Testament accounts of the early Christian Church. Pope Francis said something similar recently in an interview in the Jesuit magazine America. He joked: “The communists stole some of our Christian values. Some others, they made a disaster out of them.“
Did saints like Nicholas inspire communism? The story that stands out from the Nicholas stories is his rescue of the three girls who will be sold off into slavery because they have no money for a dowry. (Above) The story influences the Santa Claus story, but it goes further, I think.
Nicholas comes to aid the three poor girls by dropping gold in a sock into their house at night and disappears without any notice, leaving them, one after the other, with the promise of a better life. Help the poor, the story says, they deserve a better life.
The father of the poor girls wants to know who their benefactor is and finally, tracking him down after his last gift, asks Nicholas who he is and why he’s done what he’s done?
Nicholas wants no recognition. It’s better only God knows. He offers an example of “quiet giving”, asking for no credit, no power over others. A high form of love. We see it in Jesus Christ, and he taught it to his disciples.
Communism made a disaster of this Christian value, to follow the pope’s comment. It’s mission to lift people out of poverty led to tyranny and control.
We can still learn from Nicholas, and he’s still a great teacher children should know.