Saints Alive! - Michael McGirr
There are patron saints for everything from hats (St Barbara, who was beheaded) to shoes (St Crispin, who was also beheaded). What about the unofficial patrons?
December 3. St Francis Xavier
Unofficial patron of the X that marks the spot
Perhaps X marks the spot where Xavier was born in Navarre in 1506 to an aristocratic family. His father died when he was nine and he grew up constantly exposed to war. His family knew great loss.
Maybe X marks the spot at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris where Xavier met Ignatius, fifteen years his senior, in 1525—an experience of the transforming nature of true friendship.
It could be that X marks the spot on the east coast of southern India which Xavier reached in 1542, preaching with extraordinary vitality. He built dozens of churches in that region. He was appalled by the mercenary and self-interested behaviour of many of the European colonisers. Xavier stood adamantly against the idea of enslaving cultures. He saw Christianity as setting them free.
Perhaps X marks places in Japan and in what are now Indonesia and Malaysia where Xavier also travelled; even today his journeys would be exhausting. He covered south-east Asia with Xs. As he went, he described the people he came across as ‘living books’, which he suggested to his companions ‘you are to study, both for your preaching and for your own consolation’. People were not anonymous objects for conversion.
X could be the spot on a lonely and exposed beach on Shangchuan where Xavier died on 3 December 1552, cared for by a single companion called Antonio. He was waiting for a boat to take him across to mainland China where he hoped to start a fresh adventure. As he got older, his vision only intensified. It is a sad irony that the area Xavier saw as a stepping-off place to China has now been overgrown by a vast casino; casinos have no purpose other than the destruction of souls.
For all that, X is really a place close to Xavier’s heart, the closed place that opened just a crack in order to hear ‘What does it matter if you gain the whole world and suffer the loss of your own soul?’ Ignatius was persistent. Xavier gradually learnt the meaning of love. Friendship made his world a different place, one to serve rather than own.
December 7. St Ambrose (340–397)
Unofficial patron of those who won’t be bullied
Milan has had some enlivening archbishops, not least the recently deceased Cardinal Carlo Martini, a man with a gift for reaching out to people beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the church.
In the fourth century, St Ambrose held the same position and had some of the same gifts. He made a mark on many people, not least St Augustine whom he baptised. Ambrose had the advantage of a background in law, following which he became a provincial governor in Northern Italy. So there was no denying that he knew how the world, or rather that mysterious thing called ‘the system’, operated; he understood the use and abuse of power. Ambrose is one of the few people to have been elected a bishop before he was even baptised.
For Ambrose becoming a Christian leader meant becoming a leader in the broadest sense. The most famous story about him concerns the eastern emperor, Theodosius, who was responsible for the massacre of thousands of people in an act of reprisal. Ambrose forced him to do public penance, saying ‘the emperor is in the church, not over it’. Ambrose was no going to be bullied. His name might have meant ‘honey-tongued’ but nobody was going to tell him what to say.
December 27. St John
Unofficial patron of garages, sheds and extra storage
It’s a delightful irony that St John has his feast just two days after Christmas. This is not just because John’s Gospel seems to let the others celebrate the story of the nativity. John actually starts long, long before Nazareth and Bethlehem, even before Eve and Adam, even before the Big Bang. ‘In the beginning was the Word’, it says, ‘and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ John’s Gospel didn’t leave Christmas till the last minute. It began counting the days till Christmas before the dawn of time.
You have to smile when you get close to the end of the Gospel and find the last verse: ‘There were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself would not contain all the books that would have to be written.’ The gospel sounds like somebody in their after-Christmas clean-up, wondering where on earth it is going to store everything that needs to be passed on to others.
There are never enough words to describe the Word. The world is full to bursting with God. It is a happy note for the gospels to end with: God’s story will beguile and elude the best storytellers. We have to laugh at ourselves.