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How St. Nick teaches us that saints belong to everybody, everywhere

CEILING FRESCO, SAINT NICHOLAS CHURCH
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The cities associated with his name have a story to tell.

Today we celebrate the feast of one of the most popular and well-loved saints in all of Christianity. St. Nicholas is revered in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and in the Anglican Communion. His patronage has been claimed by many, as he is the patron saint of Russia, pawn brokers, children, and thieves (reformed, presumably!), just to name a few. Even various cities claim him as their own!

You may notice that in different listings of saints, St. Nicholas is identified either as “St. Nicholas of Myra” or “St. Nicholas of Bari.” In a time and place when surnames were not yet common unless you belonged to a prominent Roman family, people were often known to posterity with a place name differentiating between persons with the same first name.  Thus we have St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Often times these marked out the place of which the saint was bishop, but not necessarily their place of origin. For example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, though he was bishop of one of the twin capitals of Gaul, was originally from Asia Minor.

So why does St. Nicholas have these two designations? Is one the place of his birth and another the city he guided as its chief shepherd? No; it’s actually stranger than that!

St. Nicholas was born in Patara in Lycia in Asia Minor, but he was later named bishop of Myra, a city in that same province. In fact, a 6th-century source lists him as “Nicholas of Myra in Lycia” as an attendee of the Council of Nicaea in 325. (There’s a legend that he slapped or punched the heretic Arius during the council, but that’s a story for another time.) Myra, then, is his see city, but Bari is not his birthplace?

On the contrary: it’s his resting place.

Bari, a port city in Italy on the Adriatic, was even in the early Middle Ages one of the most important cities on the southern Italian peninsula. For this reason, it was a target for the several great powers surrounding it. Over a period of 200 years control of the city passed from a Muslim caliphate to the Byzantine Empire to the Norman nobleman Robert Guiscard. In 1087, a group of Norman nobles and merchants from Bari visited Myra and the monastery where the relics of St. Nicholas were held. As St. Nicholas was a patron saint of sailors and travelers, they desired to bring the bones of the saint back with them. Though they did not employ the most Christian means, they did secure the relics of the saint, and returned with them to Bari.

There the cult of the saint grew. A basilica was built in his honor, and devotion to him became so centered on the city that the saint himself came to be called after it. This we see many references to “St. Nicholas of Bari.”

This story illustrates a truth about all of the saints: they no longer belong to their homes; they belong to the whole Church. The canonization process itself recognizes this. When a miracle is attributed to a person’s intercession, we know they are in heaven, and we give them the title “blessed,” but the celebration of their feast day is generally restricted to their home country and surrounding areas. But when someone is added to the canon of saints, they can be celebrated by everyone everywhere.

From Abraham being called out of his father’s land, to the would-be disciple of Jesus who first wanted to bid his family goodbye, Scripture provides examples of people being called by God to belong firstly not to a nation or even a family, but to Him. They belong, not to Myra or Bari, but to Christ, and thus to all of us.

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