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In Spite of It All, St. Christopher Hangs In There

Decades ago the Vatican downgraded the saint, calling stories of his life 'legendary.' But for many, items with his image are still talismans.

July 31, 2004|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, fruit dealers, epileptics and surfers, is a figure whose image remains a staple of Catholic gift shops and is still a comforting talisman to many a believer.

For example, Vietnamese immigrant and Catholic convert Tuyet Romero, a 53-year-old secretary and bookkeeper at St. Christopher Catholic Church in West Covina, has kept a St. Christopher medal on her key chain for 20 years.

"I didn't know about St. Christopher in Vietnam. I was a Buddhist. When I came to work here, the pastor at the time had one and I asked him about it, and he gave me one," she said. "I believe it helps keep me safe. Every time I cross the street, I always say, 'St. Christopher, protect me.' And I haven't got hit yet. I always give one to our visiting priests when they come to us from different countries."

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had an upward effect on sales of St. Christopher paraphernalia, said Clara Romera, who with her husband, Samuel, owns St. Teresa's Catholic Gift Shop in Santa Ana.

"It's always been like that," said Romero, no relation to Tuyet Romero. "Whenever there's been a war, St. Christopher has saved a lot of soldiers."

But, wait a second.

Didn't the Roman Catholic Church strip Christopher of his sainthood a long time ago?

Haven't scholars concluded that he never really existed, except in the fertile minds of medieval monks who spun fatuous tales of his carrying the Christ child across a swiftly flowing river?

Well, not exactly.

To begin with, the church never de-sanctified Christopher, whose annual feast day was July 25. Rather, it busted him, in the military sense, relegating him to a lower rank on the liturgical calendar, in large part because of his wobbly historical status.

The church's "universal calendar" designates certain saints to be honored on certain days by Catholics around the world. In the 1960s, the reformist Vatican Council II undertook to tidy things up and make the overloaded calendar leaner and more relevant to the far-flung peoples in the modern church. Along with many other saints, Christopher was kicked off the universal calendar in 1969, although individual parishes or localities were still free to celebrate his feast day.

In removing him, church officials termed the stories of his life "legendary," but stopped short of asserting that he never existed or was never martyred in the early 4th century.

"I think a lot of people drew the incorrect conclusion that because someone was removed from the universal calendar, that they were declared nonpersons," said Msgr. William B. Smith, academic dean of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., who has written about Christopher's status change.

In recent years, an Irish historian, after careful scrutiny of Roman Empire records and early church writings, has argued that the existence of St. Christopher "has a genuine historical core." David Woods, a professor of ancient classics at University College Cork, suggests that Christopher was really St. Menas, an early Egyptian martyr.

The life Woods postulates for Christopher differs entirely from the myths contrived about him during the Middle Ages: that he was a wicked giant who, in seeking to serve the strongest master, accepted Jesus in the form of a child he carried across a perilous river, and that Christopher died a brutal martyr's death after converting 40,000 pagans.

The earliest Greek and Latin texts, Woods contends, show that Christopher was a member of a tribe from western Egypt in what is now Libya. According to this theory, he was captured in war by the Romans in 301 or 302 and pressed into Roman military service in far away Antioch, Syria. There, he converted to Christianity and in 308 was executed for his beliefs.

According to the early texts, the martyr's body was transported to his unidentified native land for burial. Woods suggests that that was accomplished through the intercession of an Egyptian Christian bishop who is believed to have been traveling in Syria.

Some years after the persecution of Christians ended, Woods contends, members of the church in Antioch collected what little they knew about the martyred foreign solider. Because they were unable to discover the man's real name, they referred to him as "Christopher," or "Bearer of Christ" -- an honorific applied to virtuous Christian men -- and over time it came to be taken as his real name.

By the 4th century, meanwhile, a cult had sprung up over the burial place in western Egypt of a martyr named Menas. According to the cult's tradition, Menas had been a soldier, had been executed in a faraway land and had had his remains returned to his native soil.

"The cult of St. Christopher and that of St. Menas developed independently of one another in separate regions but with the same historical person at their core," Woods wrote in an e-mail.

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