Friday, December 14, 2007

Good Ole St. Nick: Celebrating the Real Santa in the Eternal City

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 13, 2007 ( It may be overcast and rainy in Rome these days, but this Advent just keeps getting brighter. From the glorious opening of the season with Benedict XVI's new encyclical "Spe Salvi" (Saved in Hope), the wait for Christmas has taken on a greater meaning than the number of shopping days left.

Last Thursday, Dec. 6, was the feast of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myrna, whose fame resonates in every corner of the world. The fourth-century bishop was known for his generosity and his love for children; many stories of his miracles involve gifts or the protection of youth.

One of the most famous stories of the bishop recounts how a poor man had no money to dower his three daughters. Without dowries, the girls would be unable to marry and would be destined for slavery. Three balls of gold were tossed through his window where they landed in socks hanging by the fireplace. Herein lies the origin of St. Nick, bearer of presents for children.

Although he lived and died in Turkey, St. Nicholas' body was brought to Bari by Italian merchants in the 11th century. A dubious tradition places St. Nicholas in prison in Rome near the Forum in the little Church of San Nicola in Carcere, but the universal character of the devotion to Nicholas makes him worthy of a prominent place in the "Caput Mundi."

Hundreds crowded into Nicholas' tiny, but fascinating church by the Tiber, which is formed from the remains of three ancient temples. Tourists often come to San Nicola, one of the very few churches to be open through the lunch hour, to admire the remains of the temple of Jupiter Sospes, god of hospitality, and Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth.

The third temple was dedicated to Spes, or hope, which in the ancient world meant the expectation of a safe journey home for sailors, but in the Christian tradition took on greater meaning.

But on the afternoon of Dec. 6, Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and titular cardinal of the Church, celebrated Mass there in honor of St. Nicholas.

Two huge golden reliquaries rose two feet from the altar, containing the largest amount of relics of the saint outside of Bari. The Mass in honor of St. Nicholas was celebrated in Latin, a tribute to his universal appeal as people from all over the world gathered in the church.

An impressive delegation from the Knights of Malta descended from their headquarters on the Aventine to participate in the ceremony.

Another regular attendee was a young American, John Sonnen, a third-year theology student at the Angelicum. During his three years of study in Rome, he has never missed this feast at San Nicola.

"My devotion to St. Nicholas started when I was living in Russia," Sonnen explained. "Together with St. George, he is the co-patron saint."

But for Sonnen, coming to Rome and discovering the relics at the church was the crowning joy of his dedication to the saint. "Here at this Mass I can do what every kid always dreams of: seeing Santa Claus."

Amid frenetic shopping surrounded by the now secularized symbols of Santa's bag laden with toys or brightly wrapped packages piled high under a tree, St. Nicholas' feast reminds us what the Christian idea of giving is all about.


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