Friday, October 20, 2017

St Nicholas Upgraded in Italy

I recently learned that last year, the Congregation for Divine Worship approved a request of the Italian Bishops’ Conference to make the memorial of St Nicholas obligatory in Italy; on the General Calendar of the OF it remains at the lowest grade of feasts, optional memorial, on his traditional day, December 6th. As Fr Hunwicke pointed out, with his great talent for witty expressions, St Nicholas has “as large a portfolio of Patronages as a Renaissance cardinal”, and there are of course plenty of places and ecclesiastical institutions where his feast is kept with a higher degree of solemnity as that of a patron.
Altarpiece of Saint Nicolas, by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy (active ca. 1480-1510 in Bruges).
In a circular letter to the Italian bishops, the head of the Conference, Angelo Card. Bagnasco, the Archbishop of Genua, highlighted not only the strength of devotion to St Nicholas among Italians, who boast the possession of his major relics in the city of Bari in Puglia, but also the ecumenical importance of this devotion. His feast is extremely prominent in the Byzantine tradition, as evidenced by the popularity of his name among the Greeks and Slavs. (In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, there is a scene in which the groom is introduced to his Greek fiancée’s family, including ten cousins named Nick and one Nicky.) He is named in the preparation rite of the Divine Liturgy, alongside such Doctors of the Church as Ss Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Athanasius and Cyril. The Russians traditionally honor him as a patron of the nation alongside St Andrew the Apostle, and prior to the 1917 revolution, the imperial government maintained a pilgrim hospice at Bari. On Thursdays, there is a special commemoration of him alongside the Apostles when there is no major feast to celebrate, roughly the equivalent of the Roman Saturday office of the Virgin, and the translation of his relics is celebrated on May 10th.

In the beautiful Byzantine custom of giving distinctive epithets to the more important Saints, that of St Nicholas is “thaumatourgos – wonderworker.” The liturgy refers to this repeatedly, as for example this text from the beginning of Orthros: “Thou shinest forth upon the earth with the rays of miracles, wise Nicholas, and movest every tongue to the glory and praise of Him who glorified Thee upon the earth; do Thou, elect among the Fathers, beseech Him, that those who honor thy memory with love and faith may be delievered from every pain.”

The traditional Roman Collect for his feast also refers to this tradition: “O God, Who didst glorify the blessed Bishop Nicholas with innumerable miracles; grant, we beseech Thee, that, by his merits and prayers, we may be saved from the fires of hell.” In the post-conciliar reform, it was determined that Modern Man™ is better off not hearing about miracles or hell when at prayer, and a shiny new Collect was put in the Missal to replace the dusty old one: “We humbly beseech Thy mercy, o Lord, and, by the intervention of the blessed bishop Nicholas’ prayer, keep us safe in all dangers, that the way of salvation may lie freely open to us.” It often seems to me that the ecumenical implications of such reforms were hardly considered, back when this sort of thing seemed like a good idea; and likewise, that we should give more attention to the ecumenical implications of Pope Benedict’s achievement in giving the traditional texts back to the Church by the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. It is much to be hoped for that this decree will be made general for the whole Roman Rite.

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