Friday, July 21, 2023

The Giant Christ-Carrier

July 25 is the great feast of the Saint James the Apostle, but the traditional liturgy also commemorates on the same day a Saint who is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, the most famous patron Saint of travelers, and the plastic king of dashboards. Christopher started out life as Offerus or Reprobus (accounts differ), a proud and—at seven and a half feet tall—imposing man who was born in Canaan in the third century under the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius. Nothing but the best would do for the mighty Reprobus, and so he vowed to serve the greatest king in the world. He began in the service of a Christian monarch, but after seeing the king make the sign of the cross every time the Devil was mentioned, he realized that the king feared the Devil. Reprobus then went off to serve the Devil in the desert, but when he noticed that his new master avoided a roadside cross and asked for an explanation, the Devil admitted, “There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the cross, and when I see his sign I am sore afraid, and flee from it wheresoever I see it.” [1]

St Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ, ca. 1615, by Orazio Borgianni
That did it for Reprobus: he was to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. After seeking the counsel of a wise hermit, he was told that Christians must fast often. Unable to do so, Reprobus asked for something else. The hermit then told him to offer many prayers. Ignorant of how to pray, Reprobus again asked for something else. Finally, the hermit suggested that he put his large stature to good use and ferry people across a dangerous river on his shoulders.
Reprobus agreed and carried out this task for many days until one night he was awakened by a small child asking for passage. As they crossed the river, Reprobus almost collapsed and drowned under the enormous weight of the child. When the exhausted giant complained after they reached the other side, the child replied, “Be not astonished: thou bearest him who bears the world.” [2] As proof of His statement, the Child commanded Reprobus to plant his staff in the ground, at which it blossomed into a palm tree with leaves and dates. Our Lord also baptized Reprobus personally, changing his name from Reprobus (Latin for “rejected” or “counterfeit”) to Christopher (Greek for “Christ-bearer”). As Jacobus de Voragine explains, the name is appropriate in four ways: “He bare him on his shoulders by conveying and leading, in his body by making it lean [apparently he got over his aversion to fasting], in mind by devotion, and in his mouth by confession and predication.” [3]
St Christopher, by Konrad Witz, 1435
Christopher became a fearless defender of the faith, exhorting condemned Christians to die as martyrs and converting thousands in the city of Lycia before he was arrested on the king’s orders. The king tried a variety of carrots and sticks to convince him to sacrifice to the gods, but when he held firm, the king ordered him to be executed by archers. The arrows, however, stopped in midair as they approached the Saint, and one even turned around and poked the king in the eye. Furious, the king ordered Christopher to be beheaded. Before his execution, Christopher advised the king to use the blood from his severed head to heal his eye. The king did so and was miraculously cured, exclaiming: “In the name of God and of Saint Christopher!” He then decreed that if anyone blamed God or Saint Christopher, “he should anon be slain with the sword.” [4]
This account of Christopher’s life, the bulk of which is taken from the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, is the product of a poetic license that mushroomed considerably over the centuries. Yet tales of the Saint are even stranger in the Byzantine tradition of iconography, in which Christopher has the head of a dog, most likely because Eastern Christians misinterpreted the Latin Cananeus (Canaanite) for canineus (canine). The Byzantine blunder then found its way into medieval Irish and German biographies which include such memorable lines as: “This Christopher was one of the Dog-heads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh.” [5]
Saint Christopher Cynocephalus, Kermira, Cappadocia
Our earliest evidence (and latest theories) indicate that Christopher was a conscripted Christian soldier from a north African military unit stationed in Syria who was martyred by the governor of Antioch around A.D. 308. Some further speculate that his cult may have been confused with that of the Egyptian martyr Saint Menas. [6]
Patronage and Customs
Saint Christopher is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of Saints popular during the Middle Ages for their specific powers of intercession. He was invoked as a patron against sudden death, especially the plague. As Father Francis X. Weiser explains, at a time “when people never knew in the morning whether they would still be alive that evening,” they looked at Christopher’s picture and said a prayer in the morning in the hopes that “they would be safe from death on that day.” [7] In the words of the Golden Legend: the power “to put away sickness and sores” is given to those who remember Saint Christopher’s “passion and figure.” [8]
As a result of this belief, images of Saint Christopher were painted or hung near the doors of houses or churches, sometimes on the inside and—for the benefit of passerby—sometimes on the outside. According to one tally, there are more images of him on the walls of old English churches than of any other Saint except the Blessed Virgin Mary. [9]
A St. Christopher Wayside Shrine in Slovenia
Christopher’s job on the river also made him an obvious candidate for patron of ferrymen and their passengers, freight ships and their crews, surfers, sailors, skiers, pilgrims, and travelers. (And because his staff burst into bloom, he was also designated a patron Saint of gardeners.) His patronage was extended to motorists in the early twentieth century and caught on quickly, especially since traffic accidents are in some sense the modern plague, taking as many lives as epidemics of old and in even more sudden a manner. Blessing automobiles on Saint Christopher’s Day used to be a common Catholic custom: although a car, truck, etc. can be blessed any day of the year and although the Roman Ritual’s blessing of an automobile mentions Saint Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8, 26-40) instead of Saint Christopher, [10] it still felt natural to turn to him on his feast day for a vehicular blessing. The shrine of Saint Christophe le Jajolet near the little Norman village of Argentan, for example, hosted its first blessing in 1910, and by 1927 it was receiving thousands of French motorists on his feast day. [11]
Protecting your investment: A Fiat Topolino (1936-55) is blessed at St.-Christophe-le-Jajolet
He is also well-known for his medals. Many Catholics place a blessed Saint Christopher medal in their vehicle or affix a blessed statuette of him to their dashboards. This devotion nicely combines his patronage of travelers with the custom of keeping his image, but it is good to remember the reason why his image became popular in the first place. It is not simply by owning his picture but by looking at it and contemplating his passion that the faithful are said to receive blessings. The Christopher medals common in France still make this connection explicit, for on them is inscribed: Regarde Saint Christophe et va-t-en rassuré—“Look at Saint Christopher and go on reassured.” Similarly, some English medals have, "Behold St. Christopher, and go your way in safety."
Ideas for Today
Observing customs in honor of both Saint James and Saint Christopher is not difficult. Families can attend morning Mass along with some fruits of the orchard (walnuts, apples, etc.) and have them and their car blessed afterwards. Father Weiser recommends that even with a private blessing of an automobile, parents “should try to make this ceremony somewhat impressive and have all their children witness it.” [12] I would also advise from personal experience that the priest circle the entire vehicle when bestowing his benediction. Once, before an interstate trip, our pastor blessed our family car and sprinkled the hood with holy water. The next day on the road, another car clipped us in the rear.
Finally, you can take your newly blessed car and snacks on a day trip and enjoy a picnic.
Christopher’s Postconciliar Cult
The Church did not suppress the cult of Saint Christopher after Vatican II or “de-canonize” him, but it removed his commemoration from the General Calendar. The official reason is stated in the 1969 decree Calendarium Romanum:
The commemoration of Saint Christopher, which was added to the [general] Roman calendar around 1550, is relegated to the particular calendars [of some Church, region, or religious family]. Although the Acts of Saint Christopher are fabulous, ancient testimonies to his veneration have been found. Nevertheless, the cult of this Saint does not pertain to the Roman tradition. [13]
It is curious that Christopher’s lack of Romanitas was used as a mark against him, since other reforms of the Mass treated the presence of Romanitas as a demerit. Archbishop Bugnini, for example, sought to suppress or make optional quintessentially Roman features of the Roman rite such as Ash Wednesday and the Roman Canon. And all of the Eucharistic Prayers in the Novus Ordo have an Epiclesis of the Holy Spirit because the reformers were uncomfortable with the Roman tradition of not having one.
Similarly curious is the fact that one of the stated principles guiding the reform of the calendar was the “universalization” of the General Calendar so that it would no longer reflect the cult of Rome but include Saints from all four corners of the globe. [14] A laudable goal, but why does a Middle Eastern Saint such as Christopher not count as multicultural, especially when the same document states that Christopher is not originally from the Roman tradition?
Annibale Bugnini
Annibale Bugnini provides part of the answer in his book The Reform of the Liturgy: “One of the principles governing the revision of the calendar was that no Saint’s cult could be made obligatory if there was not historical evidence of his or her name, place, and date of celebration.” [15] In other words, the historical reconstructions of modern scholarship were considered more important in shaping how millions of Catholics worship than the Church’s own ancient and unbroken traditions.
Yet this criterion alone is not sufficient to remove Christopher from the general calendar, for his cult could have been kept as an “optional memorial,” as in the case of Saint Nicholas on December 6.
I suspect that there is an additional reason for Christopher’s demotion which is not to be found in any official document or memoir, and it is this. Because the architects of the Novus Ordo calendar were renowned experts with extensive resumes or advanced degrees (and little pastoral experience), they may have had an elitist’s disdain for a particular kind of lowbrow folk belief. My guess is that when Archbishop Bugnini and his peers looked at the cult of Saint Christopher, they did not see a well-trod channel to God’s blessings hallowed by generations of faithful Catholics the world over, but an embarrassing array of tacky sacramentals and kitschy art and ludicrous stories.
Chesterton once remarked that when faced with the choice of “old wives’ tales” and “old maids’ facts,” he would choose the former. Time and again, the designers of the new calendar sided with the latter. Not surprisingly, when different voices within the Church protested the loss of Saint Christopher on the General Calendar, the committee stood by their decision. [16]
None of this should discourage us from honoring Saint Christopher, on whose giant shoulders there never was a chip. Just as the mighty Saint forgave his persecutor by posthumously giving him back his sight, so too should we forgive the blindness of those who have wounded Catholic worship and devotion and pray for healing through the Blood of the Lamb and His martyrs. Look at Saint Christopher and go on reassured.

Portions of this article first appeared in “July 25: The Feast of the Thunderous Heel-Grabber and the Giant Christ-Carrier,” The Latin Mass magazine 27:2 (Summer 2018), pp. 30-34. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

[1] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, vol. 4, trans. William Caxton (Temple Classics, 1900), 68.
[2] Dom Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 13, trans. Laurence Shepherd (St. Bonaventure, 2000), 186.
[3] Golden Legend, 67.
[4] Golden Legend, 70.
[5] “The Passion of Saint Christopher,” trans. J. Fraser, Revue Celtique 34 (1913), 307-25.
[6] David Woods, “Saint Christopher, Bishop Peter of Attalia, and the Cohors Marmaritarum: A Fresh Examination”, Vigiliae Christianae 48:2 (June 1994), 170-86.
[7] Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952), 335.
[8] Golden Legend, 71.
[9] Mrs. Collier, “Saint Christopher and Some Representations of Him in English Churches,” Journal of the British Archaeological Association (1904), 130–45.
[10] The blessing and a translation may be found in The Roman Ritual, vol. 3, trans. and ed. Philip T. Weller (Bruce Publishing, 1946), 384-87.
[11] “1,000 French Motorists Honor Saint Christopher At Shrine of Automobilists’ Patron Saint,” The New York Times (July 25, 1927), 4.
[12] Weiser, Religious Customs in the Family (TAN, 1998), 102.
[13] Calendarium Romanum (Vatican: 1969), 131, trans. mine.
[14] Calendarium, 74-75.
[15] Annibale Bugnini, Reform of the Liturgy, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Liturgical Press, 1990), 317.
[16] Bugnini, 318.

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