The liturgical contrast between the sacred original and the profane corruption can be stark. Instead of the vigil of All Saints on October 31, there is the silliness and darkness of Halloween. In February, Valentine’s Day is now completely secular sentimentality. The contrast is not quite so stark on December 6 because the feast of St Nicholas is little noted and rarely celebrated, even in Christian culture. Nevertheless, the secular legend of St Nick as a kindly Father Christmas or jolly elfin Santa Claus is quite at odds with the sacred reality. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop from modern-day Turkey, was a pastor of bold action, whether it was in caring for the poor or in defending orthodoxy.
Indeed, the secular legend is at odds with the sacred legend. While St Nick gives clandestine gifts to the needy, the actual Nicholas of Myra is most famous for confronting the heresiarch Arius at the Council of Nicaea. The council was occupied with the identity of Jesus Christ. When Arius put forth his teaching that Jesus was not of equal divinity to the Father, Nicholas apparently became so enraged that he physically confronted Arius and struck a literal blow for orthodoxy, punching him in the face.
We can draw two lessons from the figure of Nicholas, actual and imagined, for the life of the Church today. The first relates to Pope Francis, the dominant religious story today. Though the Holy Father is popular, the real Pope Francis is not the kindly figure in white showing indulgence to all that the world imagines, any more than the real Nicholas was a figure of indulgent jollity. Pope Francis has not struck a physical blow against the preachers of heresy, but in his forceful preaching there is far more of the tempestuous Nicaea than the tranquil North Pole.
One of the great shifts from Benedict to Francis has been the increased pointedness in papal rhetoric – even though Benedict, long schooled in academic disputations, could wield his pen like a sword.
Francis rarely speaks without challenging various people or groups in blunt terms. His recent closing address to the synod on the family was a tour-de-force syllabus of errors that the prelates before him could fall into, lambasting the “hostile inflexibility” of the “traditionalists”, as well as the “destructive do-goodism” of the “progressives and liberals”. His major teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium, requires innovations in Latin to translate the Holy Father’s rhetorical assaults, on “sourpusses” and “self-absorbed promethean neopelagians”. The secular culture tends to wreathe Francis in the haze of “who am I to judge”, as if he billows forth in the fluffy clouds that drift upwards from Santa Claus’s pipe. The re-ality is different, as the Holy Father made clear last month in Strasbourg, where he invoked the image of a grandmother in a derogatory way, the symbol of a Europe that is “no longer fertile and vibrant”. You would be hard-pressed to find any other world leader employing a generally kind and gentle image to such harsh effect.
The Catholic Herald has adopted a new format to better cover the phenomenon of Pope Francis in the demanding environment of our global media culture. It thus faces the challenge of all Catholic journalism, which is to present the complete Pope Francis, who is much like the authentic St Nicholas. Bold, and with a heart for the poor, he denounces those he opposes with relish and vigour, whether they be priests who throw stones at the suffering, lazy union members who do no work or financiers who steal the bread out of the mouths of the starving. That this Francis is at odds with the roly-poly Santa Claus perception makes that task at once both more urgent and more difficult.
The second lesson St Nicholas teaches us is that when great controversies attend the life of the Church, righteous violence – rhetorical and otherwise – can erupt. During the recent synod it was common for commentators to adopt an air of soph-istication and remark that everything has been seen before. Doesn’t everyone remember that time in Nicaea when Nicholas slugged Arius? That may be true, but it glosses over the fact that it was unpleasant to witness the Bishop of Myra assault the theologian from Alexandria, so much so that the Council stripped Nicholas of the symbols of his episcopal office (restored to him later by miraculous intervention). The necessity of conflict does not make it any less traumatic for the Church, even as the necessity of cleansing the Temple did not make Jesus’s action any less unsettling for His fellow pilgrims.
Leading prelates in the Church, following the invitation of the Holy Father to speak freely and frankly, are less circumspect about criticising each other’s positions and motives than has otherwise been the recent practice. That is the newness in the Catholic news today.
There was no Catholic instant media at Nicaea to cover events blow by blow, but today the Catholic Herald and its colleagues have just that task. Necessary though it is, it will be on occasion far from congenial. The conversation in the Church is changing, and the Catholic media is changing to cover it. Get ready for less nice, and more Nicaea.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)