Many of the saints revered during the era of the Knights Templar (12th and 13th centuries) were removed from the liturgical calendar in the sweeping reforms of the Catholic Church in the 1960s. Up to 40 saints were no longer to have their own saints days. Now some argue on the web that this doesn’t mean they have been de-sainted but they’re certainly not encouraged.
The most prolific of these saints who’ve had their halos taken away is Saint Christopher. Like many of the great medieval saints, he had been martyred under one of the later Roman emperors. In this case, different accounts of his life indicate he died either under the Emperor Decius or the Emperor Maximinus Daia. The familiar story runs that Christopher was a giant from what’s now Lebanon – the biblical kingdom of Canaan.
The alternative versions of his life smack of later concoctions and additions but basically he went on a quest to find Jesus Christ during which he was tasked with helping people to cross a river – by carrying them. One of those he carried was a child who was extremely heavy and the river was treacherous that day. Christopher got to the other side and remarked on how heavy the child had been. He then revealed that he was Christ and upon his shoulders was the world. Then the child disappeared. Unsurprisingly, Christopher became the patron saint of travelers.
Saint Ursula was another saint taken off the calendar. She was a Romanised Briton and the daughter, in one account, of King Donaut of Dumnonia. She was betrothed to be married to Conan Meriadoc, the pagan governor of Armorica – modern day Brittany. Anyway, she didn’t want that being a good Christian but she had to set sail with eleven other virgins. Then the accounts from various sources get massively mixed up. Some say she was blown off course, went to see the Pope in Rome, helped fight off the Huns who were besieging the Roman city of Cologne and may have eventually ended up marrying a now Christian Conan. A less happy version has her boat blown off course, ending up in Germany where she and her virgins were killed by the Huns.
Amusingly, the number of virgins over the centuries increased from eleven to eleven thousand! And even as high as 70,000!! Quite how they all fitted on the boat or boats is anybody’s guess. Still, even if the story sounds totally far fetched, it inspired the founding of the Ursuline order of nuns and Christopher Columbus named a group of islands in the Caribbean after this saint and her followers – the Virgin Islands. But all this was not enough to save her from the cull of saints initiated by Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Another saint to get chopped was Saint Philomena. Again martyred in the late Roman Empire. According to some church related sources, she was never a saint and the Vatican was merely clarifying the situation in the 1960s. Those who defend de-listing this martyr saint, point out there is no literary or archaeological evidence to prove her existence as a person let alone a saint. That strikes me as slightly unfair because I’m pretty sure you can say that about umpteen other saints.
A body was found in the Roman catacombs in 1802 with the inscription “Filumena” on the tomb. Her veneration took off pretty quickly and spread all over Italy and France. The problem was that this cult had never received official papal approval. And even though she was referred to as a “saint”, her miracles had never gone through the Vatican’s testing process. So she came off the books!
Saint Nicholas, the model for Santa Claus, also got the boot. Yo ho ho? No, no, no – responded the Vatican. He has been put into a kind of saintly limbo. With Nicholas, there wasn’t the formal exit that Philomena got but an instruction to Catholics from Rome that they had no obligation to honour his feast days. Defenders of Nicholas, especially the eastern Orthodox church, point out that the creation of saints went on for centuries in the early church without the procedures that Catholicism has imposed now. They see this retrospective de-canonisation of popular saints as quite ridiculous and unfair.
And Saint Barbara – a very popular medieval saint – was similarly struck off the liturgical calendar. Though Barbara was allegedly martyred in the third century AD – therefore most likely under the Emperor Decius and his widespread persecution – she doesn’t pop up in Saint Jerome’s list of martyred saints just two hundred years later and the first mention of her that has been found is in the seventh century.
The story of her martyrdom follows a familiar pattern where ghastly things are done to her by the Romans and somehow she manages to survive. Every morning, her prison cell was bathed in light and all her wounds disappeared. Burning torches thrown at her extinguished at the touch of her skin. Rather cruelly, her father volunteered to behead his own daughter as he didn’t approve of her Christian conversion.
The execution went ahead but on the way home he was struck by lightning. This rather combustible conclusion to her father’s life led her to being venerated as a patron saint for anybody involved in explosives. You think I’m making this up but believe me I’m not. Miners, sappers, artillery – etc. All prayed to Saint Barbara. Her cult in England was huge and across Europe. And I suppose her greatest memorial is the city of Santa Barbara in California – named by the Spanish who held her in high esteem. But yet again – not good enough for the reformers of the 1960s and you won’t find her name in the liturgical calendar.
Benedict XVI removed twenty saints’ feast days in recent years though Rome is at pains to clarify that these saints have not had their halos confiscated – unlike those who fell victim to the 1960s reforms. They have simply been shunted to the side to make way for other saints in the liturgical calendar.