Today is the Feast Day of the early Christian martyr St. Lucy, known for her beauty and devotion to the Faith. She is a very important saint in Barcelona, should you happen to find yourself there during the Advent season, but she is also a point of challenge for all of us. Yet before we get to her specifically, I hope the reader will allow me to wander down what I hope is an interesting side topic regarding Church history.
Someone once observed that you could make a reasonable guess as to the age of a European diocese by the name of the patron saint of its cathedral. Of course, this does not always hold true: for example, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice was first built in the 9th century, long after the time of the Evangelist. Still, in many cases one can come up with an approximation that is fairly accurate.
In the case of Barcelona, legend says that the diocese was founded by St. Aetherius, disciple of St. James the Apostle, in about 37 A.D., who was later martyred and succeeded by St. Theodosius. That being said, the first true documentary evidence of an episcopal see in Barcelona comes from about 290 A.D., with the important pastorate of its bishop St. Severus. St. Severus was martyred under the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D., as was a local girl by the name of St. Eulalia. Just 10 years later, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan granting religious tolerance to Christians, and 10 years after that his mother, the Empress St. Helena found the True Cross in Jerusalem and brought it back to Rome. Needless to say, times changed very quickly for the Christians.
Thus, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia of Barcelona celebrates in stone two important 4th century events: the discovery of the True Cross, and the martyrdom of St. Eulalia. As the late 3rd-early 4th century is also the beginning of the first documentary evidence for the bishopric of Barcelona in the person of St. Severus, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the true founding of the diocese proper dates from no later than the 3rd century. Indeed, St. Severus is buried in a magnificent little church just across from the Cathedral cloister. Moreover, the Royal Chapel of Saint Agatha, in the Old Royal Palace behind the Cathedral, houses relics of that 3rd century saint. And the original churchyard chapel of the Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Martyrs under the Romans, among whom St. Lucy (martyred the year after St. Severus and St. Eulalia, in 304 A.D.) is one of the most prominent; subsequently it was renamed for her alone.
However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, St. Lucy has a special connection to the Catalan people beyond simply having a building dedicated to her as part of the Barcelona Cathedral complex. Should you find yourself in Barcelona or in many cities throughout Catalonia right now, head down to the square in front of the local cathedral or major churches, and you will find the “Fira de Santa Llúcia” or “Fair of St. Lucy”. Like the Christkindlmarkt in Germany, these open-air markets sell Christmas decorations, handicrafts, special seasonal treats, and so on.
In the case of Barcelona’s St. Lucy Fair, the stalls occupy the Plaça Nova, the main square in front of the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, and wrap around the exterior side walls and apse of the Cathedral, where the stalls are tucked between the buttresses. The Plaça Nova itself is largely populated by stalls selling the accoutrement necessary for building a “pessebre”, the elaborate Catalan manger scenes where the Holy Family, shepherds, wise men and stable are only the beginning. Here you can buy all kinds of buildings, landscaping, animals, peasant folk, and the infamous necessity of every Catalan nativity scene, the legendary caganer. The creation of a pessebre of ever-increasing dimensions, replacing or adding elements as necessary, is an obsession among many Catalans, somewhat akin to model railroad building but with a spiritual dimension. The St. Lucy’s Fair in Barcelona and in other towns is usually the best time to see what is new, and continues up until December 23rd.
While certain ethnic communities have managed to bring the tradition of these Christmas markets to the United States, the question has to be asked: why do our dioceses not sponsor such things themselves? We have Christmas bazaars in many parishes, of course, but experience indicates that these often take place as early as November, and usually inside the parish hall, where they are often rather sad and staid affairs. They are often boring, and they do not take us out of our comfort zone. And they are, quite frankly, a shameful loss of an opportunity for evangelization.
I think the example of St. Lucy, as well as St. Eulalia, St. Severus, and St. Helena, and so on, is lost on us. We eschew public displays of our faith to the extent where, today, even Eucharistic processions (when they take place, which is seldom) take place around the INSIDE of the church. Seriously, ladies and gentlemen: how is that bringing Christ to the people? Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I saw a procession of anything, whether the Blessed Sacrament itself, or a statue or painting of one of the saints, take place in this country.
How difficult would it be to set a Christmas market or bazaar outside? An excuse of course, is that in certain parts of the United States, it is too cold to be outside, which is nonsense. We are hardly a poor country lacking in resources or know-how. If the Germans and the Austrians freezing to death in tiny towns up in the Alps can set up outdoor markets with space heaters, hot foods, and so on, are we going to claim that we are bigger wimps than they?
Being a Christian, as St. Lucy and our other 4th century forbearers in the faith understood, is not about being comfortable and beige, like an old cardigan. Sometimes it can be (quite literally) a bloody mess. It is a wonderful thing to be Catholic, but not if we lack the spirit of conviction behind what we claim to believe. St. Lucy, as you may know, plucked out her own eyes rather than marry a pagan and give up her faith; one hopes that the Lord is not calling us to do the same, even if we must be prepared for that possibility. Yet by witnessing to her faith by preferring to die rather than give up the Church, she sets a very high example and, in the example of these markets named in honor of her Feast Day, I believe she sets a challenge to us all.
Could we not, as a Catholic community, use the squares, covered entrances, or even parking lots of our cathedrals, shrines and churches, at least in urban areas, to host Christmas markets like hers? Imagine the opportunities to engage with the public about the faith, and to challenge the attempts at neo-atheism and secular humanism that are infiltrating their way into urban culture via advertisements on city buses, billboards, and the like. Are we so very comfortable and beige like that old cardigan that we only pay lip service to what we claim we believe?
I would ask, gentle reader, that you consider this in whatever capacity you are able, and see whether one cannot use the example of the Fair held in honor of the fair St. Lucy as an inspiration to do more to proclaim the faith in your own community: not just preaching to the choir, as it were, but rather bringing the choir and everything else out onto the street.
The St. Lucy Fair in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona