>Today is St. Henry of Finland’s Day, which is celebrated particularly by the faithful in Sweden and Finland. According to medieval legend Henry was born in England, later became bishop of Uppsala in Sweden, and subsequently became the first bishop of Finland in the 12th century; he was later martyred in Finland. The problem is, Henry was locally recognized as a saint long before the formal process of canonization as we understand it was put in place. As a result, it is very difficult to prove much if anything about Henry’s life, other than the fact that the first documentation of him dates from about a century after he was killed, and there is no official declaration of his sanctity from Rome, other than a tacit acknowledgment by Pope Boniface IX in a letter written more than 200 years after his martyrdom. Yet the story of his life has proven intensely important to the development of Finland as a nation, even apart from its adoption of Christianity.
So does it matter when, as a culture, we forget these legends, and St. Henry means nothing more than, for example, an excuse for celebrating a name day party? This question has been in my mind for some time, but came back into the front of my thinking last evening as I was researching the history of a rather obscure church in Barcelona for CatholicBarcelona.com, and continued subsequently when I listened to the most recent episode of Catholic In A Small Town [N.B. Thank you to Mac and Katherine Barron for both their kind remarks about this blog and in directing their listeners to visit it.] When do we fall into the mere estoteric curiosity in our understanding the meaning of the things around us?
Later this week I will be posting a new entry in my ongoing project to catalogue the interesting religious sites in Barcelona, which in this case will be about the church dedicated to Sant Cugat in that city. Sant Cugat – or Saint Cucuphas as he is known outside of Catalonia – was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian during the last Roman persecution of the Christians in about 304 A.D. According to ancient legend, he was heavily tortured by his captors, including being roasted in an oven. Admittedly some of the tales of the early saints have what our scientific-skeptical minds in the present age seem to regard as improbable, but oftentimes these stories have bases in facts that come to light through contemporary research. Saint Henry and Sant Cugat, in this respect, have certain aspects in common, despite living many centuries apart.
Whatever the case, the church dedicated to Sant Cugat in Barcelona has gone by several appellations, among them that of “Sant Cugat del Forn” or “Saint Cucuphas of the Oven”. In researching the history of the building, newer sources I consulted stated that this was likely a reference to the old city bakery which stood nearby in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the interest of fact-checking however, I dove deeper and discovered earlier sources, which indicated that the “of the Oven” reference was not to medieval commercial ventures, but rather the long-preserved belief that the oven in which the Romans burned Sant Cugat stood on or near the spot where the church was built, just outside the old Roman walls of the city. As the first document naming a church dedicated to Sant Cugat on the site dates from close to 1000 A.D., it would appear to my (admittedly amateur) mind that the earlier sources were correct, as the church predated the bakeries.
In further discussion with a friend – and a Protestant one at that – he pointed out the fact that it was probably appropriate to have the city bakeries built nearby the church, rather than have the church named for the bakeries. This makes perfect sense given the well-known medieval practice of placing trade guilds under the protection of a saint whose life had some connection to the trade which was being practiced. Nearby Sant Cugat for example, the ancient Romanesque chapel of En Marcús was dedicated to Our Lady the Guide, because it was located on the main Roman road out of the city, and beginning in the 12th century it became the chapel for the Guild of Mounted Couriers – the medieval equivalent of the Pony Express.
Why did present-day writers miss this connection between Sant Cugat’s church and the site of his torture, which was clearly understood in earlier sources dating from less than 100 years ago? Part of this has to do with secularization, of course, since once cannot expect Catholics who do not know Church history to understand these things. Yet on a wider level, it is also because those who are supposedly educated individuals and put in charge of researching and preserving our history, or in a broader context those who take it upon themselves to do so, are from a West that has become culturally lazy. Even on the average person level, far from the supposedly lofty heights of academic research, cultural laziness remains a problem.
In last evening’s Catholic In A Small Town episode for example, Mac and Katherine questioned the recent practice of young men in their school district wearing rosary beads around the neck. Those of us who grew up in the 1980′s are familiar with this practice among women, for Madonna made this sort of sacrilege fashionable back in the day. Apparently the wearing of a rosary as a necklace is considered in some instances to be symbolic of a gang affiliation, and it is why an 8th grader in Texas was recently suspended for wearing one to school. In this case, the teen complained that her recently-deceased grandmother was a devout Catholic and that she was wearing them to remember her; of course as a devout Catholic her late grandmother would have told her that a rosary is not a necklace and is not meant to be worn as such.
As pointed out in the podcast discussion, in this instance the practice is almost certainly not one of deliberately mocking the Church or the Blessed Virgin, for it is a reasonably safe assumption to state that the wearers are merely following a fashion, and they clearly do not know what they are doing. In fact, as suggested in the discussion, it might even be an opportunity for proselytization – or at the very least a discussion about the Church. Perhaps, the legend that the rosary was given to St. Dominic by the Virgin Mary could also be introduced. In other words, one should realize that a door has been opened, and thereafter take the other person by the hand and walk them through it. Part of that process, it seems to me, can involve the use of pious legends.
One of the wonderful things about being a Catholic is this ongoing celebration throughout the year of the communion of saints: that community that has gone before us and made it to Heaven. Every day the liturgical calendar gives us the opportunity to reflect on and learn about saints whose lives are well-known to us through their own writings and that of their contemporaries, such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. Thomas More, but also to learn about more obscure individuals such as Saint Henry of Finland or Sant Cugat, who never went through the formal process of canonization, but whom the Church entrusts to God and to the devotion of the local populace. These are great opportunities not only for the faithful to educate themselves, but also to reach out to those who do not know the Faith, as a way to discuss and learn about the Church in the context of the physical world – its place names, objects, holidays, and so on – that are already around us, but whose significance in many cases continues to be forgotten.