Earlier this morning, I read an interesting piece by Dr. Pius Parsch. For those of you that are familiar with “The Church’s Year of Grace,” Dr. Parsch offers a short meditation after giving us the life of a saint for the day. For the most part, Dr. Parsch writes about the Mass of the day or the appropriate virtues that we should cultivate as Catholics. Today, however, was much more interesting than that.
Today is the Feast of St. Eustace and his companions. It is interesting that the original Eustace was a bishop, who was martyred for his faith for believing in the Nicene Creed during the fourth century. As the Church grew and expanded, however, the cult of a new Eustace developed. The bishop was transformed into a Roman soldier and hunter, who endured great trials because of his Christian faith. Is it possible that were two saints with the same name who feast day falls on the same day? It cannot be ruled out. However, Dr. Parsch does not really talk about this. Rather, he chooses to focus on how these legends have grown and developed.
According to Dr. Parsch, our devotion to the saints can be tied down to the liturgical life of the Church as a whole. During times when the Church was interested in the saints, dross and legends were eliminated. When Dr. Parsch wrote his books in the 1950s, the legends had piled sky high because no one had bothered to look into the facts and to revise things accordingly. St. Pius X had set up a committee to reform the readings in the breviary, but the results were few indeed.
Bearing in mind that Dr. Parsch was an advocate for the liturgical movement that overran the Church during the late 1950s and early 1960s, how should we view the accounts of various saints as given in the missal or the breviary? One way to treat them is to look at them as pious stories that attempt to show us how to live Christian lives, but which have no basis in historical fact. The other way to examine them is to say that these personages existed, but that so much varnish has been added to the portrait that it is difficult for us to see the real person.
I think the second approach is appropriate for saints about whom we know very little. For example, the legends about St. George grew up during the period of the Crusades. We know very little indeed about the historical St. George. The only things that we know for certain was that he was a Christian soldier who underwent tremendous sufferings during the persecution of Diocletian. In some lives of St. George, the legend of the dragon is not mentioned at all. Rather, the focus is on St. George’s sufferings. Interesting, don’t you think?
Yet we should realize that varnish gets applied to many different saints and not just to the early martyrs of the Church. As I pointed out yesterday, the real St. Francis is much more interesting than the man who was created by the popular piety of generations of Catholics. The same can be said about St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Bernadette. Popular piety has portrayed them one way, while their own lives show them to be completely different people.
So should we throw out our copies of Butler because of what I have written here? No. We should continue to read and to cherish the lives of these saints as well as invoke them. They are our heavenly intercessors before the throne of Almighty God. Together with Mary and Our Lord, we need their help as well.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Joseph, pray for us!