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Bari’s Borrowed Wonder Worker

In the southern Italy city of Bari, an annual celebration commemorates St. Nicholas, the Wonder Worker.

Before the suppression of the church in Communist Russia, if a pious peasant was asked to identify the Holy Trinity, more often than not he would mutter the names of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker. Icons of this trinity, enshrined in every Russian home, reinforced this understanding.

Devotion to the Wonder Worker has not been confined to Russia. England, Greece, Holland, Lorraine, Sicily and southern Italy all honor him as patron. And his influence has spread to the New World, where it has taken on new life, particularly among children during the Christmas season.

Nowhere is the universal nature of St. Nicholas’s popularity more apparent than in the southern Italian city of Bari. In early May I traveled to this bustling port, the capital of Puglia, an agricultural region hugging the Adriatic coast. While traveling through the region I observed bands of nomads, grasping decorated staffs and burdened with backpacks. When I mistook them for Albanian refugees, my traveling companion informed me that these travelers were making an annual pilgrimage to Bari. There, on 9 May, in an impressive medieval basilica that bears his name, the church celebrates the “translation” of the relics of St. Nicholas to Bari.

According to tradition, Nicholas was born in the mid-third century to a wealthy Christian couple in Patara, a town near the southern shores of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). After the premature death of his parents, Nicholas gave up his wealth and entered a monastery, later traveling to Egypt and the Holy Land. He returned to his monastery, hoping to live quietly as a hermit. However, against his will, he was elected as Bishop of Myra, a small town near Patara.

Although little else is known about Nicholas, his popularity rests on his compassion for the poor and his passion for the faith.

“The reason for this special veneration of this special bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings,” writes Leonid Ouspensky, a noted Russian theologian, “is evidently that the church sees in him a personification of a shepherd, of its defender and intercessor.”

One of the most powerful stories reveals Nicholas’s compassion for the poor. There were three young girls whose father had lost his fortune and, consequently, their dowries. Due to their poverty, the girls were ignored by all the eligible men. Moved by their plight, Nicholas, under the cover of darkness, went to the man’s home and dropped a bag of gold through an open window. Finding the gold the following morning, the man was overwhelmed and, thanking God, married off his eldest girl.

Several nights later, Nicholas secretly deposited a second bag of gold. Dumbfounded, the man used it for his second daughter’s dowry.

The man, however, was determined to identify his benefactor and waited for the unknown person’s appearance. Again, under the cover of darkness, Nicholas left yet another sum of gold. Hearing a thump, the man rose to his feet and caught up with his mysterious benefactor, whom he recognized immediately. Nicholas demanded silence, binding the man to an oath never to reveal his identity.

Many stories demonstrate Nicholas’s passion for the Christian faith. A tale developed in time Byzantine world about his role as Bishop of Myra during the Council of Nicea. This council was called by the Emperor Constantine in 325 to resolve the theological controversies regarding the nature of Christ.

Repelled by the teachings of the priest Arius (who was later labeled a heretic), Nicholas slapped him in the face. The Emperor, in an effort to heal the divisions seizing the Christian church, cast Nicholas into prison. That night, Jesus and the Virgin appeared to Nicholas and returned to him the symbols of his office, the Gospel and the omophorion, of bishop’s stole. References to this tale may be seen on many Russian icons: a compassionate Nicholas provides a blessing, while to his right, in miniature, Jesus offers the Gospels and, to the left of Nicholas, Mary offers the omophorion.

The lack of hard data did little to halt the evolution of a popular biography of St. Nicholas, which developed first in the Byzantine East and traveled later to Germany and southern Italy. Much of the material detailing his miracles, like the one mentioned above, is rooted in oral tradition.

Nicholas’s rise in popularity in Western Europe coincided with the region’s passion for relics – a race for saintly remains that combined a complex mixture of civic pride, business acumen and religious devotion.

In the late 11th century, off the coast of Asia Minor, which had fallen into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, a ship carrying merchants and sailors from Bari sailed toward Antioch. According to Nicephorus, a Benedictine monk, in an account written in 1088, one year after the event, the merchant ship “cast anchor at Myra.”

“This they undertook,” writes Nicephorus, “not for selfish profit, but for a laudable and praiseworthy work… to remove the manna-receiving and fragrant remains of our blessed, thrice-happy and inspired father, and so, this accomplished, to possess and take pride in him as in a great fortune.”

The Venetians were also hot on the trail of the Barese businessmen.

The Barese encountered much resistance from the Byzantine monks who jealously guarded the tomb of the Wonder Worker. The relics were finally secured, taken aboard the ship and “translated” to the city of Bari. The Barese, who just a few years earlier had expelled the Byzantines, began to construct an edifice worthy to house the relics of St. Nicholas. The church was completed in 1100.

When I arrived, on the morning of the vigil, the citta vecchia, or old city, was packed with tens of thousands of people: overdressed Italian families, widows in traditional black, gypsy and Albanian hucksters, Russian and Greek pilgrims. All were wending their way through the well-worn streets to the center of Bari, the Basilica of St. Nicholas.

The basilica is an imposing stone stricture, a Romanesque basilica with Byzantine, Norman and Islamic influences. Because of its size and its treasure, the basilica became the prototype for churches and cathedrals built throughout Puglia for the next 150 years.

While a powerful organ boomed a Latin hymn, the aisles of the basilica were lined with penitents seeking absolution from the Dominican priests who now staff the shrine. As I walked down a flight of stairs into the crypt where Nicholas’s body is enshrined, I heard the distinct sound of Byzantine chant. A Byzantine Divine Liturgy was in progress. The language, however, was not Greek or Slavonic, but Italian. Italo-Byzantine Catholics (who number some 65,000 people) were not alone in their worship. Greeks, Russians and curious Latin Catholics all took part in the liturgy as well.

One Russian family caught my eye. The father watched his youngest child as his wife and daughters, their heads covered in colorful scarves, lit candles, kissed icons, pressed their heads to the sacred images and prostrated themselves before the altar. Although they abstained from the Eucharist, this family and the other Orthodox pilgrims who were in attendance rushed to the iconostasis to receive the blessed bread and to be anointed with the holy myron, or oil, of St. Nicholas.

The holy myron of St. Nicholas is a clear substance that, according to Byzantine accounts, has oozed from the remains of St. Nicholas since his burial in the early fourth century. Many Barese families still possess the elaborately painted bottles that were blown to hold the sacred oil.

After the completion of the liturgy I went to the chapel where Nicholas lies buried under a simple stone altar. While the Italians were busy throwing their offerings of lire through an iron gate, my Russian family – who were now joined by other Russian pilgrims – stood near the tomb of their beloved saint and wept.

This quiet scene was interrupted by a deafening sound. High above the basilica, Italian fighter planes soared, leaving trails of green, white and red smoke. Fireworks were set above the harbor to delight the pilgrims.

I returned to the somber facade of the basilica and encountered a hand of Russian pilgrims bending low to pay homage to the Wonder Worker. After all, it was devotion, not spectacle, that had brought them to this shrine.

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of Catholic Near East.

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