From Puglia to Russia. For the first time, after almost a thousand years, the relics of Saint Nicholas, jealously guarded by the Dominican friars in the Pontifical Basilica of Bari, dating back to the XII century, are translated in Moscow, where they will remain until 28 July 2017. From the crypt, a fragment of 13 centimeters of a left rib that is placed in a reliquary made in Russia, after it has been subjected to a special medical-scientific treatment. The transfer takes place with a private airplane, made available by the Russian Federation.
Antonio Decaro, Mayor of Bari, says: “If it is true that history is made of occurrences and reoccurrences and that events are repeated according to a predetermined pattern, then today we are in front of one of these episodes, to which I believe men have the opportunity to attend a few times in life, if not only one. Saint Nicholas gets back on the path, and honoring his story and his message, unites once again the nations in the name of faith. In these times of migrations of peoples in search of peace, in a time when new and old selfishness and attempts of oppression come back, the Church responds with a message of peace and dialog. This is the most tangible sign of the ecumenical spirit that blows in the crypt of the Basilica and that will blow even in Moscow”.
But who was Saint Nicholas? And why is his cult so strong in Russia, as in Puglia? To learn more about the figure of the Holy Bishop of Myra In Terris addressed these questions to Don Alfredo Gabrielli, Deputy Director of the Ecumenical Office of the diocese of Bari-Bitonto.
Who was really Saint Nicholas?
If we were to understand the figure of Saint Nicholas taking into consideration all the hagiography, cultural, artistic and popular testimonies of this bishop we would find ourselves in great difficulty because it would be hard for us to believe that they talk about the same person. This effort was so much felt that, in the course of history, someone has assumed also his non-existence! Saint Nicholas became a mythical figure, legendary, a superhero with the outlines of a Christian Bishop. But the scientific research made his journey and today we can say, with serenity, that Nicholas was born in Patara, in Licia (Turkey peninsula, in front of the island of Rhodes), around 255 A.D. by a wealthy family. He was appointed bishop of Myra in the year 300 and suffered imprisonment during the Roman persecution of Diocletian. He distinguished himself for his charity since childhood, but this virtue was transformed into pastoral care especially during the famine that hit the area from 311 to 313. He participated in the Council of Nicea, from which derives the orthodox appellative of “defender of the faith” against the Arian heresy. Nicholas died on the 6 of December, as handed down to us by the ancient liturgical calendars; on the year there is not so much of accuracy, but with probability it was around the year 333.
There is a tendency to connect the figure of the bishop of Myra with Santa Claus. How comes?
This is part of the many mythical legendary developments of the historical figure of this Saint. We have already mentioned his proverbial generosity and charity. Well, during his youth in Patara, Nicholas came to know about a man with three beautiful girls, that were unable to marry because of lack of dowry. Warned by God of this situation and of the fact that, in his heart, the man was considering giving his daughters to prostitution, he decided to throwing a bag full of gold in the house of the man at night. Seeing that the father really used that money to marry one daughter, he decided to repeat that gesture of generosity for other two times. The most famous iconography of Saint Nicholas with the three gold beads in the hands originates from here. For many centuries, the feast day of the bishop of Myra, on 6 December, was associated with the gesture to bring gifts to children. After the protestant Reformation, which abolished the cult of the saints, this tradition was transferred to Christmas Day. But since the Child Jesus, however, would not have been able to be used to threaten naughty children, people recovered the figure of this man, who took corpulent features and the name of Santa Claus (from “Nicholasus”). Then, at the end of the XIX century, the illustrations of Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist, standardized the representation of Santa Claus.
In 930 years of history, the relics of the Saint have never left Puglia. This is an historic event…
Quite unique. The relics have reached the city of Bari on 9 May 1087 and since then have always been kept in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. Their preciousness is also due to the fact that what remained of the mortal remains of the Saint (about 60 per cent of the body) has never been divided to create other devotions in different places. Although there are statements of the relics of St Nicholas in other churches in the world, in fact, what is historically established, is that the tomb kept in Bari has never been tampered to obtain relics. This underlines the ecumenical gesture that is going to be made by the will of the Pope, who welcomed the desire of the patriarch of Moscow, Kirill during the historic meeting in Cuba that took place on 12 February 2016.
The city of Bari invited Pope Francis and has been willing to host a meeting of the Pope with the Patriarch Kirill. According to you, is there a possibility that this event may be imminent?
The fact that the city of Bari, through the words of its mayor, confirmed the availability to accommodate such a meeting, highlights how the figure of Saint Nicholas has “ecumenically educated” the civil community, thing that is not obvious at all. The Mayor Decaro and the President of the region Emiliano will be part of the official delegation that is going to Moscow and I am sure that once again, they will express this desire of the city of Bari to the patriarch. However, the ecumenical path has its times and does not have a constant movement. There may be strong accelerations and abrupt braking. Much also depends on the climate inside the different Churches. I am sure that in their heart, the Patriarch of Moscow and the Pope would like to meet more often, but in reality, they do not represent themselves but two Churches, and the ecclesial paths are much slower. Certainly, the ecumenical gesture we are experiencing has a great importance for the relations between Catholics and Orthodox and certainly Bari is in pole position as a location for a possible future meeting in Italy between the two religious leaders. But to say when this will happen is difficult.
Could Saint Nicholas be the “bridge” between Catholics and Orthodox?
The ecumenical dialog takes place on different tracks and each track needs its “bridge”. The reality that revolves around the devotion to St Nicholas is already a strong bridge towards the East. The people who knee and pray in front of the relics of the Saint do not live the confessional discrimination: we pray all together, united, as one people. Every year, at the solemn celebrations for the feasts of the Saint the pastors of the Orthodox community present in Bari always participate. At the same time, this feast of the translation of the relic begins precisely with a Divine Orthodox Liturgy in the presence of the bishop of Bari-Bitonto. In the course of the days all, Catholics and Orthodox, go in the crypt of the Basilica to pray. Since 1966 there is an orthodox chapel next to the tomb of the bishop of Myra, first Orthodox place of worship located in a catholic church of the world. Today our Orthodox brothers and sisters celebrate on the altar placed above the tomb of St Nicholas, the same on which we celebrate us Catholics. That altar is therefore certainly a bridge already built for the communion of our Churches.
Why is the Russian church devoted to Saint Nicholas?
Russia is certainly the land that has the greatest veneration for St Nicholas. He is not considered a Saint like all the others, but a great friend of God, whose devotion is second only to that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This worship is previous to the arrival of the relics in Bari. Christianity arrived in Russia from Byzantium, precisely by the brothers Cyril and Methodius. Saint Nicholas had already a prominent place in the Byzantines liturgical books and such importance was handed down to Russian Christianity. We are told that the first church in Russia was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, precisely in the 882 in Kiev on the tomb of the prince Askold. However, this devotion had a tremendous boost from the translation of the remains of the Saint in Bari, and for this reason the day chosen to bring the relics of Saint Nicholas in Moscow coincides with the Feast of the translation to Bari according to the Russian calendar. Several miracles and apparitions are attributed to the Bishop of Myra in Russia, as well as fairy tales and legends. All this fed the cult and that special form of devotion which is the pilgrimage. The first Russian pilgrim in the town of Puglia of whom we have traces is the monk Barlaam of Rostov, in 1460, but surely there were others before, then many came after and many still come today.
What is the meaning of the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas in Russia?
This is a gesture of great friendship, with a unique and immense value. Figuratively, it is as if the Catholic Church gave the most desired gift that the Russian Church could wait for. In the faces of the Russians, especially of the poorest who cannot afford the trip up to Bari, we will surely see the joy, pushed up to emotion for such a great gift. No one would ever have expected. It is not therefore a simple gesture of kindness, but of true affection. It affects not only the heads of the Churches, but the entire people. It is one of those gestures that soften the heart, relax the souls and immensely help dialog.