Saints Gone Wild

Some of the Church's very best people did some very bad things. A conversation with author Thomas J. Craughwell.

BustedHalo: One of my favorite chapters was about St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors. What a conversion story. But boy, did the Romans ever put the theater to some perverse uses…

Thomas Craughwell: Yeah. A lot of actors were slaves back then, and for the death scenes they’d bring in condemned criminals and execute them onstage. Genesius was a comic actor during the reign of Diocletian, the emperor who attempted to rid the Empire, once and for all, of all Christians. So when Genesius’ troupe was told to perform before Diocletian, they wrote a play they thought would appeal to the emperor—a farce mocking Christian baptism.

Genesius played the convert, and another actor played the priest. And when the actor-priest poured the water over Genesius’ head and said the words of baptism, grace actually flowed over Genesius along with the water. All of a sudden he stood up and walked down to the atrium of the stage and started berating the emperor. Diocletian thought this was hilarious—part of the skit! But then he realized Genesius was being earnest, and they hauled the poor guy off and tortured him to death.

BH: Romans—so civilized, yet so barbaric…

TC: Exactly. They had what we’d call a “disconnect.” They didn’t consider criminals or the people they conquered to be Romans, and if you weren’t a Roman, you weren’t fully human. All bets were off. The Romans considered Christians to be criminals, so they thought they could do with them whatever they wanted, and they did.

BH: When did people start praying to saints for things like their bunions, or some luck at the track?

TC: Well, that goes right to the notion of patron saints, which also comes to us from Rome—the patron-client relationship. The patron was the rich, influential guy in the big house at the end of the street, and the clients were the poor neighbors down the street who would go to him for favors. The idea was totally steeped in Roman society, and it segued easily into Christianity. If the saints are in heaven with God, they thought, why not ask them to use their influence with the Lord to ask for favors on their behalf? It made perfect sense to Roman Christians.

BH: Ah, I now understand “The Godfather” on a whole new level… How did people know which saints to pray to?

TC: At first, you went to whatever saint you had a personal relationship with, regardless of your needs. “St. Agatha is my patron saint because she always answers my prayers.” But then things shifted, and the saints started becoming specialists.

BH: How did that happen?

TC: People looked at the lives of the saints and saw them doing things that related to specific needs in their lives, and eventually the saints became assigned to those needs. If you had a health concern, you’d pray to Cosmas and Damian because, in life, they were doctors. They’re now the patron saints of physicians. St. Christopher carried on his shoulders travelers who were trying to cross a dangerous river, so he became the patron saint of travelers. The saints still relate personally to those who pray to them, but now they specialize in what they do.

The same thing happens today when they start interviewing people in the canonization process. People don’t want to tell you if the saint was ever cranky, or lied, or stiffed the diner waitress out of her tip. People immediately go into life-of-the-saint mode. But the further back in time you go, the more candid the lives of the saints are.

BH: While working on this book, did you have a favorite conversion story?

TC: I really did like them all, and I have a weakness for rascals like Camillus de Lellis and Moses the Ethiopian, and party girls like Mary of Egypt. But if I’m going to have to name one, I’m going to go with St. Callixtus, the embezzler who became pope. He just seemed like the constant bad seed, the constant pimple on your butt. Not that he was steeped in wickedness, but he was always getting into trouble. I mean, embezzling was not a good thing. Nor was starting a riot in a Jewish synagogue on a Saturday morning. And, yet, even he turns around and becomes not only a very devoted, responsible Christian, but he gets elected pope!

BH: Obviously, your book excludes saints who were good from birth to death. Did you find many stories of saints who were just salt-of-the-earth, decent people all their lives?

TC: That’s hard to know. You have to go back to the primary sources, as much as you can, and that’s not easy territory. You have to read critically. There are certain predictable patterns in the stories of saints that you can edit out. For example, if you run into a story that says, “Saint Nicholas was pious even in his infancy, and he would not nurse on Wednesdays and Fridays”—well, you can assume there’s some exaggeration involved there.

BH: St. Nick fasted as a newborn?

TC: It’s in the legend! And, by the way, it shows up in the legends of a lot of other saints. There’s this tendency, starting later in the Middle Ages, to make the saints seem saintly all the way back to the womb, if possible, and I don’t find it particularly useful. So it’s very difficult to find a really good biography of the saints in that period.

In Beckett’s case, for example, when they were collecting the testimony after he had been murdered in the Cathedral, people who knew what a stinker he’d been were trying to rehabilitate him, saying things like, “Yeah, he was vain, and he was boastful. He broke all his vows. He was avaricious. But one night I happened to walk in on him and he was lying on the bare floor, ripping himself.” Well, you know what, that’s not likely. Human psychology tells you that if someone is that selfish and proud outwardly, it’s very unlikely that privately he led this totally ascetic existence.

The same thing happens today when they start interviewing people in the canonization process. People don’t want to tell you if the saint was ever cranky, or lied, or stiffed the diner waitress out of her tip. People immediately go into life-of-the-saint mode. But the further back in time you go, the more candid the lives of the saints are.

BH: Why’s that?

TC: I’m not really sure, but I suspect they had a more realistic view of how one becomes a saint. The biographies from the 5th, 6th, 7th centuries—those chroniclers, those biographers, were not at all shy.

BH: So the doctoring really began in the Middle Ages.

TC: Yeah, and that’s the right word for it, doctoring. They also started changing what saints did. Before the publication of “The Golden Legend,” which was sort of the bestseller of saints’ stories in the Middle Ages, the saints basically solved problems. They helped people. No matter how bad your situation was, the saints would fix it. But after “The Golden Legend,” the Church was feeling vulnerable, maybe because of the Cathar Heresy, and all of sudden the saints get vengeful. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, the saints will come after you. Even the Blessed Virgin started getting angry.

BH: Really? Oh, do give an example…

TC: In one story, a university student treated the Blessed Virgin like a knight treated his lady, and he swore that he would be hers forever and never marry. She’d be the only woman he would ever love. Well, before you know it he met a pretty girl and got engaged. That night, the Blessed Virgin appeared in his room, mad as hell, and scared the man half to death. The next morning, he broke off his engagement.

Of course, the Blessed Mother would never fly into a jealous rage. But for one brief, shining period in the Middle Ages, she, like all the saints, really was a rough character.