From Catherine of Siena Church in Mountain Lakes, NJ
Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers, can be a divisive figure. Still one of the most popular saints invoked as a general protector of young boys (along with St Michael the Archangel), he is also regarded with discomfort by many Christians, who vaguely remember hearing that he was de-sainted, or mythical, or has some other untoward status in the Church. Because these seemingly minor issues can, with enough confusion, grow to be a challenge to people’s understanding of the Faith, the following is a basic guide to some of the frequently asked questions about the Saint and his legend.
Who is St Christopher?
St Christopher was a Christian martyr killed sometime between the years 249 and 313 AD during the reign of a Roman emperor, either Decius or Maximinius II Dacian.1 The historical record is somewhat muddled, possibly due to the similarity of the emperors’ names. The name Christopher means “Christ-bearer,” and was not his birth name, but a title given to him after his fame began to spread. Eastern Orthodox sometimes refer to him as Christopher of Lycea, and a church in Rab, Croatia claims to have relics of him.2 Though he lived around the third century, by the late 600s he was widely enough known that churches and monasteries were named after him. Some historians believe that “Christopher” may actually be the same person as the Coptic Saint Minas (also known as Mena or Mennas). Minas was a Roman soldier of Egyptian descent who was martyred in 309 AD for refusing to recant his Christian faith. Minas is one of the most popular Egyptian saints, and is invoked as a patron of pilgrims, adding credence to his possible conflation with St Christopher.3
Better-known than his historical roots is the folk legend of St Christopher and the Christ child. According to this story, Christopher was a very tall man (some versions call him a giant) whose job it was to carry people on his shoulders across a wide river. One day, a small child asked him for passage. He took the young boy on his back, but as he progressed across the river, the water flowed deeper and faster, and the boy became heavier and heavier. Soon the boy was so heavy that Christopher could barely keep his head above the water. When he at last made it to the riverbank, he told the child, “You have put me in great danger! I felt as though the whole world was on my shoulders!” The child replied, “You had on your shoulders not only the world, but He who made it. I am Christ your king.” The child then vanished. This story bears some resemblance to an incident from the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, in which a young Jason carries a poor old woman across a river, who is then revealed to be the goddess Hera in disguise.
Konrad Witz, c. 1435
Though this is the basic version of the tale, some tellings add a prologue, in which Christopher was so strong that he decided he would serve no one but “the greatest king there was.” He went to the most powerful king in the land, but soon he saw the king cross himself when hearing the name of the devil. Since the king feared him, Christopher decided to serve the devil instead, and coming across a band of marauders whose leader boastfully referred to himself as the devil, Christopher joined their group. But he then observed the bandit leader steer clear of a cross on the side of the road, so Christopher decamped in order to go serve Christ. It is a hermit he met on this journey who instructed Christopher to serve the Lord by carrying people across the dangerous river. There is also a denouement some versions add after the Christ child has been transported, in which a king attempts to force Christopher to blaspheme by sacrificing to pagan gods. When he refuses, the king sends two beautiful women to seduce Christopher into violating his chastity. Christopher instead converts the women to Christianity, so the king gives up and beheads him, allowing him to die a virtuous martyr.
Finally, some Orthodox icons of St Christopher depict him as a man with the head of a dog. Though several different explanations are proffered for this cynocephaly – perhaps a hyperbole referring to his size and barbarian fierceness, or an additional fable in which a dog-headed man becomes human after meeting the Christ child – many historians attribute it to a mistranslation of the word Cananeus (Canaanite) to canineus (canine).
Was St Christopher “De-Sainted?”
No. He was, however, removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1970. (This is the liturgical calendar which indicates the dates of celebrations such as saints’ days, memorials, feasts, and solemnities. Local calendars may move or add feast days as well, such as celebrating St Patrick in Ireland.) Christopher was removed for various reasons including how little we really know about him, and because his importance warranted celebration on a local or regional level rather than by the whole Church. This was part of a series of revisions intended to de-clutter the calendar, and prevent saints’ feast days from eclipsing in importance feast days associated with the mysteries of salvation, such as the Annunciation or Ascension. Only saints considered to be of universal importance would appear on the Roman calendar, and the rest could be celebrated according to their popularity or association with a specific local church. Additionally, saints about whom there is little historical record, or who may actually refer to two or more people conflated into one (which before the advent of modern record-keeping was not infrequent), or whose hagiographies were embellished over time by myth and metaphor, were de-emphasized in importance. He is still, of course, considered to be a human being who died and went to heaven, which is all a saint is. Veneration of him, and prayers for his intercession, are in no way “suppressed”. Christopher is listed in the Roman Martyrology under July 25th (his feast day in the Orthodox church is May 9th), and his veneration as a martyr predates the advent of some of the wilder legends about him.
Heironymous Bosch, c. 1485
Is this a challenge to Papal Infallibility?
No. For one thing, St Christopher was canonized at a time before the canonization process was formalized, and before the Pope was really very involved in it at all. It was by word of mouth and general public acclaim that people learned about saints and martyrs before then, rather than by a process of investigation, petitions, and so on. Secondly, tall tales aside, there is ample reason to believe that St Christopher (whatever his real name was) was a real person. And finally, it cannot be emphasized enough that Papal Infallibility only applies to times when the pontiff speaks Ex Cathedra (“from the chair”, i.e. the Chair of St Peter), meaning that when he officially defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, we believe that the Holy Spirit preserves him from error. It does not imply Papal impeccability (inability to sin), or assert that the Pope never misspeaks, misjudges situations, is mistaken, gets lost, forgets someone’s name, catches a cold, or what have you.
Buxheim Woodcut, c. 1423
Is it okay to pray to St Christopher?
Of course! The fact that he is referred to in folktales and traditions is no threat to faithful honoring of him. People from much of the past had a less rigid view than we do of how historical stories should be passed down. While we today regard the verifiable facts as the most important aspect of any historical discussion, it was less taboo in previous centuries to embellish stories with metaphor in order to express certain ideas about them. For example, Christopher’s prodigious height in many legends may have been a way to imply great strength of spirit. This mythologizing often made it easier for uneducated peasants to remember and grasp the essential point of a story. While it can be difficult to understand this way of processing narrative, remembering that the modern emphasis on fact above all else is a fairly recent mindset can help us look at apocryphal histories with a bit more depth than just saying, “people didn’t write things down very much back then.”
It is, however, important to avoid treating the saints superstitiously – referring to them as if they were gods and goddesses with specific powers over narrowly defined aspects of life. When we say that we are praying “to” a saint, we mean that we are praying with them. Asking for saints’ intercession is the same as asking a friend or relative to pray for you – you are merely enlisting others’ help in petitioning God to answer your prayer, and in the saints’ case, asking people who are closer to God than we are. Though their patronages enable us to come to someone who may have a connection to our situation, or with someone whose particular character or virtues we want to emulate, all we are doing is joining the great “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews, and praying in community as Christ enjoined. But in a desire to avoid superstition, you can also go too far in the other direction. For example, let’s say that, in fact, all historical references are wrong, and no one existed who bears any factual resemblance to any part of St Christopher’s story. Would that mean that God would be displeased at, or ignore, any faithful prayers people said in his name? To think so would be either to ignore God’s omniscience (He knows your mind and true intent), or His beneficence (He isn’t so petty as to hold something like that against you).
In any case, St Christopher is in fact a saint, a historical figure, and a valuable intercessor. He is mentioned in everything from ancient legends to the Canterbury Tales, and appears in films from The Spirit of St Louis (1957) to Gravity (2013). He may no longer be listed on the calendar, but his patronage of travelers and protection for young boys ensures that he will always remain relevant to our lives.
1.[T.D. Barnes, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, MA, 1982)]↩
2.[Letcher, Piers (June 18, 2013). Croatia (5th Edition), Bradt Travel Guide.]↩
3.[“Menas”, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, New York: Oxford University Press.]↩