Rev. Chris Downey

The Rev. Chris Downey, the priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Killeen, reads a verse from the Bible.

Santa Claus, the jolly old elf, is found during the Christmas season in many forms. The white bearded man, adorned in a red suit and rose-colored cheeks, can be seen sitting in shopping malls for photo ops, ringing bells to collect money for the Salvation Army, and among all the seasonal décor. The commercialized figure is mainly known as the cookie-loving, bringer of gifts to good girls and boys and not recognized as who he was as a living, breathing man.

The Rev. Chris Downey, the pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Killeen, said that the saints are “like God’s hall of fame. They are the ones that allowed themselves to be loved by God in a profound way.”

Downey said anyone can become a saint and, “every single one of us are called to be saints,” but it isn’t just about being a good person and doing good things.

“Saint comes from the Latin word, Sanctus, which means holy. Being holy means someone that is absolutely filled to capacity with the love of God,” the priest said.

Downey continued: “When they become a saint, they don’t surrender their unique selfhood, but they allow their selfness to be fulfilled through the grace of God that dwells within the person, and that becomes their animating principle of their unique personhood.”

According to NewAdvent.org, which maintains an online Catholic encyclopedia, St. Nicholas was born in a city in Asia Minor and became a bishop of Myra, Turkey. He was imprisoned during a wave of persecution under the Roman rule of Diocletion. St. Nicholas is said to have died Dec. 6, 345 or 352 AD, among the many that were killed for their Christian beliefs.

His bones are believed to be in a tomb in Bari, Italy, but recently, a priest in Illinois, who has an extensive collection of relics from saints, had a piece of pelvic bone analyzed by the University of Oxford.

According to an article from the university, the radio carbon dating of the fragment pinpoints the bone’s age to the Fourth Century AD, which is the time that many historians predict St. Nicholas died.

“Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself,” said professor Tom Higham, one of the directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster.

Downey said that the canonization of saints only happens after a person dies, and St. Nicholas has his own feast day (a celebration of the saint), which falls on Dec. 6.

Downey said while there is a hierarchy of saints, “it doesn’t mean they’re less holy, it just means that in terms of structure and terms of the impact they have had on the church, some saints are held in higher regard.”

Downey said the higher-level saints include Mary, John the Baptist, and Joseph, Mary’s husband.

Downey said St. Nicholas is held in higher regard in the Eastern church, verses the Western church, which he is part of.

The History Channel says the saint first made his debut in the U.S. in 1773 and again in 1774, when a New York newspaper reported groups of Dutch families gathering to honor the anniversary of his death. A shortened name for St. Nick, in Dutch, was Sinter Klaas, and then slowly evolved into Santa Claus. Later, in 1822, Santa became the “jolly old elf,” in Clement Clarke Moore’s “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of many peoples, from children to bankers and pawnbrokers, to sailors and perfumers, among many more. Becoming a patron saint of a people, Downey said, “it’s the way in which they minister to people. The people that God put in their path to minister to.”

The ministry to children is what we know St. Nicholas for today, and according to legend, he earned the title because of his immense generosity. Inheriting a large amount of money after the death of his parents, Claus gave it all away. One of the stories he is most identified, is one in which he threw sacks of gold in the window of three sisters. The gold is said to have landed in their stockings hanging on the fireplace mantle to dry. The money was to provide the sisters with a dowry so that they would be saved from a life of slavery.

The classic editorial response from the Sun to a little girl questioning the existence of Santa Claus in 1897 said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

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