Have you ever played a game of telephone? It is a game where a group of people stands in a line, one person comes up with a phrase, whispers it to someone else, and tries to get the phrase all the way down the line without changing. Often, the original phrase gets altered quite a bit by the time it reaches the end of the line. Sometimes it is a genuine misunderstanding and sometimes someone has altered the phrase for a bit of fun. I think that this can sometimes be similar to a practice known as hagiography. A hagiography, if you aren’t familiar, is a history of a saint’s life. This isn’t always the case, but, often, a hagiography is a bit more idealized than your average biography. By slightly exaggerating their actions, authors make saints into larger than life figures. Other times, completely fake stories, rumors, or legends about them somehow become popular enough that people begin to believe that they really happened – even if there isn’t any evidence. The more popular the saint, the more likely that a made-up story about them has started to become “true.” If you are a fan of busting myths, then this post is for you. I’ve taken the liberty of debunking myths about five of your favorite saints. Don’t feel too sorry that these holy men and women are having some of their biggest secrets unveiled. They are probably having a laugh about it together in heaven!
St. Patrick Wasn’t Even Irish
What if I told you that the beloved patron saint of Ireland wasn’t actually Irish? Although he ended up spending a good amount of time in Ireland, St. Patrick was most likely born in Scotland. However, at the time, it was part of the Roman Empire and, thus, Patrick was actually a Roman citizen. Patrick’s relationship and association with Ireland first began after being kidnapped by raiders and sold into slavery there. During his time in enslavement, Patrick had to learn to rely upon God and his faith grew by leaps and bounds. Eventually, Patrick escaped his slave master, returned home, and became a priest; a remarkably good priest, in fact. His reputation as a holy man spread so far that even Pope Celestine I heard of him. Pope Celestine I was so impressed by him that he entrusted Patrick to evangelize the people of Ireland. As you might imagine, Patrick was immensely successful in this and the rest is history!
St. Francis Wasn’t a Hippy
Because of his fondness for God’s creation, St. Francis of Assisi has come into a reputation as a sort of happy-go-lucky, anti-authority, hippy who did nothing but talk to animals and wander around barefoot. It might be fun to think of him in this way, and there are hints of truth scattered throughout that stereotype, but St. Francis doesn’t quite fit that mold as perfectly as you might think. For example, St. Francis didn’t “fight the man” like your typical hippy. In fact, St. Francis made sure to get permission from Pope Innocent III before starting his new religious order that would eventually become the Franciscans. In another not-so-hippy move, St. Francis traveled to Egypt during the middle of the Fifth Crusade and, with a general’s permission, crossed battle lines into enemy territory right after a particularly bloody and intense battle. Why? Well, Francis wanted to demonstrate to the Sultan of Egypt that Catholicism was true, convert him away from Islam, and, if all that failed, he hoped to enter the Kingdom of heaven shortly after through facing martyrdom at the Sultan’s hands. Unfortunately for Francis, he failed in all of these endeavors except for entering the Kingdom in heaven at the end of his life. However, it wasn’t in the way he had initially hoped, in that his death was a result of old age instead of martyrdom.
Mary Magdalene Wasn’t A Prostitute
It is often said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who had decided to leave her past life behind in order to become one of Jesus’ most devoted followers. This idea can be traced back to the sixth century, so it isn’t a new one, but there probably isn’t any truth to it. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, says that there isn’t any biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute. He believes this idea became popular because of her depiction in art throughout the centuries. In other words, for purposes of creativity, artists fudged the facts a little bit to make their work more interesting. In fact, if you read Luke 8:1-3, there is an indication that Mary Magdalene may have actually been somewhat wealthy and used her finances to assist Jesus and the Apostles. If this were true, she would have had enough money to ever have a need to become a prostitute.
St. Joan of Arc Wasn’t a Soldier
Who hasn’t daydreamed of your favorite teenage saint, Joan of Arc, charging into battle, wielding a sword, and bravely taking on the enemies double her size on behalf of the Kingdom of France in the midst of the Hundred Years War? Well, I’m sorry to say that there isn’t much truth to this story outside of daydreams. St. Joan never directly faced an enemy in combat – she wasn’t a soldier! Don’t get too upset though. She probably did carry a sword, definitely carried war banners, was part of military parades, and it is said that she was wounded by an arrow while in a trench – so the idea of combat definitely wasn’t foreign to her. And, although St. Joan never physically fought someone herself, she did play an instrumental role in several battles during the Hundred Years War. Most notably, Joan is known to have carried a message from God to French military leaders. The information in this message ended up helping them break a siege on a French town called Orléans. Many soldiers directly attributed this victory to Joan’s efforts and, as a result, the French army swelled in numbers. Many soldiers were so inspired by Joan that they decided to fight for France because of her.
St. Nick Didn’t Actually Punch Arius
Have you heard this one? There is a popular tale that goes around that Saint Nicholas of Myrna (who Santa Claus is based on) was present at the Council of Nicea. If you couldn’t guess by the name, this is where the Nicene Creed was formulated. At this council, there were many heretics in attendance that were known as Arians. The Arians incorrectly believed that God the Son (Jesus) was a creation of God the Father rather than an eternal being who has always existed. As the story goes, this frustrated jolly St. Nick so much that he couldn’t bear it anymore and ended up socking the leader of the heretics, a bishop named Arius, right in the face. As funny as it is to imagine Santa Claus fixin’ to give a heretic a beating, there’s no real evidence that this ever actually happened. In fact, St. Nick probably wasn’t even at the Council of Nicea at all!
Photo by Hoan Vo on Unsplash.