It was one of those big Catholic churches. The chapel was enormous. The spire was tall enough to interfere with air traffic. Nobody builds them like the Catholics.
I was meeting Father Ralph for an important appointment. He was waiting for me in the front pew.
I entered the sanctuary, took a knee and crossed myself. I was not raised Catholic. I was raised by tee-totalling Baptists, we were about as much fun as a routine colonoscopy.
Still, I wanted to show my respect.
“Hi, Sean,” said Father Ralph.
Father Ralph agreed to meet me today because he’s a nice guy, and he was willing to answer my questions. My questions today are about Santa. As in Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.
It all started a few days ago, when I wrote a column about Santa. I received a lot of email from children who asked me if Santa was actually real.
One letter from a 10-year-old read, “I don’t believe in Santa.”
And another: “Santa Claus can’t be legit, can he?”
I even received a letter from a Freewill Baptist mother who said I was “an agent of the devil” for promoting belief in Santa Claus. She spelled “Clause” with an E.
But the most touching letter came from a girl named Kayla (age 9), who said she really wants to believe in Santa. Kayla has cystic fibrosis. She’s been struggling with her digestion and her breathing since her infancy. She is Catholic.
“I really want to believe in Santa,” said Kayla. “But I don’t know if one man can deliver all those presents and be everywhere in the world in one night.”
So I called Father Ralph.
The good Father weighed in: “You should tell Kayla that she’s focusing on the wrong things. Saint Nicholas is not about presents, or sleighs, or reindeer. It’s much deeper than that.”
The padre is right. If you want sleighs and Rudolph, just watch “Ernest Saves Christmas.” If you want the non-Hollywood Saint Nick, let’s ask a professional.
“Very little is known about Saint Nicholas,” said the Father. “The earliest testaments of his life were written centuries after his death.”
But there are stories. Many, many stories. Saint Nick was born in the Greek seaport of Patara, Lycia, to extremely wealthy parents. He was a good-doer from his early days.
In one of his earliest stories, Saint Nicholas rescues three poverty-stricken girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping sacks of gold through their bedroom window each night so their father could pay a dowry for them, and marry them to upstanding men.
Another early story tells of Saint Nick saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution. There are hundreds more. He was imprisoned for his faith. He was persecuted. He lives on.
“He’s like any saint,” said the priest. “Miracles are attributed to him all the time. I believe he performs miracles every day.”
There are documented occurrences, of course.
There was the coal miners’ miracle in Pennsylvania. In December of 1907, when coal-mine explosions killed thousands of men in the Youghiogheny Valley near Van Meter. Over 3,000 miners died.
It was the worst month in U.S. coal mining history. But some miners were spared. These were Orthodox Greek men who skipped work to celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas.
There was the miracle in late 1950s, in the Middle East. A Muslim woman was told she was unable to bear children by a doctor. A friend suggested she give Christianity a shot. So, against her father’s wishes, the woman walked into a Christian church. The priest told her to ask Saint Nicholas for help. She did. She was pregnant one week later.
In the 1965, in the Soviet Union, a crowded bus was stuck in the snow. It was dire. People were going to die.
There was an old bearded man on the bus who identified himself as “Nick.” He started talking about how much Jesus loved everyone. Nick said if everyone would just believe, their faith would deliver them.
So everyone started praying and weeping and asking God for help. Lo and behold, the bus gained traction and made it to safety. When the bus arrived at its destination, the old man had disappeared. “It was Saint Nicholas,” said one eyewitness.
And the miracles keep coming. There is the miracle recounted by a missionary priest in 1993. He had no money. He was starving to death. His wife was dying from malnutrition. He asked Saint Nicholas for help. The next day, someone donated anonymously the equivalent of $40,000 bucks.
These are just a few of the tales attributed to Saint Nick. There are thousands more. Stories of people receiving miracles. Stories of healings. Stories of people being saved from death.
“So you see, Kayla,” said Father Ralph. “You can believe whatever you want. But the fact is, Saint Nick isn’t just some guy with a beard and a bunch of reindeer. He is a message.”
I asked what that message is.
“The message isn’t some fairy tale,” said Father Ralph. “Saint Nicholas is the Advent message. The message is that God loves you, no matter who the heck you are.”