Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Archbishop Amigo of Southwark and Bishop St Nicholas of Myra

Today's post will talk of St Nicholas, of course, but before that, a brief follow up of a mention of a great man of the Church in England (and who, like me, was born in Gibraltar), whose name appeared on this site recently.

Readers will perhaps recall that in our extremely widely read post More than Words, we cited Fr Ray Blake's recounting of an anecdote about the famous Archbishop Amigo of Southwark.  Well, the topic of Archbishop Amigo has clearly being playing on Fr Blake's mind, and as a result he has tracked down some stunning footage of Archbishop Amigo's funeral procession and burial.  It is well worth making Fr Blake's very popular St Mary Magdalen, Brighton blog part of your regular reading, and a permanent link to that site is to be found on the right hand sidebar of this blog. 

Here is the Pathe film that Fr Blake highlighted.

Fr Blake's blogpost on this subject also includes an excellent photo of Archbishop Amigo, taken in the late 1940s on the occasion of his visit to St Joseph's Brighton, surrounded by a Father Pepper (on the left) and a Father Munns (right).  Trawling the internet for more images, I came across these two, which carry on the theme mentioned earlier in our post of 11 November.  In that post and in the first of these two photos, you see a bomb-damaged church.  Below, we can see Archbishop Amigo standing in the shell of his cathedral, St George's in Southwark.  The second photo shows the procession returning to the still ruined St George's for his interment, after the Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral : what an incredible day that must have been, as Fr Ray's Pathe film makes clear: the kneeling in the street is extremely powerful.

May the soul of Peter Emmanuel Amigo, first Archbishop of Southwark, rest in peace.  May Our Lady, St Nicholas and all the Saints pray for him.


As you all know of course, today's Saint is St Nicholas.  It takes a while to find information on St Nicholas that doesn't end up disappearing down the tangent of Father Christmas and Santa Claus, but we will do our best to ensure that this page does not fall for the same temptation.

Born in the second half of the third century AD, Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in what is now Turkey, and upon the death of his parents was cared for by his uncle the Bishop of Patara, who guided him on his way to the priesthood.   He used his inherited wealth for charitable works, and was known for lifelong piety.  Not much that is known of his life is unchallenged by one historian or another, but we do know that he was Bishop of Myra, a town on the river Myros, in the fertile western plains of Turkey.

Dom Guéranger talks of today's feast in l'Année Liturgique
Today, the Church celebrates with joy the memorial of the distinguished miracle worker Nicholas, as renowned in the East as our great Saint Martin is here in the West, and honoured for almost a thousand years by the Latin Church.  Let us honour the authoritative power that God gave to him, but let us more than anything be thankful to him for having been one of the number of the 318 Bishops who proclaimed at Nicaea that the Word was consubstantial with the Father.  Nicholas was not shocked by the abasement of the Son of God; neither the lowliness of the flesh with which the Sovereign Lord clothed himself in the womb of the Virgin, nor the humbleness of the crib, prevented him from proclaiming the Son of God, the son of Mary, as equal to God; this is why he has been raised to glory, and has received the charge of obtaining, each year, for the Christian people, the necessary grace for them to go before the Word of Life, with a simple faith and a burning love.
St Nicholas is not in fact one of the signatories of the Council of Nicaea, but tradition has it that he was there, and that he played an extremely prominent role in suppressing any temptation to fall into the ways of Arianism.

As Dom Guéranger wrote, like St Gregory the Wonderworker, who was mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, St Nicholas also rejoices in the title of Θαυματουργός, Thaumaturgos, Wonderworker, on account of his renown for performing wondrous works and miracles. 

A good and wondrous work that might not strictly be a miracle is probably the deed with which he is most associated.  It is the tale of a poor father of three daughters, without sufficient funds to provide dowries for his girls :  Nicholas provided three bags of gold, either one each year as the girls came of age, or on three consecutive nights depending on the version of the story, and thus saved the young ladies from a life of poverty and prostitution.  You can guess the tradition of gift giving to children to which that story led....  More interestingly, it also led to St Nicholas often being depicted holding three round bags of gold, and in the way that these things often do, this depiction gradually morphed into St Nicholas holding three oranges, which is supposedly the origin of the tradition of orange giving in Christmas stockings (in the days before noisy flashing lumps of plastic tat became all powerful).

His most famous miracle is connected with his ordering sailors to unload some wheat from a ship docked at port.  The wheat was bound for the Byzantine Emperor, but St Nicholas, then Bishop of Myra, desperately wanted to feed his starving, famine-struck people.  He persuaded the reluctant sailors that no harm would come of their unloading some of their cargo : they relented, unloaded some wheat, and upon departure realised that they still had the same quantity of wheat aboard as before.

He is also said to calmed a storm during a sea voyage.

St Nicholas to this day maintains an association with the sea.  He is the Patron Saint of many places and of many professions and groups, but not only is he Patron Saint of Seafarers, his name is also associated with many port towns across Europe.  Here he is, depicted as he rescues sailors from a terrible, watery fate.

Of course, many know of his association with the city of Bari in southern Italy.  His remains were brought there from Smyrna during the eleventh century, in the midst of the struggles for posession of Asia Minor and the Holy Land.  Photography and scientific testing in the 1950s backed up the legend that his entire remains were buried Bari, with very little having been removed to supply relics around Christendom.

One place that does have a relic of St Nicholas is the French town of St Nicolas de Port.  Originally called simply Le Port, the town is situated on the Meurthe River, a tributary of the Rhine, not far from Nancy in the Lorraine.  St Nicholas is Patron Saint of the Lorraine, and in the eleventh century, a fingerbone from his right hand (hence the reliquary below showing his right hand giving a blessing) was brought to the town church from Bari. 


The first church dedicated to St Nicholas in the town of Le Port was built in the twelfth century, and now the town boasts its own Basilica, a flamboyant gothic creation of the 15th and 16th centuries, built by Rene II, Duke of Lorraine in thanksgiving for and in celebration of his victory at the Battle of Nancy over Charles the Bold.  It was raised to the status of Basilica by Pope Pius XII in 1950.  (It's been at least a week since Pius XII received a mention on this blog, so I'm pleased I found a way to do so.)

Finally, some music.  The choice is obvious, because the setting of the ordinary of the mass sung at my wedding in St Mary's Bourne St was the Missa Sancti Nicolai by Haydn.  That setting was a firm favourite at Bourne Street, making regular appearances over many Christmastides, just as it was a much overworked favourite - at any time of year - when I was in charge of choosing music lists at Pusey House. 

In this penitential season of Advent, even as we mark the feast of a great Saint, which better movement to pick than the Kyrie.  Even having heard this setting many times, I am still very keen on the beautiful simplicity of the circles of fifths in the Kyrie, and the descending sevenths of the alto part.  A classic piece of Haydn, painfully simple, yet utterly characteristic and extremely beautiful.

Deus, qui beatum Nicolaum Pontificem innumeris decorasti miraculis : tríbue, quaesumus ; ut eius meritis et precibus a gehennæ incendiis liberemur.

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