The real Santa Claus was Catholic?

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By Monsignor Jorge de los Santos

Around this time of year, it’s common to see the Christmas celebration filled with marketing and consumerism, opening its doors to its employee of the month: “Santa Claus.” Christmas is the feast of the birth of the Son of God made man, but every year, Catholics face the challenge of trying to catch Jesus from the midst of so many parties, meals, presents, ornaments, responsibilities, etc.

Santa Claus is really St. Nicholas of Bari (or Myra), a fourth-century Catholic bishop in Turkey. (“Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, which means “St. Nicholas.”) Here are some aspects of the legend surrounding the saint that inspired the famous figure of Santa.

St. Nicholas of Bari was born in 310 A.D., in a time of persecution, in which the teachings of Christ were believed to oppose those of the Roman Empire. St. Nicholas’ parents were wealthy people and had instilled in their son a spirit of generosity, among other virtues. On one occasion, this would lead him to exchange his horse for a slave in an auction, so he could free him. He carried out all his works of charity in the name of Jesus, which led many to convert to Christianity with his example. After his parents died when he was still a young man, he began giving even more generously to those in need.

It’s said that on another occasion, he learned of three young women who wanted to marry, but whose father didn’t have the necessary means to marry them. When Nicholas found out, pretending to do a work of charity without being noticed, he dropped a few golden coins down the chimney, which coincidentally fell in the sewn cotton stockings the young ladies had left drying. This is the origin of the common practice of hanging stockings by the chimney and receiving gifts in them.

In St. Nicholas’ time, the emperor Diocletian ordered the eradication all Christians. It was around this time that St. Nicholas became bishop. In the midst of the persecution, he is said to never have lost his good sense of humor and joy, especially when talking with children about the birth of Jesus — thus Santa’s love for children and his “ho, ho, ho.”

In one of the persecutions, he was captured and imprisoned for almost 30 years. From his cell, he kept growing in holiness and prayed for the Church, even as the prison guards taunted him, telling him that the Christian faith was over.

When Constantine, the emperor of Rome, converted to Christianity, Bishop Nicholas was finally released. Now an old man with long hair and a white beard, he returned to his city to start the Church of Christ once again, convinced he was the only believer left.

His surprise was great when he arrived at the city and saw that the Cathedral had been rebuilt. He walked in to a singing choir — Christmas was being celebrated. Thus, his ties to Christmas.

To give a deeper meaning to this tradition, we must promote St. Nicholas’ example, who teaches us to be generous, to give to those in need and have a deep love for our neighbor. He teaches us to be attentive to the needs of others, to turn away from our selfishness, and to detach ourselves not only of material things, but also of our own selves and our time.

Nonetheless, with all of this in mind, the heart of Christmas is still the child Jesus, who is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem for the salvation of all peoples.

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.