Who was the worst Catholic saint?
–Curious, via the Internet
This is a perennial topic of debate at my local saloon, right after “Who was the world’s greatest fighter?” (The other guys are evenly split between Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, but I’m holding out for Ingemar Johansson.) The discussion is complicated by the fact that little is known about many saints. We don’t even know how many there are–the Catholic Church keeps no official tally, although Butler’s Lives of the Saints has 2,565 entries. Then you’ve got the question of criteria. What do you have to do to qualify as “the worst”? Here are the possibilities, as I see them:
Then there’s Saint Ursula, said to have been martyred along with 11,000 virgin companions in 451 at Cologne. Although it’s possible some women were martyred in that city at some point, the notion of there ever having been 11,000 virgins in one place at one time ultimately proved too much for even true believers to swallow, and veneration of Ursula was suppressed.
When Pope Paul VI revised the canon of saints in 1969, some traditional saints were downgraded because of doubts about their stories, if not their existence. Saint Christopher, for example, is thought to have been martyred under the Roman emperor Decius in the third century, but nothing else is known about him. The well-known story about his having carried the Christ child across a river–the kid supposedly became staggeringly heavy because he bore the weight of the world–is now recognized as pious fiction.
Not all fabrications about saints can be attributed to medieval simpletons. Take the case of Saint Philomena. In 1802 the bones of a girl between 13 and 15 years old, plus a vial of what was believed to be dried blood, were found in a catacomb in Rome. An inscription reading “Peace be with thee, Philomena” was decorated with depictions of anchors, arrows, and a palm. Impressionable souls leaped to the conclusion that these were the tokens of a virgin martyr. A cult sprang up and hundreds of miracles were attributed to Philomena’s intercession. Other devout persons of the era, several of whom went on to become canonized themselves, implored Pope Gregory XVI to start the canonization process, and devotions to Philomena were authorized in 1837. Reason eventually reasserted itself, and Philomena was removed from the calendar of saints in 1961.