Fictionalized Saints

Folklore is a type of fiction that imaginative people love to create. Much folklore has developed in a religious context. Even today, for example, writers like to spin out new Christmas legends about the Christ Child. We take these fables for what they are: not historical truth but charming flights of fancy.

But when stories of saints intended to be mythical are passed on to uncritical people, especially by word of mouth, they can come to be accepted as true history. Then there is danger that those who so accept them will fall into a superstitious kind of piety. That does no credit to the saints of God or to God’s Church.

Let me give you two illustrations - one of a “saint” who has never existed; the other of a real saint whose life story, as it has reached us, is utterly undependable.

The non-saint is variously called Wilgefortis, or Liberata, or (in English) Uncumber. According to the only “life sketch” we have of her, Wilgefortis was a septuplet (some versions say a nonetuplet – one of nine “twins”). Her parents were king and queen of Portugal, both of them stout pagans. But the seven/nine children became Christians; and one named Wilgefortis or Liberata took a vow of virginity. Subsequently, her father told her that he had made a marriage match between her and the king of Sicily. Poor Wilgefortis prayed to God to protect her from breaking her vow. He did, in a striking way. He gave her a full beard – surely a novel way to discourage a suitor. The virgin’s father was so furious that he condemned his daughter to death by crucifixion.

What can have suggested this wild invention? Some have thought it resulted from an attempt to explain a certain type of medieval crucifix that depicts Christ fully clothed in a long robe that might seem to be a woman’s dress. Nevertheless, devotion to the non-existing St. Liberata became quite widespread. In the 16th century, St. Thomas More ridiculed the unseemly devotion to St. Uncumber still current in England. Unfortunately, the sort of people who are taken in by such tales are not easy to unpersuade.

St. Christopher, on the other hand, was an historic person whose life story has been lost in a pile of fiction. His popular legend tells us that his name was originally Reprobus (= reprobate) and he was a giant 10 feet tall! He was also a pagan, a fiercely independent man who vowed that he would serve none but the mightiest king on earth. At one point he even considered the Devil to be the king he sought, for the earthly rulers he met were afraid of Satan. But he turned away from Satan when Satan admitted that he himself was afraid of Christ crucified. So the giant asked a holy hermit how he could find Jesus. The hermit advised him to settle down by a deep and dangerous river in order to carry fearful travelers across. Reprobus followed his counsel. One day a small child appeared and asked to be “ferried” to the other side. Reprobus set him on his shoulders; but as he made the crossing the youngster’s weight gradually became so heavy that the two barely made the other shore. When Reprobus asked about this phenomenon, the child replied, “You have not only borne all the world upon you, but Him who created the world.” He called Reprobus by a new name, Christopher (“Christ-bearer”). Then he disappeared. But Christopher knew now that he had found the greatest ruler of all. He spent the rest of his life in that King’s service, and won a martyr’s crown. This widespread - and quite charming - legend is absolutely untrustworthy from a historical point-of-view. All that we know about St. Christopher is that he existed and died for the faith perhaps in the middle of the third century. It is the legend, of course, that has made him a popular patron of travelers. But even if the good martyr would not recognize himself as pictured by his “biographers,” he has doubtless welcomed cheerfully the prayers of wayfarers and done his best to secure for them the protection of heaven.

-- Father Robert F. McNamara