Is St. Nicholas a Real Saint?
Saint Nicholas and Canonization
Saint Nicholas was recognized as a saint long before the Roman Catholic Church began regularizing canonization procedures in the late 10th century (at that time local bishops canonized saints; in the late 1100s canonization in the Roman Catholic Church became the responsibility of the Pope) . In fact, Saint Nicholas’ sainthood pre-dates considerably the 1054 schism between the Eastern and Western churches. Though many people seem to think the Roman Catholic Church is definitive when it comes to determining saints’ status, Orthodox, Anglicans and others have their own standards for recognizing and commemorating saints.
Before formal canonization procedures, people venerated those who had been exemplars of the faith in their local areas. As a saint’s reputation grew beyond a local area, the saint received more widespread observance. Thus, popular acclamation, or people’s unanimous consent, moved the saint into the wider practice of the church, without a formal process. No biblical figures, including Jesus’ disciples, later apostles, nor the early saints of the church, were canonized through a formal process.
Sailors, who had a special relationship with Nicholas, carried his stories to ports, along coasts and up rivers, throughout the known world. So, many seaports and major river stops boast a church or chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas.
By 200 years after his death, Nicholas was already recognized and honored in very significant ways. As early as the 6th century, Justinian I built a church to honor St Nicholas in Constantinople. St. Nicholas’ name is included in the late 6th century liturgy ascribed to St. Chrysostom.
Nicholas was a Confessor—one who confessed Christ publicly in times of persecution, remaining faithful despite imprisonment, torture or exile. In the Middle Ages Saint Nicholas, along with Martin of Tours, was celebrated as a true people’s saint because of the way he lived. This was unusual as most early saints were martyrs who had died for their faith. Nicholas was surely an early example of a saint who was honored for the witness of his life. Nicholas was a saint whose life bore witness to God’s work through a life of social value, lived carrying out God’s will. Both Nicholas and Martin lived to an old age and died peacefully. This may be one reason they were so very popular: They were examples of how to live, rather than how to die in times of persecution.
Therefore Nicholas does not have a date for formal canonization. Rather, the record shows a gradual spread of reverence until a widespread level of recognition and practice established him as a saint everywhere. He was listed on diocesan saints’ calendars and eventually included in the normative calendars of the whole church, both east and west.
Saint Nicholas and the Roman Catholic Calendar Revision
Since the 1968 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar, some ask if Nicholas is still really regarded as a saint.
It is helpful to remember the Feast of Our Holy Father, Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the Wonder-worker, is highly ranked and unchanged in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches,. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is also listed in the Anglican Calendar of Saints and the Lutheran Festivals and Commemorations.
The 1969 Roman Catholic calendar revision did not remove Nicholas when forty saints were taken off. Commemoration of ninety other saints, including Nicholas, was made optional. This means celebration of their feast days is not required for faithful Roman Catholics. Nicholas, with all the saints in this group, is still recognized as a real saint in the Roman Catholic Church. It was even stressed that there is no doubt regarding Nicholas’ authenticity.
The calendar reform, with fewer universal feasts, allows more local customs, feasts, and saints to receive special attention, as it relieves the whole Roman-rite church of having to observe saints who do not have local, cultural, or ethnic connection. This calendar reform did not remove St. Nicholas from the roster of saints, only his feast from the universal Roman liturgical calendar. This makes the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 optional, not obligatory, under Roman Catholic law.
The Papal Court stated, “Saints who lost their places or whose feast days were demoted from universal to optional [e.g. Nicholas] in the new edition of the liturgical calendar are still to be venerated as they were before the calendar’s updating.”
So, not to worry. Good Saint Nicholas is properly called a saint and, for all Christians, it is right and good to celebrate his feast day.
E. Willis Jones, The Santa Claus Book, Walker Publishing Company, 1976, p. 123, which includes a letter from the director of the Office for Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Wire Services—United Press International
The Canonization of Saints Catholic Apologetics
The Commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion Lambeth Conference 1958
Canonization The Orthodox Church in America
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Beatification and Canonization Catholic Encyclopedia
Was St. Nicholas Real? Ask a Franciscan, St. Anthony Messenger Press