Take Care of the Flock or Saint Nicholas Will Knock You Silly
December 6th is the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. He is the bishop most people recognize as Santa Claus. In fact, there is a really neat program that EWTN runs each year showing how this legendary saint became the jolly old St. Nick in the red suit. Saint Nicholas is best known for the stories surrounding his work with the poor and children, even before he became Bishop of Myra in what is now called Turkey. One story that immediately comes to mind involves a poor man with three daughters who was in need of a dowry for each so that they could be married and not face a life of singleness (and likely prostitution). On three separate occasions, Nicholas found a way to deliver money in secret to the father, saving his daughters.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really love these stories because they reveal the most well known qualities of bishops, such as loving care of his flock, helping right injustices, and caring for those less fortunate. One story, however, stands out in my mind as probably one of the most important duties of a bishop, protecting the Church from heresy.
Students of Church History can tell you that for the first 400 years of Christianity, the primary discussion among bishops was “How can we best define WHO and WHAT Jesus is?” The bishops knew that Jesus Christ was the Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God, God Incarnate, the Word made flesh. They knew Jesus was divine, but what about his humanity? He was also born to a human mother. So how did the humanity and divinity work in the life of Jesus? The first several ecumenical councils dealt especially with the terms that would help teach future generations of Christians. One of these councils was the Council of Nicea in 325. It is said that Bishop Nicholas was there.
There was a bishop named Arius from Egypt, who was seeking to convince other bishops that Jesus was a created being and therefore not always God. As the story goes, Bishop Nicholas himself argued on the council floor with Bishop Arius. At the height of the argument, Bishop Nicholas had heard all he could stand and punched Bishop Arius right in the face! Here is my dramatization of that event.
Arius: My brother bishops, Jesus had a definitive point in time…
Nicholas: Stop. That’s not true.
Arius: …in which Jesus the Christ…
Nicholas: We’ve been over this, Bishop Arius. There is not a point in time in which Jesus was not God.
Arius: Ahem. As I was saying, there must have been a definitive point in time in which…
Nicholas: Don’t say it.
Nicholas: I’M WARNING YOU
Arius: …divinity. See it’s that… My dear Bishop Nicholas, what are you doing?
Nicholas’ Fist: WHAM!
So maybe it didn’t happen that way, but it does bring to mind something important (besides a holly jolly right hook). Doctrine matters. It matters what we believe, and it is the duty of our shepherds, the bishops of the Church, to defend the truth against the creeping heresies that constantly assail the minds of the faithful. In a world inundated by relativism and immorality, anyone standing up and saying there is an absolute truth and there is a right and wrong is in for a world of conflict. However, it must be done. Truth be told, it is the duty of each and every Christian to defend the Faith, but it is a primary duty of the Bishop to teach us, passing on (Latin: traditio) the truth.
For this reason, we should always pray for our bishops. They need our prayers and support because they are under loads of pressure. In each diocese, there are problems, and the buck stops with that man in the cathedral. He needs to know that you support his office and that you pray for him. If you think your bishop is less than perfect, then pray that much more for him. Pray that he will have the courage of St. Nicholas to stand up for injustice, to feed the poor, to look after children, and to defend the faith against heresy.
Here is a great prayer to St. Nicholas from Pope Gregory XVI:
Glorious Nicholas, my own protector! From that bright throne where thou dost enjoy the vision of thy God, in pity turn thine eyes upon me; ask for me from God those graces and helps most seasonable in my present necessities, whether spiritual or temporal, and especially the grace of . . . . . . if such be expedient for my eternal welfare.
Forget not, glorious and holy bishop, our Sovereign Pontiff, the holy Church, and this pious city.
Bring back to the right way of salvation those who live steeped in sin, or buried in the darkness of ignorance, error, and heresy.
Comfort the sorrowing, provide for the needy, strengthen the weak-hearted, defend the oppressed, help the sick; let all know the effects of thy powerful patronage with Him Who is the supreme giver of all good. Amen