Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
Of Christ’s eleven surviving apostles and who-knows-how-many disciples and followers, only a tiny handful had the courage to stand at the foot of his cross. There was the Blessed Virgin Mary, of course, and St. John the Apostle and his mother St. Mary Salome, St. Mary Magdalen, and St. Mary Cleopas, the mother of the apostle St. James the Less. Not an especially strong turn-out. But there were a few other saints who witnessed Christ’s sacrifice, and on Good Friday of all days, they deserve our attention.
Perhaps the most beloved, certainly the most memorable scene in the Stations of the Cross depicts St. Veronica stepping out of the crowd of jeering spectators to wipe the blood, sweat, and spittle from the face of Jesus. As a reward for her compassion, Christ left on Veronica’s veil a perfect image of His face.
It is a wonderful story, yet none of the gospel accounts of Christ’s sad journey to Calvary mention Veronica or any woman wiping the face of the Lord. St. Veronica’s name does not appear in the ancient martyrologies, the early lists of martyrs and saints. Yet, as is the case with the best legends, St. Veronica’s popularity endures in spite of the lack of documentary evidence. More to the point, the story of St. Veronica sets us an example of showing mercy even in the worst circumstances.
As for the relic known as Veronica’s Veil, two churches claim it: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the Capuchin monastery of Monoppello in a remote location in Italy’s Apennine Mountains. In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI visited Monoppello, prayed before the Holy Veil, but made no comment regarding the authenticity of the relic.
By the way, the story of the miraculous image on the veil is the origin of St. Veronica being venerated as the patron of photographers.
The feast of St. Veronica is July 12.
All four gospels tell us that Christ was crucified between two thieves. In St. Luke’s gospel, we get a more complete story. As the three hung dying on their crosses “the Bad Thief” mocked Jesus saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” At which point “the Good Thief” spoke up. “Do you not fear God,” he asked his companion. “We are receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then addressing Christ he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power.” “Truly I say to you,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” In all four gospels, this is the only occasion when Jesus promised that the person to whom he spoke would join him Heaven.
St. Dismas’ last minute conversion is inspiring. Every day, all day long, God calls us, urging us to return to Him. And He gives us until our last breath, our last thought, to repent and beg for the great grace of eternal salvation. St. Luke’s account of St. Dismas assures us that God will not say, “No.”
By the year 400, Christians were venerating the man who repented at the last moment and received a place in Paradise as his reward. By the year 600, tradition had given both thieves a name: the Bad Thief was Gestas, the Good Thief was Dismas.
We can’t say exactly when St. Dismas became the patron of thieves specifically and of all criminals in general, but there is another story in which St. Dismas plays a significant part. In November 1950, during the Korean War, North Koreans captured 1200 American troops. Among the prisoners was a chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun from Pilsen, Kansas. In the POW camp the North Koreans kept their American prisoners on starvation rations, so Father Kapaun took to stealing food from the guards’ storeroom. Each night, before he crept out of the barracks on a pilfering expedition, Father Kapaun always invoked St. Dismas, the Good Thief.
The feast of St. Dismas is March 25.
St. John’s gospel tells us that when the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus found him hanging lifeless on the cross, one of them—just to be certain—“pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” Tradition calls this unnamed soldier Longinus, and also identifies him with the centurion mentioned in St. Matthew’s gospel who at Christ’s death declared, “Truly, this was the Son of the God.”
As was true of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Longinus’ conversion was sudden, dramatic, and unexpected, even unlikely. His story reminds us that there is no telling when God will touch the heart and the change the life of someone who had been an unbeliever.
Tradition goes on to say that St. Longinus was martyred by Pontius Pilate, and that a portion of his remains are enshrined on St. Peter’s Basilica, and another part in Rome’s Church of St. Augustine.
As for the Holy Spear, since 570—the earliest surviving reference to the relic—several churches have claimed to possess it, including the Treasury of Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia, the collection of the Habsburg Dynasty relics in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, and St. Peter’s in Rome. The Spear came to St. Peter’s in 1492 when the Muslim conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Bayazid, found it among the sacred treasures once in the possession of the Byzantine emperors, and sent it as a peace-offering to Pope Innocent VIII.
St. Longinus is one of the patron saints of soldiers. His feast day is March 15.
St. Joseph of Arimathea
As with the Good Thief, all four gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea as a wealthy man and a secret disciple of Our Lord. St. Mark’s gospel describes him as “a noble counselor,” one of the elders who exercised authority over Jewish religious life. As such, he may have been present at Christ’s hearing before the Sanhedrin.
On that dreadful Good Friday, when the apostles were scattered and in hiding, Joseph found the courage to go to Pontius Pilate and request the body of Jesus. He took Christ’s body from the cross, wrapped it in linen, and carried it nearby, to a cave tomb he had prepared for his own use. That act of kindness and of respect for the dead has made him remembered and honored throughout the Christian world, and it is the reason funeral directors regard St. Joseph of Arimathea as their patron saint.
The gospels tell us no more about Joseph, so the rest of his story is legend. In this legend Joseph was the uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a merchant whose business interests took him as far as the island of Britain. Once, according to the story, when Jesus was a boy, Joseph took him along on a voyage to England. The 18th-century English poet, William Blake, immortalized this tale is his poem “Jerusalem”:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk on England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
The legend goes on to say that at the foot of the cross, Joseph collected drops of Christ’s blood in the cup Jesus had used at the Last Supper. After the Resurrection, Joseph returned to England with the relic, and enshrined it in a small chapel he built at the future site of Glastonbury Abbey. The abbey and the spot where it was believed Joseph had built his chapel, were regarded as the holiest place in England. It remained so until 1539 when Henry VIII expelled the monks, looted the abbey, and had the 80-year-old abbot, Blessed Richard Whiting, hanged, drawn, and quartered on a hill overlooking the shrine.
It is easy to feel compassion for sick children or lonely elderly people. But St. Joseph of Arimathea followed a much tougher route—he showed compassion for someone virtually his entire community despised.
The feast of St. Joseph of Arimathea is March 17.
Nicodemus shares with St. Joseph of Arimathea the privilege of taking Christ’s body down from the cross, preparing it for burial, and laying it in the tomb.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin who recognized Jesus as a “teacher come from God,” but Nicodemus was afraid of what his colleagues would do to him if professed that he was one of Christ’s disciples. St. John’s gospel tells that out of this sense of caution, or maybe timidity is a better word, Nicodemus called on Jesus after dark and was converted—although he kept his conversion secret. To Nicodemus, Christ predicted his death on the cross, although in a way that Nicodemus probably did not grasp at the time: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Ancient tradition tells us that St. Nicodemus died a martyr, although the details of his death have not come to down us. In 415, when the tomb of St. Stephen was discovered, buried near him were St. Nicodemus and two other early Christian disciples, St. Gamaliel, a teacher of St. Paul, and Gamaliel’s son, St. Abibas.
The feast of St. Nicodemus is August 3.
This Good Friday, when you go forward to venerate the cross, remember that you are accompanied not only by your fellow parishioners, but also by a select company of saints.