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.
I thought I’d hit the hagiography lottery—a saint I could promote as the patron of pizza. Her name made her the obvious choice: St. Mary Mozzarella. Sad to say, my memory had a typo. Her name is Mazzarello.
I’ve been studying saints, and by extension patron saints, for almost fifty years. And I admit to a weakness for saints who are patrons of unexpected causes—the saint who nurses us through hangovers, the saint who keeps a protective eye on vampire hunters. Nonetheless, over time I have noticed that on the long list of patron saints, some types of people, phobias, and conditions of life are not represented.
For example, St. Anthony, St. Anne, St. Andrew, and St. Agnes will help a woman find a husband, but there is no saint to help her find a reliable auto mechanic. St. Erasmus shields us against attacks of appendicitis, but there is no saint to revv up our metabolism and make it easier to shed those excess pounds. With that in mind, I’d like to make a few recommendations.
Fussy Eaters. We’ve all known toddlers who would only eat carbs. No fruit. No vegetables. No protein outside of what he or she could get from a sippy cup full of milk. It is the kind of situation that can stress out even the most patient parents. A good patron for fussy eaters is St. Nicholas of Myra (died c.350). Legend says that on the traditional days of abstinence, Wednesdays and Fridays, baby Nicholas would not nurse. Some of St. Nicholas’ biographers took this as a sign of the baby’s precocious piety, but if it did happen, it must have driven Nicholas’ mother to distraction.
Rotten Students. Anyone who has spent time teaching remembers vividly the “best class” and the “worst class.” About the year 250 St. Cassian taught school in the Italian town of Imola. When a new persecution of Christians broke out, Cassian was arrested. The judge, a man with a dark sense of humor, collected the schoolboys who had given Cassian the most trouble and had them carry out the sentence. With their sharp, iron-tipped pens the little monsters stabbed and slashed their teacher to death.
Men with Hair-Loss Issues. Venerating the holy men and women of the Old Testament as saints is more common in the East than in the West, but it is perfectly acceptable for Latin Rite Catholics to pray to St. Elisha (9th century B.C.). He was a prophet in ancient Israel, the successor of the great prophet Elijah, and, as we learn in the Second Book of Kings, Elisha was bald. Hair loss is a sensitive issue for many men, and Elisha was no exception. The prophet was on his way to Bethel when a jeering crowd of boys followed him, calling him “Baldy.” Elisha cursed the little stinkers, and suddenly two female bears lumbered out of the woods and tore the boys apart. It’s a harsh ending to a Bible story, but bald men who have been on the receiving end of such wisecracks may find it comforting.
Fear of Spiders. Rational people have a hard time convincing their friends and neighbors that spiders, in spite of their creepy look and sticky webs, really are our friends. St. Felix of Nola (died c. 250), a deacon, was on the run. Having escaped a Roman prison, he had fled into the mountains, but Roman troops were in hot pursuit. Just as he heard the soldiers in the distance, he stumbled upon an abandoned building. Rubble blocked the door, but he managed to squeeze through a window. As he huddled in the ruin, he heard the soldiers getting closer. Then he noticed something else—a spider dangling by its thread near the window. As Felix watched, the spider spun a web that covered the opening. A few minutes later the soldiers discovered the ruin, but hurried on without searching it--after all, the door was blocked, and the only other entrance was covered by an unbroken spider web.
Insomnia. In old collections of saints’ lives you may run across the story of the Seven Holy Sleepers of Ephesus. According to the tale, they were young Christian men who, when Emperor Decius began persecuting the Church, fled into the mountains outside Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. There they fell asleep. When they awoke they were so hungry that one of the seven volunteered to risk slipping back into town to buy some bread. In Ephesus the young man was astonished to see churches and crosses and people on the street speaking openly of Christ. He and his friends had not slept for a single night, but for 100 years. This early Rip Van Winkle tale was a favorite during the Middle Ages, and the idea of 100 years of uninterrupted slumber is certain to appeal to anyone who just can’t get a decent night’s sleep.
The Perpetually Irascible. St. Jerome (c. 341-420) did not write the Bible, of course, but he gave us what is arguably the most authoritative edition of the Sacred Scriptures, the version known as the Vulgate. In Jerome’s day Bibles, especially copies of the New Testament, were often poorly translated affairs, the work of well-intentioned hacks. Pope St. Damasus commissioned Jerome to produce a reliable Latin text (at this time, Latin was the language spoken by everyone in the Roman Empire). For the rest of his life, that was Jerome’s main job.
He had access to biblical Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that have long since disappeared. He hired a rabbi to teach him Hebrew. And he asked his dearest friend and disciple, St. Paula, to help with the Greek texts, since she was much more fluent in that language than he was. St. Jerome the Tireless and Dedicated Biblical Scholar is a pretty attractive portrait. But there was also Jerome the Royal Pain in the Neck.
The man had a persecution complex, based in large part on his facility for offending just about everyone he met. After the death of his patron, Pope Damasus, leaders of the Church managed to drive Jerome out of Rome—a city he loved. He settled in Bethlehem—a place he did not like at all. There, when he was not working on his translation, he engaged in the great theological controversies of his day, wrote sometimes sarcastic assessments of famous men of his day, and fired off snide letters to people who annoyed him. On days when you fell like reading something snarky, the letters of St. Jerome would be a good choice.
When St. Augustine wrote to question Jerome’s interpretation of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Jerome replied, “Do not, because you are young, challenge a veteran in the field of Scripture.” In a follow-up letter, Jerome took a shot at Augustine’s congregation: “Refrain from stirring up against me the unlearned crowd who esteem you as their bishop.”
St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was renowned and revered throughout the Roman world. He had defied the Roman emperor to his face; he was a close friend of St. Monica; and it was Ambrose’s eloquence and erudition that finally converted St. Augustine. It seemed everybody admired him—except Jerome. In his book De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Jerome wrote of Ambrose, “I withhold judgment of him, because he is still alive, fearing either to praise or blame lest, in one event, I should be blamed for adulation, and, in the other, for speaking the truth.”
After Jerome and his friend Rufinus had a falling out over a theological point, Jerome gave him a mocking nickname, “the Grunting Pig.”
There is no evidence that anyone anywhere is asking any of these suggested patron saints to help with the situations mentioned here. But every patron saint had to start somewhere — and who knows, these candidates might catch on.