I must take strong issue with Michael McMahon’s “The Communion of Saints” (Views, September), which cast aspersions on the biographies of Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Cecelia, and Saint Barbara. Such sentiments are best reserved to the Soviet-era Krokidil. Devotion to these saints has less to do with the unlikely nature of their biographies and more to do with their proved effectiveness. It is easier for the Masonic-oriented to rid the world of belief in God than of belief in the intercession of these saints whose effectiveness is legendary.
The Franj on crusade had years of hardship that led them to gravitate toward the saints they found most effective; Saint Barbara, Saint Margaret of Antioch, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria were constant favorites in the medieval version of the scientific method of trial and error. Whole regions devoted to the Fourteen Holy Helpers in German-speaking and Polish-speaking Central Europe were untouched by the Black Death of the 1370’s and1380’s.
May I suggest a litany to the Fourteen Holy Helpers after a Daily Rosary for 40 days before one determines which saints are “apocryphal”?
—Richard N. Nicoktti
Mr. McMahon Replies:
I find it difficult to engage with Mr. Nicoletti’s arguments because they do not appear to spring from a reasonable understanding of mine, and they are confusingly expressed. His accusation that I “cast aspersions on the biographies of Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Cecelia, and Saint Barbara” is so obviously wide of the mark that I am left wondering what he can mean, particularly as, two sentences later, he himself casts an aspersion on these very “biographies” that is absolute, dismissing them in passing as “unlikely.” My piece unambiguously celebrated not only the real lives of the saints but the poetic truths embodied in their legends-even those of the saints that we now know never existed.
Mr. Nicoletti’s assertion that a saint with a reputation for intercessory effectiveness cannot be apocryphal is easier to understand, but he does not advance it convincingly, and he does his case no service by using the word legendary in its informal sense. In hagiography, legendary does not mean “famously self-evident”; it means “pertaining to legend”—and legends are not necessarily historically true. The saints he lists were indeed favored by the crusaders- but the Crusades ended in disarray and failure. This is no more evidence that any of those saints were apocryphal than that they were real. Some areas with a devotion to the Fourteen Holy Helpers escaped the Plague. What of those areas or individuals with similar devotions that did not?