Friday, March 20, 2015

Saint of the Month: Saint Anastasius XVI!

St. Anastasius XVI

AKA: Anastasius of Jerusalem, Anastasius of Saint Sabas
Not to be confused with: See below.
Feast Day: March 20.

Really Existed? See below.
Timeframe: Eighth Century.
Place: Jerusalem.

Credentials: Recognized by tradition, probably.
Martyrdom: Killed by brigands.

Patron Saint of: No known tradition of patronage.
Symbolism: None.

When I'm picking out a Saint of the Month, I often choose from the online calendar at, which is produced or at least hosted by Star Quest Production Network (SPQN), an Atlanta-based Catholic media nonprofit. Like some many most virtually all websites offering up free information, shows obvious signs of taking shortcuts in the matter of content. Here, for instance, is the entirety of what SPQN has to say about Saint Anastasius XVI:
  • He's also known as Anastasius of Jerusalem and Anastasius of Saint Sabas
  • His Saint's Day is March 20.
  • He died in 797.
  • He had a traditional, "pre-congregation" canonization; which is to say he was accepted as a saint before the formal canonization process was instituted.

OK, fine. We proceed to Catholic Online, which during the time I've been studying monthly saints has descended deep into an appalling morass of targeted internet marketing, inflammatory faux-news sidebars, and pop-up ads telling you that all good Catholics must donate now. On their page for St. Anastasius XVI, we find two sentences of narrative:
Martyr and archimandrite, or superior, of St. Sabas in Jerusalem. The monks of St. Sabas were attacked by a band of brigands who slew Anastasius and his company.
And that is basically that for the internet. There are plenty of other Saints Anastasius, but as far as Saint Anastasius XVI, we have reached the end of the line. He is, oddly enough, not even listed in SPQN's own index:

The only other internet sites that mention Saint Anastasius XVI have unabashedly harvested their data, such as it is, from Catholic Online. Catholic Online, in turn, has done a little fishing of its own. Here's an entry from the 1998 book Our Sunday Visitor's Book of Saints.

That's our man, all right, but there's no "XVI" involved. (More concise printed saints guides, incidentally, confine themselves to Saint Anastasius of Persia.) So, who decided to number the Saint Anastasiuses? Is the numbering in any way legitimate or authoritative? Does the inclusion of Saint Anastasius XVI in the 2010 Saints for Dummies suggest that the Rev. John Trigilio and the Rev. Kenneth Brighenti ("Coauthors, Catholicism for Dummies") turned to Catholic Online for their saints calendar?  It certainly looks that way, but it's possible that Catholic Online, Our Sunday Visitor, and Trigilio & Brighenti are all drawing from a single authoritative source.  The waters around our Saint of the Month are becoming very murky indeed.

I have gone through all this to bring up something that I find very interesting and possibly quite important about saints, and yet now that I have come to the point I don't know if I will be able to articulate it. I will do my best.

First, there is clearly a wide grey area between those who are saints and those who are not saints. Several entities make claims to control the recognition of saints, and the Vatican, the most familiar to most North Americans, has an elaborate and professionalized apparatus for deciding specific claims to sainthood. Yet the Church(es) can not really control the "traditional" saints that predate their procedures. Attempts to clean up the historical record really do more to blur the saint/non-saint line than to clarify it, as witness this Wiki passage on our old friend Saint Valentine:
Because so little is known of him, in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church removed his name from the General Roman Calendar, leaving his liturgical celebration to local calendars. The Roman Catholic Church continues to recognize him as a saint, listing him as such in the February 14 entry in the Roman Martyrology, and authorizing liturgical veneration of him on February 14 in any place where that day is not devoted to some other obligatory celebration in accordance with the rule that on such a day the Mass may be that of any saint listed in the Martyrology for that day.

Indeed, even in the rare instances when Vatican authorities state without reservation that someone is NOT a saint, individual worshipers do not always get the memo; an interesting case is that of "the person commonly known as 'Saint Philomena.'" Another is the veneration, in rural Bolivia, of "Saint Ernesto 'Che' Guevara." Or take Guinefort, who was widely regarded as a saint for many centuries, despite the objections of the Church, and despite being a dog.

Second, it's not always clear that traditional saints have anything to do with reality. Even the most devout hagiographer will ponder the overlap of ecclesiastical history and folklore when confronted with, say, the saints who hung out with King Arthur and slew dragons. One wonders, too, at saints whose stories are so nebulous as to defy contradiction -- say, the trio of St. Archelaus, St. Cyril, and St. Photius, of whom the entirety of knowledge, according to Our Sunday Visitor (and I certainly haven't found anything that I could add), is
Martyrs, although no documentation of their sufferings is extant. Feast Day: March 4.
Some saints are probably made up more or less from whole cloth, and a vast number exist as it were independently of the historical record, so divorced from actual evidence as to make it irrelevant to ask whether they actually existed.

So, with so very, very many minor saints so tenuously connected to both sanctity and reality, the internet has a vast potential to create faux saints that would be for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from traditional saints. For instance, what if I were to create a website to the [randomly selected] Irish Saint Áed mac Bricc, but despite my devotion and sincerity I made a hash of it. Confused by the spelling, I called him St. Admabric, and accidentally wrote "Iceland" instead of "Ireland." Disturbed by the implications of his signature miracle -- more on this, perhaps, some November 10th -- I said only that he comforted a servant girl in her distress. Well, I would have produced a real mishmash, but it would be a sincere mishmash, wearing the trappings of factual authority, that was available for anyone to see.

Someone doing a Google search for the saints of Iceland, for instance, would almost certainly stumble upon St. Admabric. They might add him to their own website on the Saints of Iceland. As content-cloning spiders did their insipid work, the ridiculous legend of St. Admabric of Iceland would spread to other websites, and before long Catholic Online would be tripping over itself trying to sell you St. Admabric of Iceland medals. (If this seems far-fetched to you, you don't spend nearly as much time on the internet as I do.) Let us further say that a handful of people -- devout Icelandic-Americans interested in recovering their heritage, perhaps -- read about St. Admabric, and began saying prayers to St. Admabric, invoking St. Admabric's aid and succor on the hard roads of their lives. At that point, would St. Admabric be a "real" "saint"? The Catholic Church would obviously say no, clearly not. But outside of that jurisdiction, the point is perhaps a little less cut and dried.

Which brings us back to Saint Anastasius XVI. Perhaps there is an excellent reason, sanctioned by one or more church authorities, why this saint is the sixteenth of his name. But such an odd saint's name could also be the product of someone's private attempt to make sense of the various saints named Anastasius, accidentally captured and made real, or made confidently false, by the internal dynamics of the internet.  In our writing and reading of this post, we have together made St. Anastasius XVI just a little bit more real -- more "a thing," as we like to say. In this kind of ontological terrain, situated between firmly documented truth and easily verified falsity, we are I think poised for an inevitable proliferation of legends both strange and banal. Odd new saints with dubious credentials will come marching in. Indeed, they probably already are.

I wish you joy on this feast day of Saint Anastasius XVI.

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