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Who are the Fourteen Holy Helpers?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, October 2019 Categories: Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Church
The Holy Helpers became an established set during the Black Plague epidemic of Europe.

You see them in art, though you may not know their names. The Helpers were a collection of saints from antiquity popularly invoked in 14th century Germany. These individuals weren’t linked by history or geography; like, say, Saint Charles Lwanga and companions, martyred together in Uganda. The Holy Helpers became an established set during the Black Plague epidemic of Europe—since, presumably, the more intercessors you have against plague, the better.

Alphabetically, the Fourteen Holy Helpers are: Achatius, Barbara, Blaise, Catherine of Alexandria, Christopher, Cyriacus, Denis, Erasmus, Eustachius, George, Giles, Margaret of Antioch, Pantaleone, and Vitus. Only half the saints on this list are passably familiar today.

The symptoms of plague influenced the selections for this club. A plague victim could expect the following: blackened tongue, parched throat, violent headache, fever, and boils on the abdomen. Victims became delusional and died within hours. The furious onset of plague made it unlikely the afflicted would have final sacraments. Just another reason to have the Holy Helpers in your corner.

The chaos that plague evoked was comprehensive. Animals died, whole towns perished, the social order collapsed. So why not invoke Saint Blaise, still acclaimed for his work on ills of the throat; or Saints Achatius and Denis, both patrons of headache sufferers? Saint George protected domestic animals, and Saint Erasmus guarded abdominal health. Saint Eustachius was good for family trouble, and Saint Giles the go-to guy for plague and a good confession. Saints Barbara, Catherine, and Christopher were patrons in instances of sudden death. In addition Christopher, the traveler’s saint, also warded off plague. 

Just for good measure, Saint Pantaleone protected physicians, and Saint Margaret promised safe childbirth. Since Saint Vitus is the patron of epileptics, it appears plague victims’ eventual irrationality was lumped in with the symptoms of another disorder poorly understood. The most curious name on the Helpers list is Cyriacus, invoked against temptation. In times of epidemic, looting was rampant and desertion by family members common. One might well be tempted under such conditions.

While the Fourteen Holy Helpers still have a following in Europe, only one parish in the United States is named for their contribution today. We might wonder: if we were to choose a pack of saints as guardians for our times, who would those helpers be?

Scriptures: Psalm 27; Romans 8:18-27; Hebrews 5:7; 7:25; Ephesians 6:18; James 5:13-18

Books: The Fourteen Holy Helpers, by Bonaventure Hammer, OFM (TAN Books, 2009)

Fearless: Stories of the American Saints, by Paul Boudreau and Alice Camille (Franciscan Media, 2014)

Are parishes necessary?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, October 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
Church
While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.

Christianity existed well before the present parish system. Before there was a church building on the corner—with its Mass schedule, programs, pastor, and support staff—the followers of Jesus still managed to preach the gospel and share Eucharist. So technically, the answer is no: the parish structure as we know it is not essential. But if by parish you mean a defined and stable community that assembles for worship and embraces a certain responsibility for one another, the answer is yes: such a community is vital to the fabric of Christian life. 

It’s helpful to distinguish Christian faith from an individual spiritual practice. The goal of Christianity isn’t personal enlightenment, getting your act together, or building a satisfying moral ethos. From the beginning, Jesus chose to gather a community of disciples to live with him, share resources in common, and learn his teachings. There was never a time when Christian life was envisioned as a set of principles to live by that could be adopted and practiced on your own terms. From the first generation of the church, believers met in each other’s homes, prayed together, and shared what they had with those in need.

The gospel teaches how to live responsively with others. Loving our neighbors and enemies too, forgiving offenses, welcoming strangers, caring for the unfortunate—we engage these actions in service of others. Our faith is proven out by how we treat others. “Faith without works is dead,” says the Letter of James. Onlookers of the early community could rightfully say: “See how these Christians love one another.” No one was ever quoted as saying: “See how these Christians go to church.” While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.

The pre-parish house churches were more intimate, and perhaps more attractive, than today’s sprawling parishes which can feel alienating especially to newcomers. Meeting in homes was also necessary for a community that was vaguely suspect—and that dove into the catacombs when later judged to be outright criminal. Public worship, in buildings established for this purpose, was the gift (and in some ways the curse) of Christianity’s legality under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. As the nature of community in our media age is transformed, how we are church tomorrow will doubtless evolve too.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:18-22; 25:31-45; 26:26-28; Luke 24:13-35; John 15:11-17; 18:20-26; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13; Ephesians 3:14-22; 4:1-16; James 2:14-18; 1 Peter 2:4-5

Books: We Are All One: Unity, Community and Commitment to Each Other, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018)

A New Way to Be Church: Parish Renewal from the Outside In, by Jack Jezreel (Orbis Books, 2018)


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