Biography by Fr. Alban Butler
The great veneration with which this saint has been honoured, both in the Greek and Latin churches for many ages, and the great number of altars and churches which have been everywhere erected in his memory, are proofs of his extraordinary sanctity, and of the glory which he enjoys with God. The Emperor Justinian built a church in his honour at Constantinople, in the quarter called Blaquernæ, about the year 430,1 and he was titular saint of four churches in Constantinople.2 All accounts agree that he was a native of Patara, in Lycia.
We are told that in his infancy he observed the fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays, refusing to suck the breasts on those days, which were consecrated to fasting by the law of the church, as St. Clement of Alexandria mentions,3 and as Bishop Potter proves, in his note upon that passage from the Apostolic Constitutions,4 and the canonical epistle of St. Peter, bishop of Alexandria, and martyr. Also St. Epiphanius5 and others testify the same. Happy are they who, from their infancy and innocent age, are inured to the exercises of devotion, penance, and perfect obedience.
St. Nicholas increased his fervour in these and all other virtues with his years, especially when he had devoted himself to a religious life in the monastery of holy Sion, near Myra, of which house he was made abbot, by the archbishop, its founder. Charity in comforting and relieving the distressed, seemed his characteristic virtue. Amongst many other instances, it is related, that when three young virgins were exposed through distress to the danger of falling into vicious courses, he, for three successive nights, conveyed to them through the window a competent sum of money for a fortune for one of them, so that they were all portioned, and afterwards happily married.
Lycia was a large ancient province of Asia, in which St. Paul had planted the faith. Myra, the capital, three miles from Patara, and from the sea, was an archiepiscopal see, founded by St. Nicander, of such great dignity, that, in later ages, thirty-six suffragan bishoprics were subject to it. This metropolitan church falling vacant, the holy abbot Nicholas was chosen archbishop, and in that exalted station became famous by his extraordinary piety and zeal, and an incredible number of stupendous miracles. The Greek histories of his life agree, that he suffered imprisonment for the faith, and made a glorious confession in the latter part of the persecution raised by Dioclesian: and that he was present at the great council of Nice, and there condemned Arianism. The silence of other authors make many justly suspect these circumstances.
The history of the translation of his relics place his death in 342. He died at Myra, and was buried in his own cathedral.6 Several churches were built in his honour, even in the West, long before the translation of his relics to Bari: and the manner in which Usuard mentions him in his Martyrology, almost three ages before, shows in what great veneration his name then was in the West. The history of the translation of his relics to Bari, assures us, that no saint was more universally honoured in all Christian nations than St. Nicholas. The Muscovites, who received their account of him from the Greeks, seem to pay a greater veneration to his memory than to that of any other saint who lived since the times of the apostles. The relics of St. Nicholas were kept with great honour at Myra till they were translated into Italy. Certain merchants of Bari, a sea-port in the kingdom of Naples, situate on the Adriatic Gulf, sailed in three ships to the coast of Lycia; and watching an opportunity when no Mahometans were near the place, went to the church in which the relics of St. Nicholas were kept, which stood in a desert place, three miles from the sea, and was guarded hy a small community of monks. They broke open the marble coffin, in which the sacred bones lay, and carried them off to their ships; the inhabitants, upon the alarm given, pursued them to the shore with horrible outcries, but the Europeans were got safe on board. They landed at Bari on the 9th of May, 1087, and the sacred treasure was deposited by the archbishop in the church of St. Stephen. On the first day, thirty persons were cured of various distempers, imploring the intercession of St. Nicholas, and from that time the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari has been famous for pilgrimages.
The authentic history of this translation, written by John, at that time archdeacon of Bari, by order of the archbishop, is extant in Surius. The same account is confirmed by another history of this translation, drawn up at the same time by Nicephorus of Bari, also an eye-witness, commissioned by the magistrates of the city, quoted in manuscript by Baronius, and published by Falconius.7 By this history of Nicephorus, it appears, that the Venetians having formed a design of carrying off the relics of St. Nicholas, certain merchants from Bari, who happened then to be at Antioch, prevented them.8 This enterprise could only be justified by the laws of a just war, joined with the apprehension of the sacrilegious impiety of the Mahometans. Mention is made in a novella of the Emperor Emmanuel, recorded by Balsamon, and all modern writers, of a fragrant unctuous matter which issues from the relics of St. Nicholas in his shrine at Bari, a large quantity of which was found in his sepulchre near Myra in Lycia, when his relics were brought thence.
St. Nicholas is esteemed a patron of children, because he was from his infancy a model of innocence and virtue, and to form that tender age to sincere piety was always his first care and delight.9 To impress on the minds of children perfect sentiments of devotion, religion, and all virtues, with an earnestness in all duties, is a task often as delicate as it is important. Instructions must be made sensible, and adapted by similes, parables, and examples, to the weakness of their capacities. Above all, they are to be enforced by the conduct of those with whom children converse. They learn their maxims, imbibe their spirit, and are moulded upon their example. A child which sees those who are about him love their own ease, and ever seek what best pleases their senses; still more if he observes them to be choleric, peevish, vain, slothful, or impatient, will naturally cherish these passions, and yield up the government of himself to them, instead of learning by tractableness, humility, meekness, and self-denial, to subdue and govern them. And so in all other points. Precepts and exhortations lose their force when contradicted by example: and whilst the infant sees every one study to please himself in every thing, in flat opposition to the rules of the gospel, which he hears preached from their mouths, he seems tacitly persuaded, that such a conduct is reconcilable with those very maxims which condemn it.