St. Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in Asia Minor in the 3rd or 4th century. Both of his parents died during an epidemic when he was a young man, leaving him well off, but to be raised by his uncle – the Bishop of Patara. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He became the bishop of Myra in Turkey and many stories attest to his generosity to the poor and hungry, especially children.
After his death, the legend of his gift-giving grew. St. Nicholas was transformed by the Dutch into the legendary character called Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname Sinterklaas. When Dutch immigrants brought his gifting traditions to this country, he eventually evolved into Santa Claus and became a part of the Christmas tradition.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (“the talking eagle”) was a Native American convert born in what is now a part of Mexico City. In 1531, while on his way to daily mass, he saw a beautiful young woman dressed like an Aztec princess, who said she was the Virgin Mary and asked Juan to tell the bishop to build a church on that site. When the bishop pressed him for proof, Juan appealed to the woman who directed him to the top of a hill, where Juan found roses growing in the frozen December ground. He filled his tilma or cloak and took the flowers to the bishop. When he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the ground before the bishop, revealing an image of the lady imprinted on the tilma.
With the Bishop’s permission, Juan Diego lived the rest of his life as a hermit in a small hut near the chapel where the tilma was kept in a place of honor. There he cared for the church and the first pilgrims who came to pray. The same tilma is still displayed in a place of honor in the Basilica of Guadalupe. Despite all odds, the image of our lady is still fresh and vibrant, on a piece of rough peasant clothing which should have disintegrated hundreds of years ago.
St. Peter Canisius
Peter Canisius, was educated in Cologne, Germany, studying art, civil law, and theology. He joined the Jesuit order in 1543, and traveled and worked with his spiritual director, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. He began teaching theology and preaching in Germany in 1549, and, although he became rector of the university, he continued to work in hospitals and prisons. He led the Counter-Reformation in Germany and his work led to the return of Catholicism to Germany. He wrote a catechism in defense of the Catholic faith that went through 200 editions during his life and was translated into 12 languages.
Peter excelled as a preacher and often worked with children, teaching them and hearing their confessions. He traveled widely, but while in Switzerland, he received a message from the city’s patron, Saint Nicholas of Myra, that he should stop travelling, and he spent the rest of his life there, teaching, preaching, editing books and working to support the Catholic press. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
St. Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket was both an English military officer and a lawyer who was made the archdeacon of Canterbury in England in 1154. He was a close friend and advisor of King Henry II, spending much time with him and enjoying a lavish lifestyle. At the age of 36 Becket was appointed chancellor of England by the king. Eight years later, Henry supported Becket for the position of the archbishop, despite Becket’s remonstrating that he and the king would soon become enemies, due to Henry’s meddling in church affairs. On that day, Becket renounced his lavish lifestyle and resigned the chancellorship.
Henry began a campaign to diminish the power and independence of the Church in England and to personally persecute Becket, forcing him to flee to France for safety. One tactic of Henry’s was the appointment of bishops who supported his assault on the Church. Becket excommunicated those bishops. After several years, he returned to England, still unwilling to concede the point to the king by lifting those censures. At one point Henry famously cried out in a rage, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” Four knights, overhearing him, traveled to Canterbury and murdered Thomas before the altar in the Canterbury cathedral in 1170.