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steve tomkins
crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
Headline-grabbing saints
November 2003

St Walburga of Heidenheim has always been a colourful figure. The abbess of an 8th-century mixed-sex monastery in Germany, her remains have been hugely popular for over a millennium, since it was noticed that her breasts exude holy oil. She has made threatening apparitions to bishops and was long associated with witchcraft.

Another unusual chapter was added to her hagiography this year, when she received a letter threatening legal action and a 1,000 Euro fine for not paying her TV licence. The collection company GEZ had been sending reminders to "Frau Walburga, St" for months, which the church ignored until things started getting nasty. Eckhard Ohliger of GEZ describes the incident as "Quite embarrassing".

In this season of All Saints (the day rather than the erstwhile girl group), Walburga reminds us that sainthood is not just about people praying to you and forgetting your birthday. It is a challenging and varied career. So, what have the rest of them been up to this year?

David, the patron saint of Wales, a teetotaller with a mysterious predilection for leeks, suffered the indignity of his capital city getting the date of his holy day wrong. Cardiff council sends a calendar every year to all tenants, and this year's told them to get their leeks ready for 10th March instead of the 1st.

"It would be a shame," said a council spokesperson, "to focus upon this error and not upon the rest of this well produced publication". Everybody is entitled to their opinion.

Sweden's patron saint, Bridget, has also been in the news. Since the 17th century, a Swedish church and a Dutch convent have each claimed to have her head. Such duplication is thoroughly normal for saint's body parts, but this looks like being the first such dispute to be settled.

Uppsala laboratory have borrowed the Swedish skull, along with her sister's, to do DNA testing. It's nice to see such co-operation between science and religion, but I don't see why they didn't decide it by bringing the diseased and demon-possessed and seeing which skull does the business.

In June, Christians in Bibliclat in the Philippines celebrated their rather special ancient festival Taong Putik, a mud bath in honour of their patron, John the Baptist. Devotees come together at 3 o'clock in the morning to cover themselves in mud and banana leaves and walk around barefoot begging for three hours till Mass. The mud is said to represent baptism and banana leaves healing, though it's the first I've heard of it.

And before we leave patron saints, the mostly unpromising supplication of the year must have been that of Dionysios Arcigay, the Italian gay rights group who appealed to Pope John Paul II for a patron saint for homosexuals.

They suggested Alfredo Ormando, who has not been canonized and, considering he was a gay academic who burned himself to death in St Peter's Square in 1998, would not seem a prime candidate. Crow's Nest humbly suggests that Arcigay's next step be to enlist the help of St Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases.

In these post-Christian days, it's heartening to see classic saintly feats relived. Daniel Baraniuk, an unemployed 27-year-old from Gdansk, recently sat on a pole (in the sense of "column" rather "compatriot") for 196 days – a mild achievement compared to St Simeon's 36 years, but a good effort. While he was up there, Dane Banovic of Bosnia celebrated his 35th year in a cave, living on beans, potatoes and onions, and a bed of leaves.

Admittedly, neither seem to be too interested in enlightenment or the mortification of the flesh. Banovic lives in a cave because he burnt his house down when his wife cheated on him and is "disgusted with humanity". Baraniuk did it for 14,813 and the the World Pole-Sitting title.

Probably the most important job of saints these days is apparitions, and it has not been a bad year for them. There was the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a chemical deposit on a window of Milton hospital in Massachusetts. So many thousands flocked to see it that ambulances were having trouble getting in and out, so staff covered the window, except during visiting hours.

"Morally," said Lori Benedetto, a spokesperson for Mary watchers who kept camping regardless, "she of all people does not deserve to be covered up." One might have thought that, morally, the Virgin Mother might have found a spot for her show that didn't obstruct ambulances.

She clearly didn't see it like that, because fans' patience was rewarded when she then relocated to a chimney on the same hospital. However, as observers could not agree as to whether she was seated or standing, with or without child, or was in fact a cross or two, I think it's fair to say this was not a top-quality apparition.

The other memorable miracle of the year was the work of the brand-new saint, Padre Pio. Pio was an Italian friar with the gifts of levitation, mind-reading and being in two places at once, and the first priest ever to receive stigmata – and the Vatican bugged his confessional. He died in 1968 and was canonised in June.

On 5th March, a statue of Pio in Messina was seen to be weeping blood. While thousands gathered to see, the Bishop of Messina advised worshippers "not to make a big deal about it", and someone noticed that another nearby statue of Pio had developed a mysterious film over one eye.

Police took samples of both allegedly sacred substances for testing. The bishop's warning turned out to be justified. The white film was spider gunk (whatever the scientific term is). The red substance did indeed prove to be human blood, but a local boy had already admitted to squirting it from a syringe. Well, as the Church likes to say about such things, if it strengthens people's faith, that's what really matters.

Finally, to remind us that Christianity does not have a monopoly on such phenomena, the news site Ananova carried two stories this year of Islamic apparitions. Of course, because of Islamic law these have to be in words rather than pictures, but they are spectacular in their own way.

In March, a woman in Mendhasal in India sliced an aubergine and found the Urdu name of Allah written in seed form. It is now on display in the local mosque.

Rather more impressive than a single word, an Indian child named Muhammad Uleman was born in May with moles on his hand, which as the months passed have formed in Arabic the words "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet." Stylish.
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Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
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Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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