Dueling saints from the Second Vatican Council?

History will show St. John XXIII was a pastor with an "exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit," while St. John Paul II will be known "as the pope of the family." That was as close as Pope Francis came to providing the sound bite all the so-called Vatican experts were waiting to hear during the historic St. Peter's Square rites in which he -- with the retired Pope Benedict XVI looking on -- elevated to sainthood two popes who did so much to shape modern Catholicism.

The media mantra called the humble Pope John XXIII the patron saint of the left, while Pope John Paul II was the courageous general for the right. Clearly, Pope Francis' goal was to broker peace between these warring Catholic camps.

Francis stayed the course.

"St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were ... priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century," he said. "They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful -- faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history."

Francis then linked both saints to the Second Vatican Council, the seismic event that defined their era: "John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries."

So both popes sought renewal, but also to guard the faith's foundations. After all, in his October 11, 1962 address that opened the Council, Pope John XXIII declared: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this -- that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously."

The young Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Poland was an active participant at Vatican II. The future Pope John Paul II was known for his contribution to the epic constitution "The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes)," which he loved to quote, along with various other Vatican II texts.

In fact, during his "heroically long pontificate" -- almost 27 years -- John Paul offered detailed written and verbal commentary on "virtually every controversial or disputed point in the Council documents and on the event of the Council itself," noted Father John Zuhlsdorf, at his popular "What does the Prayer Really Say?" weblog.

The future St. John Paul the Great, as many are already calling him, "may not have solved, settled, definitively pronounced, on every controversial issue, but he offers commentary and insight on them. ... I think Francis was steering us to John Paul II as an additional interpretive lens, for a proper hermeneutic of reform."

Meanwhile, it's also important to remember that "conventional political labels" like "liberal" and "conservative" are simply inadequate when discussing the work of saints, said Father James Martin, a Jesuit best known as The Colbert Report chaplain and through books such as "My Life with the Saints" and "Jesus: A Pilgrimage."

In terms of the substance of his life and work, both liturgical and doctrinal, Pope John XXIII is "probably best thought of as a 'conservative.' I think that on moral and sexual issues ... he probably would have implemented the Council's work in the same way as John Paul."

Meanwhile, John Paul II did so much to push forward on issues such as economic justice, world peace, ecumenism, mass communications and a host of other subjects. It's impossible to look at the sweep of his remarkable life and conclude, as some critics have, that his pontificate was dedicated to "trying to slam the lid back on" after the Second Vatican Council. "That's just too simplistic to argue that," he said.

The larger truth is that both of these popes, now hailed as saints, embodied the work of the Second Vatican Council, each in their own way, in their own time.

"It's true that there were clusters of issues that led Catholics in different camps to adopt one or the other as their hero," said Martin. "But those labels are so limiting, while the lives of these two men were not. ... People that insist on using political labels keep trying to turn everything into a contest about who wins and who loses. That's not the way to talk about the lives of the saints."

John Paul II and the death of 'Christian' America

It was just another day, another Washington, D.C., press conference and yet another appeal for the U.S. government to allow believers to follow the doctrines of their faith, as opposed to a Health and Human Services mandate. "The United States, at its best, is unique among the nations of the world when it defends the self-evident freedom of all people to exercise their faith according to the dictates of their consciences," said the "Standing Together for Religious Freedom" text. It was signed by 58 faith leaders, mostly from conservative bodies such as the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Many of the signatories on this letter do not hold doctrinal objections to the use of contraception. Yet we stand united in protest to this mandate, recognizing the encroachment on the conscience of our fellow citizens. ... HHS continues to deny many Americans the freedom to manifest their beliefs through practice and observance in their daily lives."

This was just another sign of the times, along with a Texas filibuster opposing a late-term abortion ban and the U.S. Supreme Court's approval for a state-by-state legal approach to same-sex marriage.

None of this would have surprised the Blessed Pope John Paul II, according to one of America's most controversial Catholic priests. In one of his most sweeping encyclicals, John Paul foresaw a "conspiracy against life" that would threaten the suffering, the elderly and children, born and unborn.

That 1995 document was called "Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)," and the Rev. C.J. McCloskey of the Faith and Reason Institute was recently asked to write a meditation on it during a Vatican celebration of its lasting influence.

"I was asked to write an article that would help cheer people up. Sorry, but I just couldn't do that right now," said McCloskey, in a telephone interview from Chicago.

In particular, the Opus Dei priest was struck by this sobering John Paul declaration: "The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism. ... The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one's own material well-being. The so-called 'quality of life' is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions -- interpersonal, spiritual and religious -- of existence." The human body, thus, is "simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency."

While this judgment will offend most liberals and some political conservatives, those words led McCloskey to write this blunt verdict: "Face it folks, the United States is no longer a Christian country.

"We already have the most liberal abortion laws in the world, responsible (at a minimum) for tens of millions of deaths, with the morning-after pill now available at your local pharmacy for teen-age girls. ... Pornography is the most profitable and watched form of 'entertainment.' Marriage is being redefined not as a covenant between man and wife, with one of its purposes being the procreation of children, but as more or less whatever one wants it to be. ... And who can disingenuously doubt that universal euthanasia for the incurable will become common with the help of our new 'health' plan?"

McCloskey knows these harsh judgments anger elites in places like Wall Street and inside the D.C. Beltway, since he worked at Citibank and Merrill Lynch after graduating from Columbia University and later led the Catholic Information Center on K. Street, near the White House. Yet over the years he has led many prominent Americans into Catholicism including columnist Robert Novak, abortion-rights pioneer Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Judge Robert Bork, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and economist Lawrence Kudlow.

Truth is, he noted, parts of America are more open to some forms of faith than others. Thus, McCloskey is convinced traditionalists will eventually need to cluster in states that are more faith-friendly on abortion, marriage, parental rights, home schooling and other hot-button cultural issues.

"No one in this country has ever really suffered for their faith in any meaningful way," he said. "Those days are ending, especially in certain states. ... Among Catholics, we may soon find that many are Americans more than they are Catholics."

From Texas Baptist to Orthodox saint?

Wherever bishops travel, churches plan lavish banquets and other solemn tributes to honor their hierarchs.

Visitations by Archbishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America were different, since the faithful in the 14-state Diocese of the South knew that one memorable event would take care of itself. All they had to do was take their leader to a children's Sunday school class and let him answer questions.

During a 1999 visit to Knoxville, Tenn., the lanky Texan folded down onto a kid-sized chair and faced a circle of pre-school and elementary children. With his long white hair and flowing white beard, he resembled an icon of St. Nicholas -- as in St. Nicholas, the monk and 4th century bishop of Myra.

As snacks were served, a child asked if Dmitri liked his donuts plain or with sprinkles. With a straight face, the scholarly archbishop explained that he had theological reasons -- based on centuries of church tradition -- for preferring donuts with icing and sprinkles.

A parent in the back of the room whispered: "Here we go." Some of the children giggled, amused at the sight of the bemused bishop holding up a colorful pastry as if he was performing a ritual.

"In Orthodoxy, there are seasons in which we fast from many of the foods we love," he said. "When we fast, we should fast. But when we feast, we should truly feast and be thankful." Thus, he reasoned, with a smile, that donuts with sprinkles and icing were "more Orthodox" than plain donuts.

Archbishop Dmitri made that Knoxville trip to ordain yet another priest in his diocese, which grew from a dozen parishes to 70 during his three decades. The 87-year-old missionary died last Sunday (Aug. 28) in his simple bungalow -- complete with leaky kitchen roof -- next to Saint Seraphim Cathedral, the parish he founded in 1954. Parishioners were worried the upstairs floor might buckle under the weight of those praying around his deathbed.

The future archbishop was raised Southern Baptist in the town of Teague, Texas, before moving to Dallas. As teens, Royster and his sister became intrigued with the history of the major Christian holidays and began visiting a variety of churches, including an Orthodox parish. The services were completely in Greek, but they joined anyway -- decades before evangelical-to-Orthodox conversions became common.

During World War II the young Texan learned Japanese in order to interrogate prisoners of war, while serving on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff. A gifted linguist, he later taught Greek and Spanish classes on the campus of Southern Methodist University. While training to serve in the OCA, which has Russian roots, he learned Old Russian and some modern Russian.

Early in his priesthood, the Dallas parish was so small that Dmitri helped his sister operate a restaurant to support the ministry, thus becoming a skilled chef who was famous for his hospitality and love of cooking for his flocks. During his years as a missionary bishop, driving back and forth from Dallas to Miami, monks in New Orleans saved him packages of his favorite chicory coffee and Hispanic parishioners offered bottles of homemade hot sauce, which he stashed in special slots in his Byzantine mitre's traveling case.

A pivotal moment in his career came just before the creation of the Diocese of the South. In 1977, then Bishop Dmitri was elected -- in a landslide -- as the OCA metropolitan, to lead the national hierarchy in Syosset, New York. But the ethnic Slavic core in the synod of bishops ignored the clergy vote and appointed one of its own.

Decades later, the Orthodox theologian Father Thomas Hopko described the impact of that election this way: "One could have gone to Syosset and become a metropolitan, or go to Dallas and become a saint."

The priest ordained in Tennessee on that Sunday back in 1999 shared this judgment, when reacting to the death of "Vladika" (in English, "master") Dmitri.

"There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title, 'Equal to the Apostles,' " noted Father J. Stephen Freeman of Oak Ridge. "I cannot rush beyond the church and declare a saint where the church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than 'Equal to the Apostles.' "

Polish visions behind Vatican rites

To grasp the full symbolism of the Vatican rites in which a million or more Catholics celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II, it helps to understand the visions recorded decades earlier in the diary of Sister Mary Faustina Kowalksa. Popes come and popes go. But the lives of this Polish nun and this Polish pope may be helping to reshape a crucial piece of the Catholic year -- the celebrations that follow Easter, the high point of the Christian year.

It was in 1937 that Sister Faustina wrote: "As I was praying for Poland I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming."

After her earlier visions, which church leaders initially discounted, the young nun had written down a cycle of prayers appealing for God's forgiveness and mercy, a set of devotions that became known as the "Divine Mercy Chaplet." In the years after her death in 1938, a seminarian in nearby Krakow named Karol Wojtyla became devoted to these prayers and to the legacy of Sister Faustina.

Wojtyla, of course, soon became a priest and a popular professor, before beginning his ascent as a bishop, archbishop and cardinal. Then, in 1978, he became Pope John Paul II.

No one was surprised when this loyal son of Poland beatified Sister Faustina on April 18, 1993, and canonized her on April 30, 2000. "The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me," noted John Paul II, during a 1997 pilgrimage to the nun's tomb. It could be said, he added, that her message "forms the image of this pontificate."

The next crucial date in this time line came shortly after Sister Faustina became St. Faustina, when Pope John Paul II established that the first Sunday after Easter would also be celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.

The elevation of this humble "daughter of my land, is not only a gift for Poland but for all humanity," declared John Paul II, in his 2001 sermon on the first Divine Mercy Sunday. "Indeed the message she brought is the appropriate and incisive answer that God wanted to offer to the questions and expectations of human beings in our time, marked by terrible tragedies. Jesus said to Sr. Faustina one day: 'Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy.' Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity."

Only four years later, the timing of the pope's death added another connection between Easter and Divine Mercy Sunday, as well as between his life and that of St. Faustina. John Paul died after sundown on the Saturday after Easter, literally at the end of a Divine Mercy vigil and Mass that was celebrated at his bedside.

As this rite ended, witnesses said the pope managed one last benediction before he died -- a simple "amen."

Thus, the beatification rites for John Paul II were held on the anniversary of his death, as it would fall on the liturgical calendar -- Divine Mercy Sunday.

If he is later canonized as a saint -- crowds have been chanting the title "John Paul the Great" since the day of his death -- it is logical to ask how this could impact the liturgical calendar for the 1.1 billion Catholics living and worshiping around the world.

The week begins with Easter, the highest moment of celebration in the Christian year. Then comes the "octave" of days dedicated to the Divine Mercy prayers, a period in which priests can offer special confession opportunities for those seeking to return to the sacramental life of the church.

At the end of the week there is Divine Mercy Sunday, which the Catholic Church now teaches is the day when, according to the vision of St. Faustina, forgiveness is uniquely available for all who repent and turn to God. The gates of heaven are wide open.

Could celebrations of the life of St. John Paul the Great -- the charismatic pope whose words will live on in every conceivable form of mass media -- somehow become linked to this great week of celebration?

Follow the time line. Do the math.

Praying with (or to?) John Paul II

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was a soft-spoken nurse in the south of France when her life was changed by what the Vatican has decided was an answered prayer.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001 and, with other nuns in France and Africa, immediately began prayed for healing. However, her symptoms worsened after the death of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. That was when Simon-Pierre and her supporters began seeking the help of the pope, who suffered from the same disease in his final years.

Simon-Pierre awoke on the morning of June 3, 2005, with her hands steady and no other signs of the incurable neurological disease.

"It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II," she told reporters in 2007. "I came across a sister who had helped me tremendously and I told her, ... 'look, my hand is no longer trembling.' John Paul II cured me."

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree confirming that this "scientifically inexplicable" change in her health can be attributed to the intercessions of John Paul II, meaning that his predecessor can be called "blessed" and, thus, has moved closer to recognition as a saint.

While scientists debate what did or did not happen, journalists have struggled to clearly describe an event that is rooted in an ancient and modern mystery. Simply stated, what does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis?

Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.

In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.

"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said.

"You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not."

When describing this process to non-Catholics, especially to Protestants who are critical of the church, the priest offers a metaphor from -- believe it or not -- local government.

There is this citizen, he explained, who has a problem. His sidewalk is so messed up that it has become dangerous. This citizen can, of course, call city hall and seek help. It would also be appropriate to directly call the mayor. However, this particular citizen also has a good friend, or perhaps it is even a loved one, who works in the mayor's office. Why not ask for this close friend to intercede, as well?

"That is what intercessory prayer is about," said Panula.

The problem is that some people, Catholics included, tend to omit a key element when describing this mysterious process. They spend so much time talking about the intercessory role of the saints that they forget to mention the reality that unites Catholics and other believers -- their belief that it is God who, in the end, hears prayers and performs miracles.

The key is the word "intercessor," which is often used, but rarely explained, in reports about John Paul II, Mother Teresa and others who are being considered as possible saints. An "intercessor" is a mediator who works with others, helping them find favor with a higher authority who has the power. The bottom line is that it isn't the intercessor who acts on their behalf.

Leaving God out of this picture, said Panula, "has become part of our culture, today. It's one thing for journalists, to describe the process that leads to the beatification of John Paul II. They may not mind that. But it's something else to write that there is a God who loves us, who is concerned about our welfare and who hears our prayers and those of his saints."

Walking in St. Tikhon's footsteps

It didn't take long for controversy to spread about the photograph taken after the consecration rites in 1900 for a new bishop in Wisconsin. Low-church Episcopalians called it the "Fond du Lac Circus" because of all the ornate vestments. Not only was Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, who presided, wearing a cope and mitre, but so were the other bishops. Then there were was the exotic visitor on the edge of the photograph -- Bishop Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Imagine the outrage if Tikhon had, as discussed beforehand, decided to take part in the laying on of hands at the moment of consecration. After years of service in America, the missionary later hailed as St. Tikhon of Moscow returned home and became patriarch, dying in 1925 after years of tensions with the new Communist regime.

St. Tikhon had "a vision, a vision of unity," said Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, during recent events marking the birth of an alternative, conservative Anglican province in America. Early in the 20th century, some Orthodox leaders were willing to accept the "validity of Anglican orders," meaning they believed that Anglican clergy were truly priests and bishops in the ancient, traditional meanings of those words.

"It fell apart. It fell apart on the Anglican side, with the affirmation more of a Protestant identity than a Catholic identity," said Jonah, at the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, held in Bedford, Texas.

"We need to pick up where they left off. The question has been: Does that Anglican church, which came so close to being declared by the other Orthodox churches a fellow Orthodox church, does that still exist?"

A voice in the crowd shouted, "It does!"

"Here, it does," agreed Metropolitan Jonah, stressing the word "here."

Thus, the Orthodox leader announced that he is willing to walk in St. Tikhon's footsteps by opening an ecumenical dialogue with this new body of conservative Anglicans, years after similar talks collapsed after the decision by Episcopalians to ordain women as priests and then as bishops.

The Orthodox and modern Episcopalians disagree on many other issues, from the authority of scripture to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as priests and bishops. These are the same issues that caused the creation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized by many Anglican traditionalists in the Third World, but not by the hierarchy of the Church of England.

However, Jonah also focused attention on doctrinal issues that continue to cause tensions among the very conservatives he faced in Texas.

"I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody," said the former Episcopalian, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic parish before converting to Orthodoxy.

For example, "Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, and there are "other heresies that came in through the Reformation which have to be rejected" -- words that strike at the heart of the vital, growing Protestant wing of global Anglicanism. Jonah also stressed that, "For a full restoration and intercommunion of the Anglican Church with the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women has to be resolved." The Anglican Church in North America has agreed to allow its dioceses to reach their own conclusions on this issue.

The tension in the room was real, but so was the appreciation for this gesture by the man who, literally, is the successor of St. Tikhon, said the Rev. George Conger, a Calvinist Anglican and correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper.

"What made much of what Metropolitan Jonah said palatable to the ACNA convocation was his transparent good will, and wry sense of humor," said Conger. "The phrase 'hard words said in love' is often trite, but Jonah's remarks ... were given and heard in this vein."

One the other side of this dialogue, Orthodox leaders are more than aware of the obstacles created by decades of tumultuous change in the Anglican Communion, said Father Alexander Golubov, academic dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa.

"Metropolitan Jonah will be trying to walk a thin line, but it is the same line that St. Tikhon tried to walk long ago," said Golubov. "Some of the issues he will face are the same. But there are issues he will face today that I do not believe anyone could have ever anticipated. We live in strange times."

Voice for Orthodox unity -- from Brooklyn

The rites were quiet, yet elaborate, and drew small clusters of dedicated worshippers out of their homes on a Saturday morning and into Byzantine sanctuaries across the nation.

Somewhere in each church stood an icon of a dignified Arab wearing the rich liturgical vestments of an Eastern Orthodox bishop. The worshippers took turns kissing the icon and chanters gave thanks to God for the work of the new saint whose name still causes smiles -- St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

"It isn't every day that you hear the word 'Brooklyn' used in a Divine Liturgy," said Father Gregory Mathewes-Green, the priest in my own parish near Baltimore. "St. Raphael is important not only because he lived a remarkable life, but because of where he came from and who he was. He is a wonderful symbol for Orthodox unity in America. ...

"Our church was unified in his day and we pray it can be unified again."

Father Raphael Hawaweeny came to the United States in 1895 and became the first Eastern Orthodox bishop consecrated in this land. He was known as the "Good Shepherd of the Lost Sheep in America."

St. Raphael was canonized in 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which has Russian roots, in cooperation with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with its ancient ties to the Middle East. The OCA celebrates St. Raphael's feast day on Feb. 27, the date of his death.

This monk, priest, diplomat, scholar, missionary and bishop traveled a risky and complicated road on the way to Brooklyn, a fact noted by chanters during the rites last weekend. One of the prayers said: "Arab by birth, Greek by education, American by residence, Russian at heart and Slav in soul, thou didst minister to all, teaching the Orthodox in the New World to proclaim with one voice: Alleluia."

In other words, each Orthodox flock can lay some claim to this particular saint. There are about 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States and 250 million worldwide. While the church has grown in America, primarily through converts from evangelical and mainline Protestant pews, the Orthodox map here remains a crazy quilt of overlapping ethnic jurisdictions.

But there are signs of unity in combined programs for foreign missions, relief efforts and education. And last month, Father Thomas Hopko, one of America's most respected Orthodox scholars, dared to produce a rough-draft of a plan for unity. While Hopko is an OCA priest, his essay was published by the Antiochian archdiocese.

Both of these churches now worship in English and include large numbers of converts at their altars and in their sanctuaries. Their most vital parishes are becoming more and more alike, he noted.

"The seven Antiochian bishops include three born in America, one of whom is a convert to Orthodoxy," wrote Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. The OCA offers "nine bishops born in the USA, one born in Canada, one in Mexico, one in Bulgaria and one in Romania. Eight of the 13 OCA bishops are converts to Orthodoxy. ...

"What an impressive synod these bishops could form to govern a unified Orthodox Church in North America!"

Any attempt to accomplish this would lead to an outbreak of Byzantine politics, especially in Greece, Turkey and Syria. Hopko admitted that it would take years to handle issues of assets, property, diocesan borders and lines of authority.

What would the Greeks do? Who would make the first move? How would a united synod select a patriarch? On this question, Hopko suggested that each church select one candidate and the primate would be "chosen by lot," with a senior priest picking "his name from a chalice after an All-night Vigil, Divine Liturgy and Service of Prayer."

The key is to regain the vision briefly seen in the work of the first Orthodox missionaries to North America -- like St. Raphael.

"All Orthodox churches in the United States, Canada and Mexico would be invited to join in the common work of the new church," wrote Hopko. "No Orthodox would be excluded. All Orthodox would be welcome.

This could take place by 2008, according to Hopko.

It would take sacrifice and cooperation and a shepherd who can command the trust of the Arabs, Greeks, Russians, Slavs and the Americans.

Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas?

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays.

A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus.

The church hierarchy sprang into action.

"There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand," Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child's question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

As a public service to cautious clergy, it might help to review the few options available to those considering discussing the spiritual and commercial versions of Christmas with children. Santa is hard to avoid.

Nevertheless, remaining silent is the first option. Many clergy and parents do not choose silence because it affirms the schizophrenic, secular-sacred Christmas split.

The second option is to nix Santa, right up front. columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has offered blunt reasons for why Christian parents should -- gently -- reject the Santa Claus scenario.

"First, it's a big fat lie," she said. "What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt?"

Wait, she's just getting started: "The Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude. ... They learn that goodies magically appear and don't cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy. It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas."

There is a third option for tradition-loving clergy and parents and, truth be told, I have never read a headline about a pastor being nailed for using it.

Call it the St. Nicholas option. It is especially easy for believers in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican churches that emphasize the lives of the saints. The goal is to teach children about the 4th century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, while noting that elements of his story later helped inspire the secular story of Santa Claus.

According to church tradition, he was born into wealth and gave his inheritance to the poor. The most famous story about the bishop is captured in the Charity of St. Nicholas icon. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from ruin by dropping gold coins through a window.

These gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry. The rest, as they say, is history.

The feast of St. Nicholas falls on Dec. 6 and, in parts of the world, remains a day for gift giving and alms for the poor. It is also a good time to discuss the pre-Christmas season of Advent or, in Eastern tradition, Nativity Lent.

The message to children is simple. Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. But he is not what Christmas is all about.

Playing the St. Nicholas card is the best option, but it is not without its risks, said Father Nicholas Bargoot, an Eastern Orthodox priest here in South Florida.

"With all the commercialism that surrounds us, we still have to be careful when we make that link that we do not to tarnish the reality of St. Nicholas and who he is," he said. "It is still easy for young children to be confused. I mean, what is St. Nicholas doing at the mall?"

A Baptist take on St. Nicholas

The bureaucrats charged with turning Russia into a godless utopia had a December dilemma and a big part of their problem was St. Nicholas.

The early Communists needed to purge Christmas of its Savior, sacraments and beloved symbols, including this patron saint of widows and children. What they needed was a faith-free icon for a safe, secular New Year's season. Digging into pre-Christian Slavic legends they found their superman -- Father Frost.

"It's so ironic," said the Rev. James Parker III of Louisville, Ky. In order to wrest control of Christmas, "one of the things the Communists had to do was to get people to forget the real St. Nicholas. ... Here in America we've forgotten all about the real St. Nicholas because he has turned into this Santa Claus guy. It's like we're taking a different route to the same place."

It would not be unusual to hear Eastern Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican clergy voice these sentiments in the days leading to Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the 4th Century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Parker, however, is associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Still, he is convinced it's time for more churches -- even Southern Baptist churches -- to embrace the real St. Nicholas.

"I have often wondered how a Martian reporter would do a story on Christmas," he wrote, in a Baptist Press commentary. "If one only had the dominant cultural icons of TV, movies, news media and retail stores, my guess is that the Martian viewing audience wouldn't have a clue as to what Christmas was about.

"They might think it had something to do with snowmen or reindeer or retail store sales. And if any particular person rose to the top in the public's conscious awareness, it would be a jolly secular guy at risk for stroke or cardiac arrest who liked to dress in red and let his beard grow."

Rather than whine about what has happened to St. Nicholas, more churches need to "remythologize" this hero of the faith, said Parker.

Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas except that he was born into a wealthy family and, after the early death of his pious parents, he entered a monastery and became a bishop. Some early writers claim he participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate failed, that he punched a heretic who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.

"The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius ... has to fundamentally change the way one would ever see Santa Claus again," said Parker. "While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy."

Nicholas was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian, tortured and then hailed as a "confessor" because he refused to renounce his faith. He was released under Constantine and died around 350 A.D.

Another detail in accounts of his life is that Nicholas gave away his inheritance helping the poor. One famous icon shows him taking small bags of gold to parents who could not provide dowries for their daughters, which meant they could not marry. Thus, the bishop would rescue the girls from lives as slaves or prostitutes by dropping gold coins through their windows during the night. These gifts often fell into their stockings, which were hung up to dry.

This unforgettable image of was especially popular with children. Through the centuries, this story blended with other legends in other lands. The result was Father Christmas, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to New York City.

Now Santa is everywhere, the smiling face on one of American culture's most popular exports -- the holiday season formerly known as Christmas.

"In the circles that I run in, people can get pretty worked up about things like this," said Parker. "These are they people who keep saying that they want to put Christ back into Christmas. So while they're doing that, why not put the real St. Nicholas back into the picture as well. He was a bishop. He cared for the poor. He was a great Christian leader who defended the faith.

"That's all good, isn't it? Wouldn't it be good to reclaim that?"