A patron saint for jocks Benched by the church years ago, St. Christopher has made a comeback in a whole new arena.

June 21, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Twenty-nine years after St. Christopher's demotion among the legion of Catholic saints, he's still standing tall.

The traditional patron saint of travelers has even picked up some new work. He's become the unofficial patron saint of - student sports.

"The new thing is St. Christopher as a sports protector - soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball. We're selling a lot of those medals," says Dennis Klotz,general manager of the Catholic Bookstore in Detroit.

Sales are so hot, "I can't keep the hockey medals in stock," says Pat Darichuk, buyer for December's Special Place gift shop in Southgate, a Detroit suburb. "Of course, this is hockey country."

Traditionally, St. Christopher is best known as the patron saint of travelers. His legend is that of a tall ferryman in the third century who agreed to carry a child across a river. The heavy child turned out to be Christ with the weight of the world upon his shoulders.

The allegory inspired centuries of Roman Catholics to depend on St. Christopher to usher them safely down the road of life. The name "Christopher" even means "Christ bearer."

But over the years, he also has been invoked to protect bachelors, bus drivers, porters, truck drivers, mariners, sailors and cab drivers, as well as to ward off toothaches, lightning and storms.

But he ran into rough times in 1969. The Catholic Church stripped him of his feast day, and the Vatican announced there was no proof St. Christopher ever existed beyond legend - and even that was pretty flimsy.

He held onto his sainthood, but just barely.

"We do have people come in the store and point to the St. Christopher medals and say, 'You shouldn't be selling those,' " says Lisa Boyk, who works with Klotz. "They know he was demoted or de-canonized or whatever.

"Well, they can de-canonize him, but they can't take him out of people's hearts."

Or off the ice rink or football field.

Kevin Hubbard, 9, wears his St. Christopher hockey medal hTC everywhere except the shower. The third-grader got it from his mother, Sherry, when he was struggling on the Trenton (Mich.) Mite A Hawks this winter.

"It has a little hockey player on it, and it says 'St. Christopher protect me.' It's silver," says Kevin, who has played hockey since he was 5. "I wear it every day under my shirt."

"They were having a rough year and he needed a boost," says his mom, a bookkeeper. "I believed it would help protect him while he's playing, and I told him that wearing it would help him."

Did it?

"Yep," says Kevin. "It just made me play better and stuff."

St. Christopher's new role as sports protector is fine with the Catholic Church, "just so it doesn't become a magical charm, and people don't think, well, if I wear this medal I'm going to win," says the Rev. John West, theologian for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

"We don't pray to win," he says. "We pray that what we do can be focused, and in the process, we don't give up our morals, values and faith."

Lou Willoughby stuffs his St. Christopher and St. Sebastian medals in his sock before all his Redford Catholic Central football games. He uses them to pray before the game. St. Sebastian is the traditional saint of athletes and soldiers, but Lou can't help thinking St. Christopher is bringing him luck, too.

The football team has lost only once since his junior varsity year - "and that game I didn't bring the medals," says the 17-year-old Livonia, Mich., junior. "It brings us luck, and it keeps us safe on the bus when we travel."

The Jeweled Cross is one of a handful of manufacturers that last year began making St. Christopher medals depicting one of 18 sports on the front and the saint on the back - for football, bowling, soccer, snowboarding, volleyball, golf, cheerleading, track and more.

"People count on St. Christopher for protection even traveling down the bases or the football field," says Paul Dean, sales representative for the Attleboro, Mass., company. Out of 150 saints whose religious items he peddles, St. Christopher is still the top seller.

But it's not just due to sports medals.

Catholic Bookstore in Detroit sells hundreds of St. Christopher prayer cards and 2,000 visor clips a year, which motorists still faithfully affix to their car visors.

And if there was a small dip in the saint's sales when the Vatican announcement came out in 1969, it has long since been made up for. Too many people have too much invested in St. Christopher. It's too late to unbelieve.

"All these years, I've been praying to St. Christopher every time we take the kids on a trip - and then suddenly you think, does it do any good?" says Klotz, who has been with Catholic Bookstore for 22 years. "But once a saint, always a saint."

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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