The People's Saint He's an obscure saint with a growing popularity in America. Who is he? Jude, the saint of last resort, a can-do man who can repair despair

September 12, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Consider a preposterous thought: God calls a general election. (Don't ask why, if you know what's good for you.) He orders every saint in heaven to form his or her own political party and sends them forth to campaign on Earth.

Who do you think would get the most votes?

St. John the Baptist? Now there's a strong contender. St. Francis of Assisi? Maybe, if birds could vote. St. Anthony, who some believe saved Little Italy from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904? A hometown favorite at least.

Though nobody could predict the outcome of such a hypothetical, not to say nonsensical, proposition, it's likely a formidable voting bloc would form up behind one name, at least in this country. You might call it a shadow constituency for a dark-horse saint.

This idea, of this saint's unexpected popularity, is propagated in a new book by Washington Times reporter Liz Trotta. The name she raises, she says, is increasingly on the lips of people in difficulty, ordinary folk up against life's hard edges. It is that of Jude Thaddaeus, the elusive martyr who is invariably the next-to-the-last named when Christ's 12 apostles are listed, the mysterious personage who, many believe, has been unfairly ignored by the official chroniclers of the Roman Catholic Church.

Writing in "Jude: A Pilgrimage to the Saint of Last Resort," Trotta reports that "countless new souls" are being drawn to this saint in these times of uncertainty. To arrive at her conclusion, Trotta did research in Baltimore, home of the St. Jude Shrine at Paca and Saratoga streets.

L And why has St. Jude been slighted for nearly two millennia?

Perhaps because he was given the same name as that other Jude -- Iscariot the Snitch, who, we have it on good authority, is still doing hard time in hell. Or perhaps Jude casts a dim light because he is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, and wrote only one epistle, and even his authorship of that is contested.

Also, he has no truly epic miracles to his credit, though he did cure King Abgar of ancient Edessa (Urfa today, in southeast Turkey) of leprosy. But that was 2,000 years ago, and the afterglow has naturally faded. Besides, these days doctors can cure leprosy.

Jude seems to have specialized in smaller customized outcomes, individual intercessions, the little miracles: a recovery from cancer here, a job for an unemployed breadwinner there, a dose of moral starch to defeat a weakness for this illegal substance or that.

Jude is one saint who knows how to service his clients. He provides alleviations. He administers the antibiotic of hope, and it has paid off. Not, as already said, in glaring saintly celebrity, but with the deeper-rooted renown of countless people, the quiet applause of a widening core of devotees that includes many non-Catholics. Father Frank Donio, at Baltimore's St. Jude Shrine, reports that of the half-million people on the shrine's mailing list, about 7,000 are non-Catholic.

All this suggests that Jude is not only a mystery, he is a paradox: He is obscure and at the same time popular. And, as Trotta argues, he's on a roll.

Why? Because, as Trotta says, America is going through a crisis of the spirit, an aberrant season of hysterical reactions to the millennium's end, a paralyzing disillusionment that flows from the realization that consumerism -- even when equated with patriotism, as it frequently is -- fails to satisfy as a reason for living.

"America," she writes, "is caught up in one of the most fervent religious revivals in its history a stirring of spirits, a yearning of hearts and, in a deeper sense, a chorus of bewilderment and desperation from a people long seen as the most blest among nations."

In light of that, who could be more appropriate to turn to than the saint who is the archenemy of despair, that "Unknown Soldier of the spirit" for a "people ever more frantic for hope in an ever more desperate world"?

To Trotta, not only is St. Jude the saint for our times, he is very much an American saint.

"He's the saint of action, the saint that gets results," she says. "Those are American traits."

A steady following

John Haas, a research associate at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, at Notre Dame University, might agree, up to a point. "It is just stunning the number of people who are interested in St. Jude, who participate in his devotions," he says.

Rather than seeing a tidal surge to the saint of lost causes, however, people with custodial interest in Jude Thaddaeus report a "steadiness" in the population of Jude devotees. Incremental movement forward is enough for them.

Father Mark Brummel, director of the St. Jude League in Chicago, says the league's membership has grown about 10 percent over the past five years. Donations to the Pallotine Order's overseas missions sent to the shrine, he says, are up "considerably."

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