In his fascinating book Villains of the Early Church: And How They Made Us Better Christians (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2018), Mike Aquilina offers excellent insights into some of the famous characters who caused trouble for Catholics in the first few centuries of the Church. He points out that there are ancient traditions stating that three of the greatest villains of Holy Week later repented and became Christians. Are they saints? Are there any other well-known figures from that terrible and awesome week who are also acclaimed as saints of the Church?
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the focal point of every event that occurred from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. After all, he is our Savior. Christians believe that, as the Son of God, he is present throughout the Old Testament and all of human history as well. Like planets rotating around the sun, all the holy men and women Jesus Christ encountered during his last week on earth were responding to his light and reflecting his glory in those events.
But after his ascension into Heaven, that “sun” did not stop shining into their lives and filling them with graces. Some of those men and women who are mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Holy Week have been called saints for millennia. Who are they?
As Catholics, we believe that our Blessed Mother is the greatest saint present during the awful events of the Crucifixion; even our Protestant brothers and sisters would agree that the twelve Apostles, minus Judas, later lived saintly lives. Saint John the Apostle may have been the only one standing at the foot of the Cross, and Saint Peter may have denied knowing Christ just a few hours earlier, but those two men, along with Saints Andrew, James the son of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew (also called Nathaniel), Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Judas (also called Thaddeus), and Simon the Canaanean, lived for Christ. And all, with the exception of the exiled Saint John, were apparently martyred for their Master. Similarly, no one denies that Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, deserves the title of saint. But are there more?
Someone, presumably a disciple of Jesus’, offered the use of his house for Jesus’ final Passover meal.1 Although the Christians of Jerusalem have claimed to know the location of that Upper Room as far back as the sixth century, no one seems to know that man’s name.
During Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter cut off a slave’s ear with a sword; our Lord miraculous restored the man’s ear, and the Gospel of John tells us the man’s name was Malchus.2 Malchus then disappears into history. But the Gospel of Mark tells us about a young man who ran away naked to escape the soldiers during Jesus’ arrest, and there is a long-standing (but speculative) tradition that Saint Mark the Evangelist alone includes this detail because he was that young man.3
The names of the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial, the Jewish soldiers who arrested him, the Roman soldiers who tortured him, the guards who crucified him, and the soldiers who guarded his tomb have been lost to history. Barabbas disappears after being released to please the bloodthirsty crowd. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, questioned Jesus but was apparently not touched by remorse afterward over his participation in the execution of an innocent man.
While there are some who call the man who helped Jesus carry His Cross Saint Simon of Cyrene, the Church’s official Martyrologium Romanum (the latest official calendar of saints published by the Vatican in 2004) does not include him as a saint. However, the fact that the Gospel of Mark tells us Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus4 is generally interpreted to mean that he and/or his sons became Christians and were identifiable members of the early Christian community.
The Blessed Mother and John were not the only friends standing at the foot of Jesus’ Cross. It is complicated to try to fully reconcile the women’s names listed in the four Gospels. Is “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” (Matt. 27:56) the same woman as “Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses” (Mark 15:40)? Sidestepping the confusion, the Church simply commemorates the “holy women of Jerusalem, Mary Cleopas and Salome,” as saints on April 24. Scripture tells us that there were more faithful women5 at the foot of the Cross, but the Holy Spirit has not seen fit to leave us their names.
Two criminals were crucified alongside Jesus. The “good thief”, the one who asked for Jesus’ mercy from the Cross,6 is celebrated as a saint on March 25. Tradition gives him the name of Dismas; the thief who died unrepentant7 has been given the name of Gestas over the centuries. Similarly, tradition has given a name to the Roman centurion who pierced Jesus’ body with a lance and proclaimed that Jesus was “the son of God”8; he is remembered by the Church on October 16 and is generally called Longinus.
According to the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea provided Jesus’ tomb9; according to tradition, he later brought the Christian faith to England. Nicodemus was a leader of the Pharisees who was open to Jesus’ teaching; he brought myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial10 and may have died a Christian martyr. The Church remembers both men together as saints on August 31.
What about Saint Veronica, who wiped our Lord’s face as he carried the Cross to Calvary, a woman known to Catholics everywhere from the Sixth Station of the Cross? While we may not have evidence from the earliest days of the Church that such a woman existed, it may be that the story of Veronica arose from the striking image of Jesus’ face on the relic we now call “Veronica’s Veil”. The story of this relic and the Shroud of Turin are too complicated to discuss here, but it is not hard to see how these amazing relics led generations of Christians to believe that the image was created on Good Friday by a kind-hearted woman who wiped Christ’s bloody face.
Finally, there were three men whose actions led directly to Jesus’ Crucifixion: Pontius Pilate (the governor of Judea), Caiaphas (a high priest), and Judas Iscariot. As Aquilina points out, there are some old traditions stating that each of those men later repented of their participation in the death of Christ. These traditions are not widespread and are certainly questionable. But the fact that such stories even exist makes us wonder. Why would Christians try to “rehabilitate” the lives of three men who actively sought the death of the Son of God? The answer is easy. Because forgiveness is a hallmark of a follower of Christ, and every Christian wants to hope that even the hardest of hearts will be broken open in repentance during Holy Week.
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