I recently came across a Saxon infant saint called Rumwold of Buckingham who only lived for three days. But before this poor baby died, he was able to display what can only be described as magical powers. Rumwold asked to be baptised and immediately after, preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Apparently, the very precocious baby was able to reference heavy theological sources such as the Athanasian Creed. Not bad for somebody who hadn’t been alive for a week yet. The sermon concluded with Rumwold predicting his own death and outlining the funeral arrangements. His short life took place in the village of King’s Sutton in what is now the English county of Northamptonshire. And the chatty baby was the scion of a noble Saxon family with both pagan and Christian relatives. He died in the year 662.
There are plenty of infant saints aside from Rumwold but one that I find morbidly fascinating is Sicarius of Bethlehem. This infant saint was one of the Holy Innocents killed by King Herod, as recounted in the Nativity story. Now – I hear you ask – how could any of the Holy Innocents have died a Christian when Christ himself had only just been born? Put another way – there was no Christianity when Herod gave his notorious order so how does a baby at that time become a Christian saint?
Well, details, details. None of these inconvenient points stopped early medieval France getting very enthusiastic about his cult. From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius was worshipped fervently and his remains were kept at an abbey in the Dordogne. How were they discovered? You ask too many questions!
Though not a saint, Ellen Organ (1903-1908) was an Irish child whose apparent holiness was so overwhelming that Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. “Little Nellie of Holy God” was another infant who rather implausibly was able to recite big chunks of scripture despite being obviously very young. The sickly child died of a variety of dreadful diseases from TB to whooping cough.
She was exhumed by the nuns looking after her a year following death and – of course – showed no signs of corruption. In 2015, there was some controversy over a call from a local bishop to exhume her yet again and move the body to a place where she could be venerated more easily by the faithful.
In the summer of 2019, I visited Fatima in Portugal. This was the place where, in the year 1917, three peasant children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. One of many apparitions over the centuries that have turned innocuous places into globally revered pilgrimage sites. Millions still make a beeline to Fatima, Lourdes and Guadalupe in the hope of getting closer to God or finding a cure for a disease.
Marian apparitions have always tended to dominate – that’s the Virgin Mary paying a visit to planet Earth. And her visitations have often coincided with a tough period for the church where its popularity was waning or it was under attack. Nothing like an apparition to galvanise the faithful!
It’s also a way in which the Roman Catholic church cements its position among new converts. So at Guadalupe, it was an Aztec convert who saw the Virgin Mary. His name was Juan Diego (or assumed name after baptism) and the V.M. obligingly left an imprint of herself on his cloak. This convinced an initially sceptical church that he had indeed experienced the Marian apparition. As I saw for myself in 2014, Guadalupe is still a hugely popular pilgrimage site.
The church has often been ambivalent about apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, apostles and saints. I suspect one of the reasons is the Catholic church’s desire for ultimate control. Apparitions are a moment when the faithful have the whip hand. It also begs the questions why the V.M. would choose a lay person instead of a priest of bishop to relay important heavenly messages. But the church tends to embrace the apparition once further proof is offered. Not that this proof would satisfy a scientific test of course.
Below are scenes from Fatima that I filmed on my smartphone in 2019. In front of the basilica is an airport size piazza, like a gigantic runway. And along its length, pilgrims move on their knees. You can see similar scenes at Lourdes in France and Knock in Ireland.
Whether this self-abasement actually has a positive effect has been a discussion point among psychologists and doctors for years. It would be fascinating to know what impact it has on death-related anxiety and depression. One report I read recently expressed concern about the sharp rise in the number of over-60s going on pilgrimage to places like Santiago de Compostela in Spain – where you have to do a very long walk to get there. Far from curing those involved, the whole experience exacerbated cardiac conditions among some elderly people.