I went to the kind of small Christian college that still required chapel attendance, and one morning, scheduled in the midst of all the pastors and inspirational or motivational speakers, we had a presenter who came dressed as Saint Patrick. He did nothing but recite Patrick’s autobiographical Confessio. He never broke character, even using his staff to prod awake a student who had fallen asleep in the first row. While some of my fellow student may have found the exercise tedious, I was quite fascinated, and it was one of my earliest dips into the rich well of the Patristics, the theologians and leaders who shepherded the church in the centuries immediately following the close of the biblical canon.
Today, one of the most obvious ways in which the legacy of these departed saints survives is through the continued celebration of their feast days, such as the recently observed St. Patrick’s Day. And yet, in American life (and often around the world), these feast days have become largely divorced from their original intents. Some more-or-less non-religious quality of the saint in question is selected to be highlighted in the popular observance, while the (quite intense) Christian commitment that undergirded that quality is almost entirely disregarded.
It is for this reason that I find the website Catholic Memes such a delightful departure. As its title suggests, Catholic Memes features images with captions related to matters significant to the Roman Catholic faith. Unsurprisingly, the quality and humor of the memes is variable overall, but one of the most consistently employed strategies on major secularized holidays is to take a picture or icon of the related saint and deliver a line that simultaneously plays on the known facts of the saint’s life and pokes fun at the shallow contemporary observance of his feast day. Take, for instance, this image from Valentine’s Day that had over 2,700 shares and almost 4,000 likes:
This particular meme references the Nuremburg Chronicle account of Valentine’s life, which may not be the most reliable. Nonetheless, it economically manages to achieve its dual ends: by making specific references to the Valentine legendarium, it prompts greater interest in the viewer to investigate the existing accounts of Saint Valentine, and in so doing, it also demonstrates the banality of commercialized holiday love relative to the sacrificial life of the ancient martyrs. An even better example—the one that first drew me to Catholic Memes—is this image of St. Nicholas of Myra, posted during the Christmas season (just prior to St. Nicholas’s feast day of December 6, 2013):
This meme gathered almost 3,600 shares and nearly 2,000 likes, and unlike the St. Valentine’s meme, there may be some historical support for the story it alludes to: the assertion that Nicholas struck Arius or one of his supporters at the Council of Nicaea. Again, the picture draws greater attention to the original St. Nicholas figure, while at the same time juxtaposing the familiar portrayal of the gift-giving-Santa-Claus St. Nicholas against the figure who was intensely zealous about orthodox theology.
The best humor often derives from an explicit or implicit dissonance: we are presented with evidence that reality is not as it ought to be, and that evidence causes us to reflect on the absurdity of our own reality in how far short it falls of the ideal measure. In reading these Patristic Catholic Memes, then, we consciously or unconsciously recognize how crass our own versions of these feast days can seem in the light of the Christian witness of the men and women for whom they are designated. It is this dissonance that generates the succinct comic potential of the best memes and subtly but truly might help in the greater cause of bringing attention to the lives of those saints. It is humor that packs a sociological and theological punch (whether or not you are at an ecumenical council); I hope that Catholic Memes continues to provide it. And may we all enjoy a blessed St. Serapion’s Day!