St. Jude: A patron saint for impossible situations

St. Jude as the patron saint of the impossible is an American phenomenon. In Europe, Catholics in desperate straits pray to St. Rita of Cascia. How St. Jude came to be associated with impossible cases is impossible to pin down, but we do know how devotion to St. Jude first spread in the United States.

In the 1920s the Claretian Fathers staffed Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood was surrounded by steel mills where many of the parishioners worked. In the late 1920s, the mills started laying off workers. Jobs were scarce, unemployment insurance did not exist yet, and soon Father James Tort, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, began to see many of his parishioners standing in the breadlines.

Father Tort had a deep devotion to St. Jude, a saint who at the time was not widely revered in the Catholic world. At first he prayed to his favorite saint in private, but as conditions for his unemployed parishioners worsened, Father Tort announced a public novena to St. Jude scheduled to begin Feb. 17, 1929. So many parishioners attended that first novena that Father Tort repeated it again and again. On the saint's feast day, Oct. 28, the parish concluded a solemn novena to St. Jude. The church was packed, and loudspeakers broadcast the service to the crowd of 1,000 who stood outside.

The next day the stock market crashed, a catastrophe that made the St. Jude novena a regular part of parish life at Our Lady of Guadalupe. As stories of answered prayers spread to other Chicago churches, and then across the country, other parishes began novenas to St. Jude. During the Depression and World War II, and every day since, the priests and people of Our Lady of Guadalupe have gathered to ask St. Jude to help them in every temporal and spiritual necessity. Today Our Lady of Guadalupe is recognized as the National Shrine of St. Jude, and every day the mail brings stories from grateful people who testify that St. Jude helped them at the moment when they had despaired of finding any help.

Who was St. Jude? St. Luke's Gospel tells us that he was the brother of the apostle St. James the Less, and that they were related to Our Lord. One of the New Testament epistles is attributed to St. Jude. Tradition says that St. Jude and his fellow apostle St. Simon carried the Gospel to Persia where both were martyred. St. Simon was sawn in half; St. Jude was beaten to death with a club.

In art, St. Jude is almost always shown wearing or holding a medal bearing the image of a man. It refers to the ancient legend of Abgar, king of Edessa who sent a letter to Jesus asking Him to come heal him of leprosy; Our Lord wrote back that He could not come himself, but he would send one of His apostles. To console the king, Jesus took a cloth and pressed it to His face. When He removed it, a perfect portrait of Christ was imprinted on the fabric. After the Ascension, St. Jude took this portrait of Christ to Edessa and healed Abgar. The miraculous image of Our Lord's face on a cloth has evolved into the portrait medallion that appears in almost every picture and statue of St. Jude.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2012) and St. Peter's Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found … Then Lost and Found Again (Image Books, 2014).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015