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Orsi's St. Jude': Miracles do happen


"Thank You, St. Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes," by Robert A. Orsi. Yale University Press. 303 pages. $30.

We've all seen them. Classified ads in newspapers that begin, "Thank you, St. Jude...." Within a few words, we get the picture of a prayer answered, a life changed. The public nature of this testimony, while surprising in the context of secular ads, intrigues despite our natural cynicism. Who is St. Jude, and how did he acquire such faithful disciples?

Robert Orsi has written a provocative and fascinating book about the cult of St. Jude, originating in America during the Depression. In highly readable prose, the author takes us back to South Chicago where Father James Tort placed a statue of St. Jude in his church, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Jude Thaddeus, one of the 12 disciples and a cousin of Jesus, was known in Central and South America as the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. During Holy Week 1929, the neighborhood women lined up to see St. Jude as the preferred choice for hearing their petitions. The clergy switched the statue to a more prominent place, and the cult of St. Jude was born.

Through the eyes and ears of St. Jude, we hear the prayers of the devout. Orsi has drawn a religious and social history of Catholic women's piety by reading published prayers beginning in 1935 and by interviewing the current faithful. Because the overwhelming number of followers are women, Orsi compares the nature of their petitions of despair to American Catholic culture and ideology of the time as represented in period Catholic magazines.

The result is a riveting social history which illuminates the rift between the male religious hierarchy and the predominantly female laity. Orsi is at his best when he paints a compassionate picture of the immigrant mothers and daughters struggling to hold their families together in impossible circumstances and analyzes the forces that ignore and silence them. However, he stops short of the answers for which we are seeking.

Or perhaps I am eagerly imagining the next volume. At the point at which the book seems called to move to a deeper spiritual level, Orsi cuts off the debate by implying that the women have imagined St. Jude into being. But the thesis remains unconvincing.

Why have these women remained in a Church that Mr. Orsi has shown silences and devalues them? What keeps them there? With the sheer weight of his material, he has successfully convinced us that something irrational and mysterious has happened.

We have seen miracles. But Mr. Orsi (or perhaps his editor) appears afraid to claim them. The scholarly approach with its reasoned argument ultimately fails to explain what even Robert Orsi, in his Acknowledgments, tentatively confesses he has witnessed first hand.

Finally, this book is a tribute to the spirituality of Catholic women. Orsi makes it clear that despite tremendous adversity, they have remained true to their calling as children of God-trusting that prayer will work when all else fails, unafraid of ministering to the hopeless, anointing the bodies of the sick with oil, healing through prayer and touch, accompanying the dying into the next world. Following in the footsteps of one of the least-known disciples, they have followed Christ - with no fanfare, no vestments, no public recognition. With the help of St. Jude, they have claimed their vocation as ministers. And the Church is growing because of it. Thank you, St. Jude....

Victoria R. Sirota an Episcopal priest is vicar of the Church of the HolyNativity in Baltimore. She holds a doctorate in music as well as a master of divinity degree. An organist and university music teacher before ordination, she has written widely about creativity, theology and music

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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