A patron saint for doubters

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The story of the apostle known as "doubting Thomas" begins after the first Easter. In fear for their lives after the crucifixion of Jesus, the 11 surviving apostles (Judas had hanged himself on Good Friday) had locked themselves in the room they had used for the Last Supper. On Easter evening, the Risen Christ appeared suddenly among them. Thomas was not there, but when he returned, the other apostles were still joyous and excited at finding the Lord alive. Not only did Thomas doubt that Christ had risen from the dead, he set a few conditions that would have to be met before he believed. "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails," he said, "and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe."

Eight days later Christ returned, and this time Thomas was in the room. Turning to Thomas, Jesus said, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing."

Overwhelmed by the sight of the Lord, Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God." Catholics still pray this exclamation silently at Mass, at the moment the priest elevates the host.

Addressing St. Thomas and all doubters down through the ages Jesus said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

Because of his period of disbelief, St. Thomas has become the patron saint who resolves the qualms, misgivings and reservations of doubters, skeptics and cynics.

After this dramatic event described in St. John's Gospel, St. Thomas disappears from the historical record, and we enter the realm of tradition and legend. According to a very ancient tradition, Thomas carried the Gospel first to Syria, then to Persia (modern-day Iran) and finally to southern India. Many writers and theologians from the early centuries of the church assert that Thomas established the Christian faith in India, including St. Jerome (c. 341-420) who wrote, "Christ dwells everywhere, with Thomas in India and with Peter in Rome." Naturally, this tradition is especially strong in India, where it is common for Catholics and Orthodox to refer to themselves as "St. Thomas Christians."

In 1293, when the renowned Venetian globe-trotter, Marco Polo, passed through Madras (modern-day Chennai), he found that both Christian and Muslim pilgrims visited the tomb of St. Thomas, located in a church near the harbor. In 1498, when the first Portuguese explorers reached southern India, they were pleasantly surprised to find that Christian communities were thriving there. And the tradition is still strong today, so much so that in 1972, to mark the 1900th anniversary of St. Thomas' martyrdom, the government of India issued postage stamps in the apostle's honor.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2011) and Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015