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Patron of Things Despaired Of

October 28, 2021


The following piece about St. Jude first appeared in the Winter 2020 Hope issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. You can learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.

“The name of the traitor has caused you to be forgotten by many, but the true Church invokes you universally as the patron of things despaired of.”

As an altar boy, I would hear our parish priest pray these words, and some combination of the rareness of the recitation, the rhythm of the line, and the vividness of the ideas (“the traitor,” “forgotten,” “universally,” “despaired”) etched them in my memory. “Pray for me, who am so miserable,” our priest would go on. “Pray for me, that finally I may receive the consolations and the succor of heaven in all my necessities, tribulations, and sufferings, particularly . . .” A pregnant pause. “And that I may bless God with the elect throughout eternity.” 

Standing in a line of black cassocks and white surplices along the base of the altar steps, we would then hear a hymn to St. Jude:

St. Jude, though oft forgotten, thou shalt remembered be,
We hail thee now in glory, and have recourse to thee;
For help for the despairing, when hopeless seems the task,
And from the Heart of Jesus, through thee we favors ask

Despair, misery, tribulations, suffering, hopelessness—all strangely laid at the feet of this “forgotten” man.

One of the twelve Apostles, Jude (or “Judas Thaddeus”) is mentioned several times in the New Testament. Luke in both his Gospel and Acts mentions “Judas son of James” (Luke 6:16, Acts 1:13); Matthew and Mark reference Judas as a brother of James the Less and “brother” (i.e., cousin) of Jesus (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3); and John—as if anticipating, and trying to avoid, confusion regarding his legacy—references “Judas (not Iscariot)” who asks, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22). The brief, penultimate book of the New Testament is even attributed to this Judas—something many Catholics might not even be aware of.

Yet, despite the scriptural distinction between Judas Thaddeus and Judas Iscariot, the former inevitably became confused with the latter down through the centuries. It is said that many Christians avoided praying to Thaddeus for fear that they were praying to Iscariot, and that the translation of Judas to “Jude” in English was intended to clear up precisely this confusion. But eventually, as the prayer has it, the name of the traitor simply caused St. Jude to be forgotten. 

So how did Jude, whose identity has been a source of so much confusion, become the go-to saint for such dire prayer requests? One theory is that it has to do with the content of his brief epistle: Jude writes about the moral and spiritual destruction wrought by false teachers, encouraging the faithful to “look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 21). But a simpler and perhaps more convincing argument is the one that emerged out of popular piety: Jude was so neglected among the saints that when someone finally did come to him in prayer, he was apparently very eager to help.

Whatever its origin, the lives of three twenty-first century men—all laymen, and all entertainers—bear witness to Jude’s peculiar and powerful intercessory role. The first was a Maronite Catholic and struggling comedian named Danny Thomas

More than 70 years ago, Danny Thomas, then a struggling young entertainer with a baby on the way, visited a Detroit church and was so moved during the Mass, he placed his last $7 in the collection box. When he realized what he’d done, Danny prayed for a way to pay the looming hospital bills. The next day, he was offered a small part that would pay 10 times the amount he’d given to the church. Danny had experienced the power of prayer.

Two years later, Danny had achieved moderate acting success in Detroit, but he was struggling to take his career to the next level. Once again, he turned to the church. Praying to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, Danny asked the saint to “help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”

Thomas eventually made good on his promise by founding the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a renowned treatment facility focused on eradicating childhood cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. 

Then there is Aaron Neville, the New Orleans soul singer behind “Tell It Like Is.” Neville’s life was marked from his teenage years by petty crime, drug use, and prison time—but he credits his devotion to St. Jude, passed down to him from his mother, with pulling him through. He and his wife joined her in praying to Jude to intercede when he was facing a sentence of one to fourteen years for burglary—a sentence he narrowly escaped. Years later, after a relapse into heroin use, Neville turned to Jude once more—and once more, he escaped devastation. Neville continues to speak and sing about Jude, and even wears a medal of the saint in an earring.

Another tattooed Catholic who captured his devotion to St. Jude in song is Brian Setzer, the lead singer of The Brian Setzer Orchestra. While the particulars of his devotion seem to be hidden from view, “St. Jude,” a song off the rocker’s album Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy, captures his passion for the patron of the despairing. It also offers a compelling portrait of a robust faith, fortified against the vicissitudes of both personal and societal strife:

We’re all alone in this great big world
And we’re slippin’, time’s slippin’ by
Spirituality is thing of the past
And it’s something money can’t buy
I know I’ve asked for things before
And you’ve always heard my prayers
So can I ask you one more time
’Cause we’re all running scared

St. Jude pray for us
St. Jude pray for us
We need some peace and comfort now
St. Jude pray for us

It’s something that’s scorned from the left
And abused by the right
It’s something so misunderstood
And ignored in daily life
If you proclaim the mystery of faith
You’ll be absolved from daily strife
Through him, in him, and within him

Springs our eternal life

In 2019—decades after I had heard the prayer to St. Jude words as an altar boy—my family experienced a most challenging year, one hounded by disorder, disease, and death. We asked for the prayers of family, friends, and a particular group of saints. But we also started going to a convenient daily Mass at a nearby church’s chapel, where my wife would sometimes pray with our daughters by a statue in the corner. Looking back, it’s not surprising at all that the chapel was the St. Jude Chapel, or that that statue was of St. Jude—something I just didn’t give much thought to at the time. Of course this forgotten Apostle would also be close to us, subtly, in our hour of darkness—and who knows how much he prayed for us to help see us through.

Undoubtedly, what 2019 was to us, 2020 has been to a great many people across the country: a year of disorder, disease, and death. I’m sure many people—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—have experienced great tribulation and suffering, and feel themselves starting to lose hope.

Perhaps you are one of them. If so, perhaps St. Jude is just the person you ought to talk to.