Rejoicing in a busy calendar

St. Barbara Altarpiece
By Wilhelm Kalteysen – 3gEm1sQ389cbzg at Google Arts & Culture, Public Domain,

No one likes to look at a busy calendar; it can seem overwhelming. The Church’s liturgical calendar can seem that way too.

After Jesus Christ rose up into Heaven, the early Christians had to develop their own calendar of celebrations. Dates associated with our Lord, such as Easter, obviously came first. Over the centuries, as more and more men and women lived Christ-like lives, more and more saints were celebrated in local churches and then in the universal Church.

Protestantism rejected the whole idea of the “communion of saints” in the sixteenth century. In the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its understanding of saints, but the Church also made a more concerted effort to demonstrate the holiness and even the existence of these holy men and women to our separated brethren. Not only should saints encourage Catholics to live better lives, their lives should be encouraging to non-Catholics as well.

For example, we don’t have photographic evidence or detailed newspaper accounts of the martyrdoms of Saints Perpetua and Felicity because photography and newspapers did not exist in the year 203. But we do have ancient writings and other evidence demonstrating that these two young women really lived and died and that they have been venerated by Christians for many centuries. In their case, we have proof in the writings of fourth century Bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had to remind his parishioners that The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, while valuable, should not be treated as if it were as sacred as the Gospels themselves. That’s how popular the biography of these two saints had become among faithful Christians.

From about the time of the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical calendar of saints and blesseds of the Church was periodically updated. But in 1969, Pope Paul VI issued Mysterii Paschalis, a motu proprio which reorganized the Roman Calendar. The pope pointed out that, over time, the calendar had become very complicated with many feasts, octaves, and vigils, which tended to divert the faithful (that is, you and me) “from the fundamental mysteries of our Redemption.” The changes he authorized were supposed to help us remain focused on “the whole mystery of Christ which [the Church] unfolds within the cycle of the year.”

I was unaware of how dramatic these changes were to the celebration of the saints until my book, Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year, was being edited. My publisher asked me to consider adding another appendix (after all, my book already had five appendices). It was suggested that a correlation table, showing the differences between the saints’ dates in the current Church calendar and the calendar from the 1962 Roman Missal, would help those who wished to participate in an Extraordinary Form Mass (also commonly called a Traditional Latin Mass). With the table—which I did create and add as Appendix 2—someone could follow along in the 1962 Roman Missal and still find the saint biography from my book if it were on a different date.

My correlation table is twelve pages long! Devotees of the Latin Mass have valid complaints that these changes to the calendar were not insignificant and did not respect longstanding devotion to particular saints. The greatest damage, however, was probably that some people were led to believe that particular saints had been “unsainted”.

That is not at all the case. All of the changes that were made from the 1962 Roman Missal to our current liturgical calendar can be characterized as due to one of five reasons.

  1. In a few cases, the date was simply renamed. “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” became “The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple” (with no change in date).
  2. In a few cases, dates and titles associated with an important saint were rearranged or dropped. Our Blessed Mother is no longer celebrated under the title of “The Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary” on October 11, but the “Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God” was added to January 1.
  3. In several situations, the saint’s date was changed, presumably for a good reason related to that saint or to another (more well-known) saint in the calendar. For example, Saint John of Kanty’s feast day was changed from October 20 to December 23, the date of his death.
  4. For the vast majority of the changes, the saint is still listed as a saint in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum, the latest complete liturgical calendar of the Church. But he or she is not given a solemnity, feast, memorial, or optional memorial at Mass. However, just because there is no memorial celebration for Saints Christopher and Barbara at Mass on their respective dates (along with the hundreds of other saints who were dropped from the calendar used at Mass), that doesn’t mean they’re not saints.
  5. There are thirty-seven saints that are listed in the 1962 Roman Missal who are not included in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum at all. While it’s impossible to guess at the particular reason for each saint, it is safe to make some guesses. It is probable that almost all of these lesser-known saints were removed because of a lack of certain evidence about their existence or because one saint had apparently been conflated into two saints over the centuries, with similar but different spellings. These omitted saints are: Marcellinus, Boniface, Venantius, Pudentiania, Cyrinus, Nabor, Nazarius, Modestus, Crescentia, the Seven Holy Brothers, companions of Timothy (unknown number), the Twelve Holy Brothers, Lucy, Geminianus, Thecla, Cyprian, Justina, Marcellus, Apuleius, Respicius, and Nymphna.

There were and are many benefits to these changes in the Church’s calendar. First and foremost was what the pope desired: that the celebration of the liturgy—which for most of us is the celebration of the Mass—would be focused on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. These changes also allowed the Church to make room for more recent saints, and the twentieth century certainly gave the Church innumerable saints, particularly as martyrs under Communist and Socialist governments.

We can hope that the twenty-first century will continue to keep the Church’s calendar busy with new saints—but we can also hope these future saints will make it into the calendar without losing their heads, as did Saint Barbara.