February 2020: Leap Day Saints

Gregorian calendar, 1582, Aloysius Lilius

Once every four years, February 29 appears on our calendars, and we celebrate leap day. The Catholic Church’s official collection of saints, the Martyrologium Romanum, only lists four saints on this date.

This is surprising since the number of entries for a given date in the Martyrologium ranges anywhere from a half dozen to almost two dozen—and some of those entries include large numbers of martyrs. (Note that there have been many collections of Catholic saints issued over the centuries; the first Martyrologium Romanum dates to 1583, and the latest revision is dated 2004 and available only in Latin.)

On the other hand, since leap days occur only once every four years, it’s not surprising that there aren’t many saints celebrated on this date. The Martyrologium lists all four of these saints on February 28 as well as February 29, encouraging us not to overlook them.

Why are these saints listed on a date that only occurs once every four years? Because that’s the date on which they died.

Auguste Chapdelaine (1814-1856) was a French priest who was sent as a missionary to China. After being robbed on the way and then arrested briefly by the authorities, he finally met the Catholic faithful in his assigned city, Yaoshan. He was able to live among the Chinese people, serve them as their priest, and bring others to the faith for about two years. When the government began a widespread persecution of Christians, he was imprisoned again, this time on the false charge of encouraging an insurrection against the government. When he failed to recant or pay the hefty fine imposed upon him, he was tortured and imprisoned in an iron cage before finally being condemned to death. He died a martyr for the faith on leap day in 1856.

Long before him, Pope Hilary (sometimes called Hilarus or Hilarius) died of natural causes on this date in the year 468. He was the forty-sixth pope, and he is best remembered for building a church dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, whom he credited for his narrow escape from an attack instigated by supporters of the Monophysite heresy in 449. Hilary not only remembered Saint John’s intercession and protection; he remembered the dangers of this heresy and its supporters and formally condemned the heresy when he became pope.

The two other saints commemorated on this date are: Blessed Antonia of Florence (1400-1472), a wife, mother, widow, and later a Poor Clare nun; and Saint Oswald of Worcester (d. 992), who became archbishop of York but was best remembered for daily washing the feet of the poor.

But leap day means more to the Church than the celebration of a handful of saints. While we moderns tend to think of leap day as more of a scientific oddity than anything else, we forget that dates matter to us Catholics too. We also tend to believe that the accurate determination of the calendar is something that has only been made possible by modern science.

But that’s wrong. A major reform the calendar was ordered by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., under the advice of prominent mathematicians and astronomers of the time. The Roman Empire changed the calendar—now called the Julian calendar after him—so that the calendar would more accurately match the sun’s behavior. Failing to properly calculate the length of the year had gradually allowed the calendar to creep away from the true date. The date on the calendar that should have been the shortest day of the year, for example, wasn’t the shortest day of the year.

This caused all sorts of problems in the ancient world. Politicians adjusted the calendar as they saw fit to extend their time in office, ordinary people living away from big cities couldn’t accurately know the correct date, and intermediate adjustments to the calendar had only made things worse. The Julian calendar fixed all that.

Well, it fixed the problem for a while. By the sixteenth century, the calendar had slowly shifted again, all because it takes the earth 365.2422 days to travel around the sun, not 365.25 days. During the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII, this problem had become so pronounced that ten erroneous days needed to be removed from the calendar. There was also a minor adjustment made to leap days; only centurial years that are multiples of four (i.e., the years 2000, 2400, 2800, etc.) include leap days as a result of the Gregorian calendar. While there were certainly pragmatic reasons for Pope Gregory to make this pronouncement in the year 1582—such as international stability, agricultural calculations, and basic communication between communities—there was a much more important reason.

As the Baltimore Catechism teaches us, “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” That is, although it’s certainly good for farmers to know the correct date so they can plant crops, the Church cares about the calendar primarily because human beings need to have accurate knowledge of earthly time so that they can be better prepared for Heaven. After all, in the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the entry for Time simply says, “See Eternal Life.” As Catholics, we care about the calendar because God has called us to know, love, and serve Him every single day of our lives, in preparation for the last day of our lives. And for some holy men and women, that great day occurred on a leap day.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco

January: A Month for Saintly Teachers

Does every diocese in the world celebrate Catholic Schools Week during the last week of January or just mine? It’s certainly the perfect time to do so. After all, the calendar of saints practically demands that we celebrate the teaching profession in late January.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco

For example, the Church’s official calendar of saints, the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum,[1] celebrates these holy men and women, one right after another:

  • January 23: Saint Marianne Cope (1838-1918) was the mother superior of a home and school for lepers on Molokai (USA).
  • January 24: Saint Francis de Sales was an influential French bishop whose excellent writings explaining the faith brought many Protestants back to the Church in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
  • January 25: One of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, Saint Paul the Apostle, whose writings have taught every Christian about Christ, celebrates his conversion to the faith on this date.
  • January 26: First century Saints Timothy and Titus show us the power of a great teacher; both of these men gave their lives to Christ as priests and evangelists because of the encouragement of Saint Paul.
  • January 27: Saint Angela Merici did the unthinkable in fifteenth century Italy when she, a mere woman, began teaching religion and other subjects to children.
  • January 28: Saint Thomas Aquinas’ achievements as a scholar and writer changed the worlds of Catholic theology and philosophy forever, and his personal brilliance has made him the patron of students hoping to emulate his phenomenal memory (particularly while taking tests).
  • January 29: Saint Gildas the Wise was a sixth century hermit and abbot who helped his monks grow in holiness and was one of the earliest British historians.
  • January 30: Saint Mucian Mary Wiaux (1841-1917) was a simple lay brother who was given the chore of teaching art to students at his order’s school; his students were profoundly affected by his prayerfulness, but also by the way that his gentleness and compassion as a teacher brought out the best in them.
  • January 31: Saint John Bosco was a nineteenth century priest who devoted his life to the care and education of boys in his native Italy and formed an order which spread all over the world.

Our modern world thinks of teaching as a career; the saints saw it as a vocation, a calling by God to help other people, particularly children, grow in wisdom. Far from today’s emphasis on education as a means of simple economic advancement or personal pride, the Catholic understanding of education sees something far more profound.

Saintly teachers certainly recognized that educating children in the fundamentals—teaching them to read and learn basic math skills—better enabled them to support themselves as adults, protect their own families, and become better citizens. But every culture has its own challenges for young people. The leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii, was a place without hope until Saint Damien de Veuster arrived, and the school that Saint Marianne founded with him enabled children with leprosy—children who could never leave that island—to learn about the world beyond the sea that surrounded them. Saint Angela Merici’s Italy was a world of warring cities and education only for the rich. She made it possible for girls to learn about God and building happy families. Saint John Bosco had learned magic tricks and gymnastics when he was young as a means of drawing other boys to Church to worship God; in the trying economic times of nineteenth century Italy, he brought boys into his group homes and schools so that they could become good Catholic men, rather than roaming the streets as unemployed pickpockets, thieves, and worse. Saint Mucian Wiaux was given the task of teaching art because he was a bit too gentle for more demanding subjects—some said he couldn’t control the classroom at times—but in small groups, through one-on-one instruction, he literally changed the lives of his students simply by showing them Christ-like love.

Every teacher worthy of the name should communicate truth; Jesus is, literally, the Truth. The wisdom, knowledge, and power of God literally poured out from Christ’s lips when He spoke in Galilee and Judea, and that same truth pours itself out when we draw close to Him. Saint Gildas’ treatise on the history of Britain in the sixth century is still studied today—there are no other historical accounts from that time period—but sometimes criticized because he wrote it with an axe to grind. His goal in writing? To convince his countrymen, like a prophet of the Old Testament, that their current problems were the results of their sins and failures to live as true Christians.

To say that Saint Thomas Aquinas communicated truth is a fact hardly worth mentioning. Although there are a few theological, philosophical, and moral issues that he supported in his writings that are not in keeping with current Church teaching (he didn’t see the necessity of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example), in almost every other matter, Thomas’s writing is often put forward to precisely explain Church teaching. One simple example: we are still singing the hymn he wrote for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi seven centuries later. One could say that Saint Thomas’s life was devoted to communicating truths to lead people to Christ the Truth.

But ultimately, these saints knew that the greatest gift was Christ Himself, who told His apostles to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”[2] Saints Paul, Timothy, and Titus were obedient to that command. Paul taught the good news of salvation through his missionary journeys, his personal example, and his letters. In his letters to Timothy and Titus, he teaches them how to do the same; tradition says that both men, like Paul, “died with their boots on”, engaged in evangelizing the world for Christ.

But today’s world is not unlike the world of Saint Francis de Sales, a world that has rejected the Church because it thinks it has better answers. January is the perfect month to both thank holy teachers for fulfilling their vocations to bring truth to those around them—and to remember that we are all still students who should be studying for our “final exam” before God Himself. All you saintly teachers, pray for us!

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Thomas_Aquinas,_Protector_of_the_University_of_Cusco.jpg

[1] Martyrologium Romanum, Editio Altera, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004 (note that this is available only in Latin).

[2] Mark 16:15.