The Liturgical Calendar as a Resource
by Joanna Bogle
In my diary, a cryptic “F&S” frequently features, with the name of a local ladies’ group, Rotary club, or school attached. My family teases me about what this represents -- as one whose talents and skills definitely do not lie in the kitchen, I am a regular speaker on “Celebrating traditional Feasts and Seasons”. I am uncomfortably aware of the irony.
But, as I endlessly point out, people aren’t inviting me because they want to know how to turn out a good Simnel cake or the best recipe for saffron buns. They genuinely want to know the origins of some of our traditional feasts and festivals. There is a growing revival of interest in this subject, and -- like the growing interest in family history -- it is a trend that we should note, and use creatively.
Of course we can note that with the general secularization of society, much emphasis on traditional celebrations may be just an exercise in nostalgia. We can also point to the parallels with cookery -- more cookery books sold today across the Western world than ever before, but many enjoyed as a comfortable browse while munching a takeaway pizza!
But nevertheless there is something useful going on: the celebration of feasts and seasons is something that really matters, and our longing to get it right is surely telling us something. The Church’s calendar is a point of reference where many can meet: it’s a useful tool of evangelization, a source of great pleasure and interest, an opportunity for introducing people to aspects of Church teaching they may never otherwise encounter, a chance to break through prejudices and show some of the joys of the Faith to the lapsed or the ignorant. And I believe that ordinary lay Catholics, consciously working on this, have a job to do.
We need first to get away from the idea that “Vatican II abolished lots of traditions”, or that “all those old saints’ days don’t really matter anymore”. These were fashionable things to say twenty years ago, but do not ring true.
In recent years there has been something of a quiet revival of interest in the round of the Church’s seasons, not least of which are some groups (such as the home-schooling movement, and yes, Women for Faith & Family) that are very family-oriented and keen to produce programs to help families evangelize their own children and offer neighborly hospitality to others.
In addition, some of those rather dreary Sundays with bureaucratic names (in England, for example, “Peace Sunday”, “Education Sunday”, “Mass Media Sunday”) that began in the 1970s now seem somewhat dated. It is time to reclaim the Catholic heritage of a calendar that offers wonderful opportunities to enrich our faith and celebrate the idea of an incarnate Divinity -- a God who truly did live among us and gave new significance to time and space, to people and festivals and anniversaries. With this background, let’s get busy.
Please do not let anyone tell you -- I’m afraid some over-enthusiastic devotees of the only-the-Tridentine-Mass-is-acceptable faction have a tendency to do this -- that “in the old days, the Church’s calendar was wonderful, but now it’s all been spoiled”. This is simply not true. I set about discovering the Catholic calendar as a post-Vatican II adult, and it has been a source of endless interest and fascination -- the subject of a book (now in its fifth edition), a radio series, and talks and lectures to groups of every kind.
The plain fact is that for many Catholics, the Church in the years immediately before the Second Vatican Council was not one where liturgical and parish life necessarily brought alive all the feasts of the year in dramatic style. My memory of churchgoing over Christmas as a small child is of mild disappointment -- for all the excitement at home and school, with nativity plays, carols being sung, delicious things being cooked, and presents waiting under the tree, going to Mass on Christmas morning (I was too young for Midnight Mass) was just like an ordinary Sunday. There was the usual largely silent liturgy and only the formal announcement “Today is Christmas Day” at the start of the parish notices to show that the day was anything special. Of course I knew that the Mass was crucial, and contained the real meaning of all that we were due to celebrate at home -- but it honestly didn’t feel that way.
In March, Saint Patrick’s Day meant a big parish dance -- but this didn’t really resonate with those of us who weren’t Irish. Holy days of obligation were just that -- obligatory, and while of course attendance at Mass is central to marking any feast, somehow the emphasis tended to be on the obligation, and the actual significance of the day seemed less important.
But today, Catholics are poised to discover afresh a heritage that has much to offer. There is an awareness of feasts and seasons that is detectable and deserves recognition. What is needed is our active involvement: talks, booklets, information, the sharing of knowledge, seizing of opportunities. The field is open!
For one thing, old anti-Catholic prejudices relating to many feasts have largely disappeared. Most evangelical churches now make a major event of Christmas -- many have midnight candle-lit carol services, which would have been deemed horribly “Popish” in times past. Easter is similarly celebrated with white-and-gold trimmings, lilies, candles, special music. Good Friday usually sees ecumenical services -- often involving a Procession of Witness. And in many British towns, Pentecost is often used for inter-denominational gatherings and rallies. It’s as if the Christian calendar -- preserved by the Catholic Church as a heritage for everyone -- is slowly coming into its own.
All of this means that we have opportunities now to share -- in ways that are expanding all the time -- a heritage that is a cornucopia of good things. Are we taking up the opportunities offered? Most churches have mothers’ groups, coffee-mornings, social groups for the elderly, etc., which are usually looking for speakers. Something on “Easter traditions” or “Harvest traditions” is easy to research and prepare. And giving a talk to a small church group really isn’t something so daunting. What we need, in my view, as Catholics, is a confidence in the knowledge that we have something real to share -- information, history, facts, things that are interesting, amusing, challenging and useful.
Which brings us to our own Catholic parishes. There is something depressing about giving a well-received talk to a local Baptist church and then finding that the Church’s rich calendar is largely ignored in our own Catholic parish! So, obviously, we will want to see what can be done here -- while recognizing that this is a minefield strewn with explosive material produced by liturgical “experts” in the 1970s and still causing major casualties.
While certain liturgies purporting to celebrate major feasts can make us cringe (we don’t want displays of chocolate eggs all over the Easter Sunday altar, thank you very much), we can and should show that simply doing traditional things, and doing them well, offers a sense of community and “togetherness” that is often what some self-appointed liturgists claim to be seeking.
A parish can have a good Palm Sunday procession with large bunches of palms held aloft (this is something that has definitely improved with the newer liturgy -- I remember no procession and only small and rather disappointing palms, already folded into crosses, in my childhood, all somehow less dramatic and interesting than I had been led to expect). There can be a dignified and moving Good Friday liturgy centered on the cross. There can be processions in May honoring Mary, and at Corpus Christi bearing the Blessed Sacrament beneath a canopy. A parish newsletter or magazine can have regular features detailing forthcoming feasts, with stories of the saints, and mention of interesting traditions and customs.
Books and resources -- including the Internet -- provide a wealth of material about our Christian calendar (such as www.wf-f.org/LiturgicalCalendar-info.html). We don’t need to invent new and artificial activities that trivialize the great truths that the Church seeks to present to us.
I was giving talks to non-Catholic groups long before I finally started to make headway among Catholics! But in recent years I have been invited to give talks to Confirmation classes and parish groups, focusing on the calendar, how it achieved its present form, and its meaning and purpose.
It is amusing watching people’s faces change as they connect with some piece of information that enlightens them -- that the Annunciation is exactly nine months before Christmas, for example, or that Lent is forty days long echoing Christ’s fast in the desert or the Israelites wandering for forty years toward the Promised Land. It is fun explaining the origins of words or traditions -- flowers that echo Mary’s name (marigolds), buns bearing a cross for Good Friday, being “shriven” of our sins as Shrovetide takes us into Lent.
I suspect that there may be other readers of Voices who, like me, are fascinated by our Church’s heritage and who could turn a hobby into something of real service by researching aspects of the Calendar and giving talks on it.
It’s worth starting with the local women’s organizations, youth groups, and old people’s lunch clubs, which usually all need speakers, often on a monthly or even fortnightly basis. My experience is that they are keen to have some one who is enthusiastic, well-informed, entertaining, and sincere. “Traditional Feasts and Seasons” can be the title, and you angle it for the particular season -- obviously the run-up to Christmas or Easter is a good time -- and you will want to do solid research and produce something of real value.
If we fail to see the connection between this and a revived and improved liturgy, then it’s a connection we need to make. Often the only reason why some saint’s day or major feast has been downplayed or ignored is that those who most loved it could not teach about it or assumed that its apparent abolition was irrevocable. In my experience, much of our heritage can be reclaimed -- often by roundabout means, and possibly making use of ecumenical opportunities that later translate into Catholic parish life, or via a youth group that spreads its influence into wider circles.
The Christian calendar shouldn’t just be a matter of lamenting the passing of traditions that perhaps were honored more in the breach than the observance anyway. It’s something that our Catholic parishes, schools, and families should see as a resource rich in delights and in knowledge that empowers and informs -- part of the renewal of the Church, in fact, for this 21st century.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
Related link: Liturgical Calendar on this Website.
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