By Msgr. Drake Shafer
The liturgical calendar has developed, evolved and changed over the last 2,000 years. Our Christian year has roots in the Jewish year and calendar as well as being affected by the dates of Greek, Roman and other European feasts. My first real awareness of the Church’s liturgical year came when I was in fifth grade and became sacristan at St. Alphonsus, my parish church, in Davenport. At the time there were four priests in my parish (six when the Redemptorist missionaries were home). This was before the Second Vatican Council. There were three altars in the church plus one in the monastery. There was no concelebration of the Mass. On a daily basis Mass could be offered at all the altars at the same time. It was my job as sacristan to prepare the altars with the appropriate Missals for that day and to set out vestments of the appropriate color. I had to know the liturgical calendar if I was to do that. Every Sunday had a name (in Latin) and some of them were interesting, such as “Quadragesimo.” There were various types of feast days from solemnities to commemorations with semi-doubles and doubles in between. Don’t go feeling too sorry for me as the truth is that at that time most daily Masses were Requiem Masses (for the dead) and it was one thin little Missal and black vestments.
Things did change in the calendar before Vatican II. Actually many of the changes people associate with Vatican II really began with Pope Pius XII. Most notable was the revision of Holy Week that took place in 1955. Also during that year most vigils of feasts were suppressed and the number of octaves (the period from the feast to its eighth day) was reduced from 15 to three (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost). Two classes from the ranking of feasts were also suppressed. One month before his death, Pope Pius XII issued an Instruction on Sacred Music which introduced broadly “Dialogue Masses” where the congregation would recite much of the Mass along with the priest in Latin. Lay commentators would read in the vernacular what the priest read in Latin.
Prior to the Council, from 1960-62, Blessed Pope John XXIII brought in other changes including the suppression of some feast days because they were either redundant or not “historical,” for example: The Finding of The Holy Cross and St. Peter’s Chains. In 1969 under Pope Paul VI the feasts of a number of saints were removed from the Church’s universal calendar and allowed to remain in local calendars where there was particular devotion to the saint. The most famous example of this is St. Christopher. He was not “de-sainted,” but was removed from the universal calendar because his “acts” (life story) were found to be mostly legendary. The legends may well be based on a real person, but the legend has taken on a life of its own.
On Dec. 4, 1963, Pope Paul VI formally promulgated The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). There were three major goals in the Constitution: 1) full, conscious and active participation by all involved in the celebration of the liturgy; 2) structural revision of liturgical rites; 3) recognition that the liturgy is the work of Christ and that the Church is most fully realized when the Eucharist is celebrated. The fifth chapter of the Constitution is on the Liturgical Year and the instructions in this chapter encourage the realization of all three major goals. First and foremost is the strong emphasis on the primacy of the Lord’s Day (Sunday, or the Saturday vigil), in that each Sunday is a little Easter. We also celebrate the Lord’s resurrection once every year, together with his blessed passion at the Easter Triduum. The emphasis on “Sunday” and the Easter Triduum bring us to the roots of our Catholic liturgical tradition and to the source out of which all other liturgical seasons and feasts develop.
“In each liturgical year the Church unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from the incarnation and nativity to the ascension, to Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord” (SC Chapter 5). In this way the Church invites us into the story of our salvation and through the celebration of liturgical seasons asks us to recall Christ’s saving deeds, to inculcate them into our own lives and to look to the full realization of the Kingdom of God in the “Supper of the Lamb.” In these last 50 years since the Constitution was promulgated I believe that most of us have a much better understanding and appreciation of our faith and its celebration through this emphasis on the Lord’s Day.
This focus on the Lord’s Day is further developed in the celebration of this annual cycle by feasts of the Blessed Mother who is “inseparably linked with her son’s saving work,” as well as in the celebration of the saints. In those days long ago when I was sacristan in my parish church the saints mostly seemed to be people who lived long ago and far away. Today in the renewed calendar and the encouragement of particular or local calendars we have the opportunity to celebrate the lives of American saints and saints who have lived in our own time and witnessed God’s love to us. I think particularly of soon-to-be saints Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
Since the Council, I believe we have a deeper faith through our celebration of the liturgical seasons as they have been renewed. These celebrations naturally lead to pious practices for soul and body that strengthen our faith and bind us closer in the sacred mysteries.
My final reflection is that I am so grateful to the Council Fathers for the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It has affected my life and faith as few other documents have. From those sacristan days until now as a priest and pastor I have grown closer to Christ through the ongoing renewal of the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy and the reform of the liturgical year.
(Msgr. Shafer is pastor of St. Ann Parish in Long Grove.)