Saints day trivia

So you love besting your friends with obscure Catholic trivia.  You find a nugget of geekery and you treasure it up, waiting like a spider in its web to rush out and pounce on some Catholic friend or acquaintance with your stumper question.  Well, I have a little gem for you.

Question:  What saints’ feast days fall on different days depending on what year it is?

Think about this one before you read the answer.  The solution has nothing to do with a difference between the old and new calendars (although we’ll say something about that difference in a moment).  It has nothing to do with when Easter falls, or how many Sundays there are in Advent.  Got it yet?

In the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology, 9 saints are celebrated on February 28.  But in a leap year, saints 4 through 7 are moved to February 29.  Those are Pope St. Hilary, St. Oswald, Blessed Antonia of Florence, and St. Augustus Chapdelaine.

The pre-Vatican II martyrology has a somewhat messier solution for leap years.  The vigil of St. Matthias the Apostle is celebrated on February 23 together with a number of other saints, with his feast falling on February 24, again together with a bunch of other saints.  But in a leap year, February 24 is emptied entirely and the only martyrology entry for the day is “the Vigil of St. Matthias the Apostle”.  What would normally be celebrated on the 24th is bumped to the 25th, the 25th is bumped to the 26th, and so on until the 29th has what used to be the saints of the 28th.

Both solutions are odd, but they escape something even odder.  If February 29th had its own saints, then we would only celebrate those saints liturgically once every four years!

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The Holy Innocents

December 28

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs.  These children, who were killed in Bethlehem of Judea by the impious king Herod so that the infant Jesus might perish with them, he whom the Magi had adored, have been honored as martyrs from the earliest days of the Church, the first fruits of all those who would shed their blood for God and for the Lamb.


May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

V. Precious in the sight of the Lord

R. Is the death of his holy ones.

V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.  And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in pace.

R. Amen

[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]

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How well do you know Church and sacraments?

It’s final exam week at WCC.  What I really wanted to do this week was work on my novel, but instead I had to write, administer, and grade a final exam for the seniors.  The result was a blend.  Here’s what the test instructions said:

I need you to help me complete a story I’ve been working on, all about a senior at Wyoming Catholic College who goes home for the holidays and meets up with some old friends.  Read the story and, where you see the prompt Short answer or Essay, fill in the appropriate answers.

It was fun to write and–from what I am told–fun to take.  If you would like to test your own knowledge, you can click here to see the exam.  But if you just want to read the final story, I used student answers (word for word, no editing!) to fill in the gaps in this version.  For variety, I picked answers from seven different students; if I had written the answers myself they would have looked different, but it’s more fun to see how the seniors collaborated with me on the project.

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A Jesse Tree Catechism

Not the Jesse Tree we use at home!

Like a lot of families, we put up a “Jesse Tree” every Advent as a way of getting the kids focused on something about Christmas other than the P-word.  Ours is a simple thing, a tree drawn on a cloth with some ornaments hand stitched by my wife’s mother years ago.  When I began teaching Salvation History courses for college students, I brought the Jesse Tree in toward the end of the fall semester to tie a few things together.  If you put up a Jesse Tree in your home, or if you’ve ever wondered what the whole thing is about, you might enjoy seeing how I approach it with my students.  It’s the same thing I do at home with the kids:

Q. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree. Continue reading “A Jesse Tree Catechism”

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A Sequence for Advent

A few years ago, we bought a wooden advent calendar with little doors concealing magnetic figures that can be arranged on a nativity scene:

Advent Calendar

Last year during Advent I set myself a poetic challenge:  I would hide a slip of paper behind the door with each figure, and on that paper would be a rhyming couplet that said something about the figure; all the couplets together would form a coherent poem to be recited on Christmas Eve when the last door had been opened.  I had to think ahead about the best order for the figures, taking into account that the biggest ones could not fit behind the littlest doors.  But once the order was set, I wrote the couplets day by day, scrambling each evening to prepare the morning’s rhyme.  Some mornings I made excuses to delay the morning Advent Calendar ritual and buy extra time to write!

Once the first stanza was done, my friend Peter Kwasniewski composed a Gregorian chant setting for it, in the one-note-one-syllabus style of a liturgical “sequence” like the Victimae paschali.  The “Advent sequence” was a success, and the melody haunting:  you can read and decide for yourself here.  If you are not familiar with Gregorian chant notation, you can listen to my rendition of it here:

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The spirit of the Solemnity of All Saints

For anyone interested in the Martyrology, or the Church’s “sanctoral cycle,” November 1 is an especially uplifting feast.  By venerating all saints at once, this celebration more than any other day of the year invites reflection on the very phenomenon of venerating saints.  Today’s entry in the older Martyrology highlights the origin of the feast:

The Festival of All Saints, which Pope Boniface IV, after the dedication of the Pantheon, ordained to be kept generally and solemnly every year, in the city of Rome, in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy martyrs.  It was afterwards decreed by Gregory IV that this feast, which was then celebrated in many dioceses, but at different times, should be on this day kept by the whole Church in honor of all saints.

The 2004 edition of the Martyrology focuses on the goals of the feast:

The solemnity of all Saints who with Christ are in glory, by which, under the joy of one feast, the holy Church still in pilgrimage on earth venerates the memory of those whose society causes heaven to rejoice, so that she may be spurred on by their example, may rejoice in their protection, and may be crowned by their triumph in the sight of the divine majesty unto endless ages.

Of the three goals listed, the first two are standard.  Mediator Dei 166-168 and Sacrosanctum Concilium 104 and other sources teach that we venerate the saints in order to be instructed and encouraged by their example and in order to benefit from the protection of their prayers.  But the third goal listed in the Martyrology points to something more:  that we “may be crowned by their triumph in the sight of the divine majesty unto endless ages.”  What does it mean?

Of course, it could just mean that we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints so that we can be saints, too, that is, so that we can be crowned by a triumph just like their triumph.  But I like to see in this words the stronger assertion that we will be crowned by their triumph.  Because we are all citizens of one heavenly city and members of one mystical body, the glories of the saints are our glories, and to the degree that we make our calling and election sure (2Peter 1:10) we lay more permanent hold on the claim that their triumph is ours.

The reason I like this “strong” reading of the Martyrology is that it emphasizes our communion with the saints, the fact that we are bound together as one by the sharing of spiritual goods, as Leo XIII explains in Mirae Caritatis 12.  And this opens onto the profound teaching of Lumen Gentium 50: “Nor is it by the title of example only that we cherish the memory of those in heaven, but still more in order that the union of the whole Church may be strengthened in the Spirit by the practice of fraternal charity.”

This beautiful sentence sets the definitive context for today’s Solemnity:  the saints’ example is good for me, and the saints’ protection is good for me, but the fact that the saints and I are bound together by mutual attention and concern is good for the Church.  In a given situation I may need an example to follow, and in a given situation I may need the help of someone’s prayer, but at all times and by her very nature the Church needs to have spiritual unity.  Of course, the very fact that all the members receive life and direction from Christ the head makes the Church one in reality, but this good is incomplete until it is carried into action.

One can see this emphasis in that wonderful proto-martyrology, chapters 11 and 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews.  After listing and commemorating one after another of the saints who have preceded us, the author says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (Heb 12:1).  Even though the thrust of the whole passage is an appeal to the example of the saints, the image of being “surrounded” by a “cloud of witnesses” says much more than “Let’s be virtuous like those people back then were virtuous.”  It says, “Your whole community is watching you and cheering for you and they understand what you are doing because they’ve done it too!”  It says, “The saints are interested in you and your doings just as you are interested in them and theirs, and they rejoice in your victories as you rejoice in theirs!”  This way of thinking of the saints’ example highlights the unity of the Church in the sharing of spiritual goods—something not only good for us or good for them but good for the Church as such.

In one sentence:  Veneration of the saints in and of itself, even apart from answered prayers and examples emulated, builds up the Church.

P.S. Did you notice that the proto-martyrology is a catalogue of Biblical Saints?

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Seeing new tracks in Daniel

The first time I went snow tracking, it was amazing.  My class drove into the mountains to find a clean snow field, and there, far from urban disturbance, we saw the stories of local wildlife written into the powdery surface:  the tiny prints of a mouse, the widely spaced prints of a rabbit, the linear prints of a deer.  But the amazing part was when we came back to Lander:  the city itself was suddenly full of animal tracks!  Had those tracks been there all the time?  Had I really been so blind?  Our instructor told us we had acquired the appropriate “filter” so as to notice what before had been hidden before our eyes.

I feel like that happened recently with the book of Daniel.  Chapter four tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, who becomes boastful and ascribes all of his great works to himself instead of giving glory to God, and as a consequence God takes away his rationality for a season.  The great king goes on all fours, eating grass and living outside, until God deigns to give his reason back.  Then the king publishes an edict praising God and ascribing all of the king’s great works to the Almighty.

And it struck me:  Is this not clearly saying that a king or kingdom that fails to acknowledge God will become less than human?  That only the king or kingdom who acknowledges God will regain his humanity?

Chapter seven recounts one of Daniel’s most famous visions.  He sees three beasts, each more ferocious than the last, and the beasts are strange, monstrous creatures made of parts from different animals.  Then he sees “one like a son of man” who comes and supplants all the beasts.  The dream is interpreted thus:  the three beasts are three kingdoms of the Gentiles, and the “one like a son of man” is the kingdom of God’s people—or the Messiah himself, for later Jewish readers.

And it struck me:  Is this not saying that all kingdoms that do not worship God become somehow subhuman and even monstrous?  That the kingdom of those who worship God is, in fact, the only fully human kingdom?

I had a new “filter” on as I listened to Daniel this time, because I had just spent the morning on Gaudium et Spes 22:  “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

And Gaudium et Spes 36: “But if the expression ‘the independence of temporal affairs’ is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear.”

In retrospect, it seems logical that Daniel would have a strong message about the relation of religion and state.  The narrative setting is the exile of Israel, when Israel lost its state but—miraculously—kept its religion, thus introducing a sharp distinction between state and religion for the first time.  And if you believe the modern view that Daniel was written around the time of the Macabean revolt—which I do—then we also have the first time of the state setting itself very directly against the people’s religion.

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Tomorrow is Corpus Christi

The holy council declares, moreover, that the custom that this sublime and venerable sacrament be celebrated with special veneration and solemnity every year on a fixed festival day, and that it be borne reverently and with honor in processions through the streets and public places, was very piously and religiously introduced into the Church of God. For it is most reasonable that some days be set aside as holy on which all Christians may with special and unusual demonstration testify that their minds are grateful to and mindful of their common Lord and Redeemer for so ineffable and truly divine a favor whereby the victory and triumph of His death are shown forth. And thus indeed did it behoove the victorious truth to celebrate a triumph over falsehood and heresy, that in the sight of so much splendor and in the midst of so great joy of the universal Church, her enemies may either vanish weakened and broken, or, overcome with shame and confounded, may at length repent.

– Council of Trent, Session XIII, ch. 5

Our local parish is going to have a Corpus Christi procession.  I hope nobody vanishes weakened and broken, but a bit of repentance here and there would be great.

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Test your Joachim and Anne knowledge

Sts. Joachim and Anne are marvelously fascinating.  What kind of parents raised the Virgin Mary, who was fit to raise God himself?  While St. Anne has historically received more attention, for me Joachim’s title as “God’s grandpa” has an awesome ring.

So go ahead:  take the feastday quiz, test your knowledge, and feel your devotion to these saints growing with each click!  (Answers will be displayed when you are done:  responses that would be correct will be printed in green.)

[wpsqt name="Joachim and Anne Feastday Quiz" type="quiz"]

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