Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Extraordinary Form and the New Evangelization

by The Most Reverend Athanasius Schneider

Turning Our Gaze Towards Christ

In order to speak of new evangelization correctly, it is necessary first to turn our gaze towards Him Who is the true evangelizer, namely Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Word of God made Man. The Son of God came upon this earth to expiate and atone for the greatest sin, sin par excellence. And this sin, humanity's sin par excellence, consists in refusing to adore God and in refusing to keep the first place, the place of honor, for Him. This sin on the part of man consists in not paying attention to God, in no longer having a sense of the fittingness of things, or even a sense of the details pertaining to God and to the adoration that is His due, in not wanting to see God, and in not wanting to kneel before God.

For such an attitude, the incarnation of God is an embarrassment; as a result the real presence of God in the Eucharistic mystery is likewise and embarrassment; the centrality of the Eucharistic presence of God in our churches is an embarrassment. Indeed sinful man wants the center stage for himself, whether within the Church or during the Eucharistic celebration. He wants to be seen, to be noticed.

For this reason Jesus the Eucharist, God incarnate, present in the tabernacle under the Eucharistic form, is set aside. Even the representation of the Crucified One on the cross in the middle of the altar during the celebration facing the people is an embarrassment, for it might eclipse the priest's face. Therefore, the image of the Crucified One in the center of the altar as well as Jesus the Eucharist in the tabernacle, also in the center of the altar, are an embarrassment. Consequently, the cross and the tabernacle are moved to the side. During Mass, the congregation must be able to see the priest's face at all times, and he delights in placing himself literally at the center of the house of God. and if perchance Jesus, really present to us in the Most Holy Eucharist, is still left in His tabernacle in the middle of the altar because the Ministry of Historical Monuments -- even in an atheist regime -- has forbidden moving it for the conservation of artistic heritage, the priest, often throughout the entire Eucharistic celebration, does not scruple to turn his back to Him.

How often have good and faithful adorers of Christ cried out in their simplicity and humility: "God bless you, Ministry of Historical Monuments! At least you have left us Jesus in the center of our church."

The Mass is Intended to Give Glory to God, Not to Men

Only on the basis of adoring and glorifying God can the Church adequately proclaim the word of truth, that is, evangelize. Before the world ever heard Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, preach and proclaim the Kingdom, He quietly adored for thirty years. This remains forever the law for the Church's life and action as well as for all evangelizers. "The way the liturgy is treated decides the fate of the Faith and of the Church," said Cardinal Ratzinger, our current Holy Father Benedict XVI. The Second Vatican Council intended to remaind the Church what reality and what action were to take the place in her life. This is the reason the first of the Concil's documents was dedicated to the liturgy. The Council gives us the following principles: in the Church, and therefore in the liturgy, the human must be oriented toward the divine and be subordinate to it; likewise the visible in relation to the invisible, action in relation to contemplation, the present in relation to the future city to which we aspire (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2). According to the teaching of Vatican II our earthly liturgy participates in a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy of the holy city of Jerusalem (ibid., 2).

Everything about the liturgy of the Holy Mass must therefore serve to express clearly the reality of Christ's sacrifice, namely the prayers of adoration, of thanksgiving, of expiation, and of petition that the eternal High Priest presented to His Father.

The rite and every detail of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass must center on glorifying and adoring God by insisting on the centrality of Christ's presence, whether in the sign and representation of the Crucified or in His Eucharistic presence in the tabernacle, and especially at the moment of the Consecration and of Holy Communion. The more this is respected and the less man takes center stage in the celebration, the less the celebration looks like a circle closed in on itself. Rather, it is opened out to Christ as in a procession advancing towards Him with the priest at its head; such a liturgical procession will more truly reflect the sacrifice of adoration of Christ crucified; the fruits deriving from God's glorification received into the souls of those in attendance will be richer; God will honor them more.

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The rite and every detail of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass must center on glorifying and adoring God by insisting on the centrality of Christ's presence, whether in the sign and representation of the Crucified or in His Eucharistic presence in the tabernacle, and especially at the moment of the Consecration and of Holy Communion.

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The more the priest and the faithful truthfully seek the glory of God rather than that of men in Eucharistic celebrations, and do not seek to receive glory from each other, the more God will honor them by granting that their souls may participate more intensely and fruitfully in the glory and honor of His divine life.

At present and in various places on earth there are many celebrations of the Holy Mass regarding which one might say, as an inversion of Psalm 113:9: "To us, O Lord, and to our name give glory." To such celebrations apply Jesus' words: "How can you believe, who receive glory one from another: and the glory which is from God alone, you do not seek?": (Jn 5:44).

The Six Principles of the Liturgical Reform

The Second Vatican Council put forward the following principles regarding a liturgical reform:
  1. During the liturgical celebration, the human, the temporal, and action must be directed towards the divine, the eternal, and contemplation; the role of the former must be subordinated to the latter (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2).
  2. During the liturgical celebration, the realization that the earthly liturgy participates in the heavenly liturgy will have to be encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8).
  3. There must be absolutely no innovation, therefore no new creation of liturgical rites, especially in the rite of the Mass, unless it is for a true and certain gain for the Church, and provided that all is done prudently and, if it is warranted, that new forms replace the existing ones organically (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23).
  4. The rite of Mass must be such that the sacred is more explicitly addressed (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 21).
  5. Latin must be preserved in the liturgy, especially in Holy Mass (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 24 and 54).
  6. Gregorian chant has pride of place in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116).
The Council Fathers saw their reform proposals as the continuation of the reform of Saint Pius X (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112 and 117) and the servant of God Pius XII; indeed, in the liturgical constitution, Pius XII's Encyclical Mediator Dei is what is most often cited.

Among other things, Pope Pius XII left the Church an important principle of doctrine regarding the Holy Liturgy, namely the condemnation of what is called liturgical archeologism. Its proposals largely overlapped with those of the Jansenistic and Protestant-leaning synod of Pistoia (see Mediator Dei, 63-64). As a matter of fact they bring to mind Martin Luther's theological thinking.

For this reason, the Council of Trent had already condemned Protestant ideas, in particular the exaggerated emphasis on the notion of a banquet in the Eucharistic celebration to the detriment of its sacrificial character and the suppression of univocal signs of sacrality as an expression of the mystery of the liturgy (Council of Trent, session 22).

The Magisterium's doctrinal declarations on the liturgy, as in this case those of the Council of Trent and of the encyclical Mediator Dei and which are reflected in a centuries-old, or even millenia-old, liturgical praxis, these declarations, I say, form part of that element of Holy Tradition that one cannot abandon without incurring grave spiritual damage. Vatican II took up these doctrinal declarations on the liturgy, as one can see by reading the general principals of divine worship in the liturgical constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.

As an example of a concrete error in the thought and praxis of liturgical action, Pope Pius XII cites the proposal to give to the altar the shape of a table (Mediator Dei 62). If already Pope Pius XII refused the table0shaped altar, one can imagine how much more he would have refused the proposal for a celebration around a table versus populum!

When Sacrosanctum Concilium 2 teaches that, in the liturgy, contemplation has the priority and that the entire celebration must be oriented to the heavenly mysteries (ibid. 2 and 8), it is faithfully echoing the following declaration of the Council of Trent: "And whereas such is the nature of man, that, without external helps, he cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things; therefore has holy Mother Church instituted certain rites, to wit that certain things be pronounced in the Mass in a low, and others in a louder, tone. She has likewise employed ceremonies, such as mystic benedictions, lights,incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, derived from an apostolic discipline and tradition, whreby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice" (Session 24, chapter 5).

The Church's magisterial teachings quoted above, especially Mediator Dei, were certainly recognized as fully valid by the Fathers of the Council. Therefore they must continue to be fully valid for all of the Church's children even today.

The Five Wounds of the Liturgical Mystical Body of Christ

In the letter to all the bishops of the Catholic Church that Benedict XVI sent with the July 7, 2007 Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, the Pope made the following important declaration: "In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too." In saying this, the Pope expressed the fundamental principle of the liturgy that the Council of Trent, Pope Pius XII, and the Second Vatican Council had taught.
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The first and most obvious wound is the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass in which the priest celebrates with his face turned towards the faithful, especially during the Eucharistic prayer and the consecration, the highest and most sacred moment of the worship that is God's due.

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Taking an unprejudiced and objective look at the liturgical practice of the overwhelming majority of churches throughout the Catholic world where the Ordinary Form of the roman rite is used, no one can honestly deny that the six aforementioned liturgical principles of Vatican II are never, or hardly ever, respected, despite the erroneous claim that such is the liturgical practice that Vatican II desired. There are a certain number of concrete aspects of the currently prevailing liturgical practice in the ordinary rite that represent a veritable rupture with a constant and millennium-old liturgical practice. By this I mean the five liturgical practices I shall mention shortly; they may be termed the five wounds of the liturgical mystical body of Christ. These are wounds, for they amount to a violent break with the past since they deemphasize the sacrificial character (which is actually the central and essential character of the Mass) and put forward the notion of banquet. All of this diminishes the exterior signs of divine adoration, for it brings out the heavenly and eternal dimension of the mystery to a far lesser degree.

Now the five wounds (except for the new Offertory prayers) are those that are not envisaged in the Ordinary Form of the rite of Mass but were brought into it through the practice of a deplorable fashion.

A) The first and most obvious wound is the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass in which the priest celebrates with his face turned towards the faithful, especially during the Eucharistic prayer and the consecration, the highest and most sacred moment of the worship that is God's due. This exterior form corresponds, by its very nature, more to the way in which one teaches a class or shares a meal. We are in a closed circle. And this form absolutely does not conform to the moment of the prayer, less yet to that of adoration. And yet Vatican II did not want this form by any means; nor has it ever been recommended by the Magisterium of the Popes since the Council. Pope Benedict worte in the preface of the first volume of his collected works: "The idea that the priest and the people in prayer must look at one another reciprocally was born only in the modern age and is completely foreign to ancient Christianity. In fact, the priest and the people do not address their prayer to one another, but together they address it to the one Lord. For this reason they look in the same direction in prayer: either towards the East as the cosmic symbol of the Lord's return, or where this is not possible, towards an image of Christ in the apse, toward a cross, or simply upwards."

The form of celebration in which all turn their gaze in the same direction (conversi ad orientem, ad Crucem, ad Dominum) is even mentioned in the rubrics of the new rite of the Mass (see Ordo Missae, 25, 133, 134). The so-called versus populum celebration certainly does not correspond to the idea of the Holy Liturgy as mentioned in the declaration of Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2 and 8.

B) The second wound is communion in the hand, which is now spread nearly throughout the entire world. Not only was this manner of receiving communion in now way mentioned by the Vatican II Council Fathers, but it was in fact introduced by a certain number of bishops in disobedience to the Holy See and in spite of the negative majority vote by bishops in 1968. Pope Paul VI legitimized it only later, reluctantly, and under specific conditions.

Pope Benedict XVI, since Corpus Christi 2008, distributes Communion to the faithful kneeling and on their tongue only, both in Rome and also in all the local churches he visits. He thus is showing the entire Church a clear example of practical Magisterium in a liturgical manner. Since the qualified majority of the bishops refused Communion in the hand as something harmful three years after the Council, how much more the Council Fathers would have done so!

C) The third would is the new Offertory prayers. They are an entirely new creation and had never been used in the Church. They express not so much the mystery of the sacrifice of the Cross as the event of a banquet; thus they recall the prayers of the Jewish Sabbath meal. In the more than thousand-year tradition of the Church in both East and West, the Offertory prayers have always been expressedly oriented to the mystery of the sacrifice of the Cross (see, e.g. Paul Tirot, Histoire des prières d’offertoire dans la liturgie romaine du VIIème au XVIème siècle [Rome, 1985]). There is no doubt that such an absolutely new creation contradicts the clear formulation of Vatican II that states: “Innovationes ne fiant . . . novae formae ex formis iam exstantibus organice crescant” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23).

D) The fourth wound is the total disappearance of Latin in the huge majority of Eucharistic celebrations in the Ordinary Form in all Catholic countries. This is a direct infraction against the decisions of Vatican II.

E) The fifth wound is the exercise of the liturgical services of lector and acolyte by women as well as the exercise of these same services in lay clothing while entering into the choir during Holy Mass directly from the space reserved to the faithful. This custom has never existed in the Church, or at least has never been welcome. It confers to the celebration of the Catholic Mass the exterior character of informality, the character and style of a rather profane assembly. The second council of Nicaea, already in 787, forbad such practices when it lay down the following canon: “If someone is not ordained, it is not permitted for him to do the reading from the ambo during the holy liturgy“ (can. 14). This norm has been constantly followed in the Church. Only subdeacons and lectors were allowed to give the reading during the liturgy of the Mass. If lectors and acolytes are missing, men or boys in liturgical vestments may do so, not women, since the male sex symbolically represents the last link to minor orders from the point of view of the non-sacramental ordination of lectors and acolytes.

The texts of Vatican II never mention the suppression of the minor orders and of the subdiaconate or the introduction of new ministries. In Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 28, the Council distinguishes minister from fidelis during the liturgical celebration, and it stipulates that each may do only what pertains to him by the nature of the liturgy. Number 29 mentions the ministrantes, that is the altar servers who have not been ordained. In contrast to them, there are, in keeping with the juridical terms in use at that time, the ministri, that is to say those who have received an order, be it major or minor.

V –The Motu Proprio: putting an end to rupture in the liturgy In the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI stipulates that the two forms of the Roman rite are to be regarded and treated with the same respect, because the Church remains the same before and after the Council. In the letter accompanying the Motu Proprio, the pope wishes the two forms to enrich each other mutually. Furthermore he wishes that the new form “be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.”
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Four of the liturgical wounds, or unfortunate practices (celebration versus populum, communion in the hand, total abandonment of Latin and of Gregorian chant, and intervention of women for the service of lectorship and of acolyte), have in and of themselves nothing to do with the Ordinary Form of the Mass and moreover are in contradiction with the liturgical principles of Vatican II.

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Four of the liturgical wounds, or unfortunate practices (celebration versus populum, communion in the hand, total abandonment of Latin and of Gregorian chant, and intervention of women for the service of lectorship and of acolyte), have in and of themselves nothing to do with the Ordinary Form of the Mass and moreover are in contradiction with the liturgical principles of Vatican II. If an end were put to these practices, we would get back to the true teaching of Vatican II. And then, the two forms of the Roman rite would come considerable closer so that, at least outwardly, there would be no rupture to speak of between them and, therefore, no rupture between the Church before and after the Council either.

As concerns the new Offertory prayers, it would be desirable for the Holy See to replace them with the corresponding prayers of the extraordinary form, or at least to allow for the use of the latter ad libitum. In this way the rupture between the two forms would be avoided not only externally but also internally. Rupture in the liturgy is precisely what the Council Fathers did not what. The Council’s minutes attest to this, because throughout the two thousand years of the liturgy’s history, there has never been a liturgical rupture and, therefore, there never can be. On the other hand there must be continuity, just as it is fitting for the Magisterium to be in continuity.

The five wounds of the Church’s liturgical body I have mentioned are crying out for healing. They represent a rupture that one may compare to the exile in Avignon. The situation of so sharp a break in an expression of the Church’s life is far from unimportant—back then the absence of the popes from Rome, today the visible break between the liturgy before and after the Council. This situation indeed cries out for healing.

For this reason we need new saints today, one or several Saint Catherines of Sienna. We need the vox populi fidelis demanding the suppression of this liturgical rupture. The tragedy in all of this is that, today as back in the time of the Avignon exile, a great majority of the clergy, especially in its higher ranks, is content with this rupture.
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The five wounds of the Church’s liturgical body I have mentioned are crying out for healing. They represent a rupture that one may compare to the exile in Avignon.

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Before we can expect efficacious and lasting fruits from the new evangelization, a process of conversion must get under way within the Church. How can we call others to convert while, among those doing the calling, no convincing conversion towards God has yet occurred, internally or externally? The sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrifice of adoration of Christ, the greatest mystery of the Faith, the most sublime act of adoration is celebrated in a closed circle where people are looking at each other.

What is missing is conversio ad Dominum. It is necessary, even externally and physically. Since in the liturgy Christ is treated as though he were not God, and he is not given clear exterior signs of the adoration that is due to God alone because the faithful receive Holy Communion standing and, to boot, take it into their hands like any other food, grasping it with their fingers and placing it into their mouths themselves. There is here a sort of Eucharistic Arianism or Semi-Arianism.

One of the necessary conditions for a fruitful new evangelization would be the witness of the entire Church in the public liturgical worship. It would have to observe at least these two aspects of Divine Worship:
  1. Let the Holy Mass be celebrated the world over, even in the ordinary form, in an internal and therefore necessarily also external conversio ad Dominum.

  2. Let the faithful bend the knee before Christ at the time of Holy Communion, as Saint Paul demands when he mentions the name and person of Christ (see Phil 2:10), and let them receive Him with the greatest love and the greatest respect possible, as befits Him as true God.
Thank God, Benedict XVI has taken two concrete measures to begin the process of a return from the liturgical Avignon exile, to wit the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum and the reintroduction of the traditional Communion rite.

There still is need for many prayers and perhaps for a new Saint Catherine of Sienna for the other steps to be taken to heal the five wounds on the Church’s liturgical and mystical body and for God to be venerated in the liturgy with that love, that respect, that sense of the sublime that have always been the hallmark of the Church and of her teaching, especially in the Council of Trent, Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mediator Dei, Vatican II in its Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium and Pope Benedict XVI in his theology of the liturgy, in his liturgical magisterium, and in the Motu Proprio mentioned above.

No one can evangelize unless he has first adored, or better yet unless he adores constantly and gives God, Christ the Eucharist, true priority in his way of celebrating and in all of his life. Indeed, to quote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “It is in the treatment of the liturgy that the fate of the Faith and of the Church is decided.” +

Bishop Schneider is auxiliary bishop of the archidiocese of Saint Mary of Astana and Secretary of the Kazakhstan Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of the celebrated volume, Dominus Est – It Is the Lord! Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion,published by Newman House Press, and was a keynote speaker at the Call to Holiness conference in Metro Detroit in 2009.

The present article, "The Extraordinary Form and the New Evangelization," was first presented on January 15, 2012, as the keynote address at the fourth meeting of the Parisian association, Réunicatho, which came into being shortly after the Motu Proprio
Summorum Pontificum. We here present the unabridged translation of the keynote address given by the conference's guest of honor, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, as it was first published in the Paix Liturgique Newsletter 16 of March 2012 and subsequently on the Paix Liturgique website under the title, "Bishop Schneider and the Liturgy: Milestones for the Third Millennium." The article also appears in the Summer, 2012, issue Latin Mass magazine, pp. 6-10.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Counts of Jesu Christo, Part II

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Fra Angelico

By Michael P. Foley

This article is a companion to an article of the same name in the christmas 2008 issue of the Latin Mass.

It might seem odd to think of anyone else besides the Infant Jesus or the Holy Family during the octave of Our Lord’s Nativity, but the Church in her wisdom does precisely that. Immediately following Christmas Day are the feasts of several holy men and boys known as the comites Christi, “the comrades of Christ.” Comes not only means “companion” but it is also the Latin word for the noble title of count. As this would suggest, the comites Christi are somehow close to their Lord in the way that a royal entourage is close to its king. The Church acknowledges a spiritual intimacy by placing the feasts of certain saints close to that of the birthday of their Sovereign: the Byzantine rite, for example, pays special honor to the Princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, by celebrating their feast on December 28.

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It might seem odd to think of anyone else besides the Infant Jesus or the Holy Family during the octave of Our Lord’s Nativity, but the Church in her wisdom does precisely that.

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During the same week, the Western Church honors St. Stephen (December 26), the first martyr in both act and desire and hence the first to be honored after Christmas; St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the disciple closest to Christ during the Last Supper; the Holy Innocents (December 28), close to the Infant Jesus by their martyrdom; St. Thomas Becket (December 29), whose death at the hands of a Christian king on this day in 1170 so shocked Christendom that his feast day was given the privilege of remaining within the Christmas octave; and St. Sylvester (December 31), the Pope who lived to see the civic peace that followed the Roman persecutions and whose feast thus aptly gives voice to our prayers for the new civic year.

Three years ago, we looked at the feasts of two such counts, Saints Stephen the Proto-Martyr and John the Apostle.1 This year we turn our attention to the rest of the Roman rite’s Christmas Camelot: the Holy Infants, St. Thomas Becket, and Pope St. Sylvester.

The Holy Innocents (December 28)

Herod, perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: “A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not” (Mt. 2:16-18).
St. Matthew’s chilling description of the massacre of Bethlehem’s baby boys does not indicate how many were killed in Herod’s effort to murder the Infant Jesus. The Byzantine liturgy mentions 14,000, the Syrian churches speak of 64,000, and some medieval authors, inspired by Revelation 14:3, speak of a staggering 144,000. Based on fertility rates and the size of the population of Bethlehem and its environs at the time, however, a more realistic estimate places the number of the slain somewhere between ten and twenty.

Matthew’s account is also silent about the date of the massacre, except for hinting that it happened within two years of the apparition of the Magis’ star. The Armenian feast day honoring the Holy Innocents falls on Monday after the Second Sunday after Pentecost in accordance with a belief that they were killed fifteen weeks after the nativity of our Lord. The Byzantine calendar has the feast on December 29, while the Syrian and Chaldean calendars have it on December 27.

The Church of Rome, from what we can tell, has always kept the feast of “Childermas” (Children’s Mass) on December 28, ever since it first began being celebrated there in the fifth century. In so doing, the Western Church presents an interesting array of Christly counts on December 26, 27, and 28: first St. Stephen, the Proto-Martyr who is martyr by will, love, and blood; then St. John the Evangelist, who is martyr by will and love (John is considered a martyr because of the attempts made on his life even though he died a natural death); and lastly, the Holy Innocents, who are martyrs by blood alone.

But if they are not martyrs by blood alone, how can they be martyrs at all? Isn’t a martyr someone who dies because he consciously professes faith in Christ? The very fact that the Church acknowledges the murder of these little ones as holy martyrdom is itself significant, as it tells us something about the nature of salvation and childhood. A child normally does not attain the use of reason until the age of seven, and even then he is under the care of his parents, who act as a kind of “surrogate reason,” helping him develop his rational faculties. Yet an infant, under the supervision of another surrogate (his godparents), may be baptized long before he has the ability to believe in the creed for the simple reason that just as he did not personally choose the curse of original sin with which he was born, so too need he not choose the cure of baptismal grace in order to be saved.

Similarly, the Holy Innocents did not choose martyrdom or even Christ, but this is not due to any failure on their part but to the undeveloped state of their minds. What matters here, as with baptism, is the action done to them. The fact that they died not only for Christ but instead of Him makes them flores martyrum, the “flowers of the martyrs.” As St. Augustine eloquently puts it: “They are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution.”2 The Breviary Hymn for the feast, Salvete Flores Martyrum, alludes to this botanical epithet, along with a touching portrayal of the Innocents playing with their symbols of martyrdom before the altar of God:
You, tender flock of lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Beside the very altar, gay
With palms and crowns, ye seem to play.
The Mass of Childermas

As this bittersweet image attests, even though martyrdom is a glorious event in which the Church rejoices, it is difficult not to be moved by the thought of helpless toddlers being cut down in the streets. The Church, therefore, taking heed of Matthew’s citation of “Rachel weeping for her children” from the prophet Jeremiah, assumed the role of a second Rachel and mourned for these little ones. Except for when the feast fell on a Sunday, violet was the liturgical color, and the Gloria and Alleluia were suppressed. In the early centuries, Roman Christians also abstained from meat on Holy Innocents’ Day. It was on the octave day of the feast (January 4) that the Church turned her thoughts to the young martyrs’ glory, the Mass being celebrated in red with the Gloria and Alleluia. In the 1950s, however, the octave was eliminated, and so currently in the 1962 calendar red is the color of Childermas, and the Gloria and Alleluia are used. The station church of the day, St. Paul Outside the Walls, was chosen because it is believed that it contains the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents.3

Massacred of the Holy Innocents (detail) by Reni Guido

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But if they are not martyrs by blood alone, how can they be martyrs at all? Isn’t a martyr someone who dies because he consciously professes faith in Christ? The very fact that the Church acknowledges the murder of these little ones as holy martyrdom is itself significant.

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Childermas Customs

The twelve days of Christmas are a time of “topsy-turvy” customs, where social ranks and pecking orders are inverted in giddy imitation of the grandest inversion of all, the fact that Almighty God humbled Himself to be born a man in a chilly and foul-smelling stable. Childermas is no exception. In many religious communities, the novices had the privilege of sitting at the head of the table at meals and meetings, while the last person who had taken vows in the monastery or convent got to be superior for a day. Young monks and nuns would received congratulations and have “baby food,” such as hot cereal, served to them for dinner.4

A similar flip-flop occurred in the family. Customs like decorating the crib or blessing the baby were standard ways of observing the feast, and the youngest child was allowed special privileges and honors, even becoming master of the household. Not all customs, however, bode well for the young ’uns. In some places, children awoke to a spanking from their parents “to remind them of the sufferings of the Innocents!”5 Lover of tradition though I be, I do not recommend resuscitating this particular observance. It does, however, serve as a useful reminder to spoiled children when they complain about not being treated as royally on this day as they would wish.

In the Philippines and Spanish-speaking countries, Childermas is the equivalent of April’s Fools Day, a time of pranks and practical jokes called inocentadas. And, of course, all of Christendom once abstained from servile work on this day—along with the other twelve days of Christmas.

St. Thomas Becket (December 29)

Thomas Becket was born on December 21, the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, in either 1118 or 1120. He became a trusted subordinate of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury and eventually recommended to King Henry II that he be appointed Chancellor of England. Thomas and Henry became fast friends, sharing a commitment to hard work but also behaving in occasion “like two schoolboys at play.”6 Thomas acted vigorously in the interests of his monarch to the full extent of his conscience, but he disdained the licentious ways of his peers, hating “foul conduct or foul speech, lying or unchastity.”7 He also mentored the King’s son. The future Henry III later said that Becket showed him more love on the first day at his home than his father had in his entire life.

Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Some believe that his consecration is what eventually led to the placement of Trinity Sunday on the universal Roman calendar, since Becket procured permission for England to observe this feast as the anniversary of his archbishopric.8 The new Archbishop soon began defending the rights of the Church against the encroachment of the royal government. The most galvanizing issue was whether English clergymen were subject to ecclesiastical courts or the King’s. (In those days, as with our current practice of military courts, different segments of society were subject to different laws and magistracies.) Becket refused to budge, and the King eventually had him convicted of charges of malfeasance during his chancellorship. Thomas stormed out of the trial and fled to France, where he was protected by King Louis VII.

Death of Saint Thomas Becket by Meister Frnacke

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Some believe that his consecration is what eventually led to the placement of Trinity Sunday on the universal Roman calendar, since Becket procured permission for England to observe this feast as the anniversary of his archbishopric.

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Through the mediation of papal diplomacy, Becket returned to England in 1170. But the truce was not to last. Becket excommunicated three bishops when at the will of the King they crowned young Henry III at York, usurping a privilege reserved to Canterbury. Henry II, at the end of his wits, is then said to have retorted, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” There are several versions of what exactly he said, but whatever it was, it was interpreted by four of his knights as a command to kill the archbishop. The men left their weapons outside the cathedral, confronted Becket within and, after he refused to absolve the bishops, returned with their weapons.

They met up with Becket as he was approaching the sanctuary for Solemn Vespers and this time drew their swords. Unlike the stylized movie version, the assassination was gruesome. The eyewitness account from his faithful cross-bearer reports that the knights’ blows opened his skull, spilling his brains onto the pavement. The killers then exulted, saying, “Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.” Thus, as a hymn in his honor puts it, St. Thomas became “both priest and sacrifice in the church of Canterbury for the sake of the laws of justice.”9

It did not take long for all of Europe to venerate Becket as a martyr, and within three years he was canonized a saint by the Pope. A year later, the King himself did penance and was scourged at Becket’s tomb. The shrine was the most popular pilgrimage site in the British Isles until Henry VIII’s thugs destroyed it and the saint’s bones in 1538. St. Thomas’ four murderers fled England and eventually sought forgiveness from Pope Alexander in Rome, who had excommunicated them. The Pope made their penance a term of fourteen years of service as crusaders in the Holy Land.

Legends and Customs

There are several colorful legends about St. Thomas Becket, most of which pay homage to his lovable gruffness. Becket purportedly gave tails to the inhabitants of Strood, Kent, after they sided with the King and cut off the tail of the archbishop’s horse as he rode through town.10 In Otford, Kent, the saint did not like the taste of the drinking water and struck his crosier on the ground to form what is now called “Becket’s Well.” Otford is also said to lack nightingales because one of them made a racket while Becket was trying to pray, prompting him to banish them from the town. But this does not mean that the saint hated the fowls of the air. On one occasion, a little bird that had been taught to speak escaped from its cage and flew into a field. A hawk swooped in for the kill, and as it was about to strike, the panicked bird cried out what it had heard others say in times of distress, “Saint Thomas, help!” The hawk was struck dead, and the bird escaped unharmed.11

There are no universal customs on St. Thomas’ feast day, but it is not difficult to find ways of paying tribute to “England’s most vibrant flower,” as he has been called.12 English food and ale are a good start, along with the 1964 film Becket starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. Based on a play by Jean Anouilh, the movie takes considerable liberties with the biographical details, starting with the fact that it portrays Becket, who was a descendant of the Normans, as a Saxon underdog. Nor was Becket a carousing and opportunistic nihilist prior to his elevation to the See of Canterbury, although he did become much more ascetical at that point, changing, as he once said, from being “a patron of actors and a follower of hounds to a shepherd of souls.” One sign of his transformation was a hair shirt that he wore under his archbishop’s garments (as was discovered by the monks who prepared his body for burial.) Still, the movie is a dramatic and psychological masterpiece, and it accurately portrays some of the challenges St. Thomas faced in his life.

Pope Saint Sylvester (December 31)

Saint Sylvester was Supreme Pontiff during the reign of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who ended the persecution of the Church and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. There are several legends connecting the Pope and the Emperor, though their historical value is dubious. According to one, Constantine was baptized on his death bed by Sylvester; according to another, the baptism took place earlier in his life, when he allegedly contracted leprosy. One memorable version of the legend states that Constantine was told that the only cure for leprosy was to bathe in the blood of 3,000 newborn infants. As the infants were being gathered, Constantine recoiled at this barbarity as incompatible with Roman dignity. That night, Sts. Peter and Paul appeared to him in a dream and told him to go to Pope Sylvester, who baptized and thus cured him in the basilica of St. John Lateran.13 Today, an inscription at the base of the obelisk outside the basilica records this legend.

Pope Saint Sylvester I photo by Nick Exsillo

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Saint Sylvester was Supreme Pontiff during the reign of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who ended the persecution of the Church and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.

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What we do know is that during Sylvester’s pontificate Constantine built several of the great churches of Rome, not only the Lateran but Santa Croce, the original St. Peter’s, and a number of cemeterial churches over the graves of martyrs. The Pope no doubt collaborated with this effort, and he also sent legates to the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council in Church history. The first Roman martyrology was compiled during Sylvester’s papacy, and his name is associated with the “Roman school” of chant.

As mentioned above, there is something appropriate about issuing in the new civic year with the first Bishop of Rome to enjoy civic peace, when our hearts are filled with hope for “peace on earth.” But the reason for the feast day is more literal: after twenty one years of service to God as Pope, Sylvester was buried on December 31, 335.


Sylvester’s feast is so closely tied to December 31 that in many countries New Year’s Eve is simply known as “Silvester” or “Silvester Night” (silvesterabend or silvesternacht in German). In France and French Canada it was traditional for the father to bless the members of his family and for the children to thank their parents for all of their love and care.14 In central Europe, a pre-Christian ritual of scaring away demons with loud noises was retained; from this is derived our custom of fireworks and artillery salutes in welcome of the new year. In Austria, December 31 was sometimes called Rauchnacht or “Incense night,” when the paterfamilias of the family went through the house and barn purifying them with incense and holy water.15

And speaking of luck, Sylvester Night was a favorite occasion for attempts to peer into the upcoming year. The reading of tea leaves was once popular, as was pouring spoonfuls of molten lead into water and interpreting the future from the shapes it took. Young maidens prayed to St. Sylvester in traditional rhymes, asking him for a good husband and hoping through his intercession to catch a glimpse of Mr. Right in their dreams or in the reflection of a mirror.16

On the more pious side of things were vigil services of various kinds thanking God for the gifts of the year and seeking blessings for the new. To this day, Holy Mother Church grants a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, to a public recitation of the great Latin hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, on the last day of the year. A partial indulgence, on the other hand, “is granted to those who recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving.”17

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All of these ancient feasts speak in different ways to the Church today and the contemporary world. On Childermas, for example, some have begun to remember in their prayers the victims of abortion.

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The Feast of St. Sylvester was also considered a good time to feed the body as well as the soul. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking areas it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight. In Austria, krapfen, apricot-jam doughnuts, are traditionally eaten when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve. In Poland, Poncz Sylwestrowy (“Sylvester’s Punch”), a strong rum mixture, was similarly imbibed.18


December 28, 29, and 31 celebrate a range of saints, from those who died thirty three years before the Crucifixion to those who died over 1,100 years after. Yet all of these ancient feasts speak in different ways to the Church today and the contemporary world. On Childermas, for example, some have begun to remember in their prayers the victims of abortion. Like their Bethlehem counterparts, the unborn now are innocents being slain by cruel Herods, but unlike the Holy Innocents they are bereft of the privilege of dying explicitly for Christ. Interestingly, there were once folk beliefs in German-speaking countries about some unbaptized babies going to Heaven on Childermas Day.19

Similarly, it would not be inappropriate to pray on St. Thomas’ Day for the return of the Church of England, and indeed of the entire English nation, to the Catholic Faith. Thomas gave his life to protect the Church from subordination to the Crown, as would another Thomas, St. Thomas More, four centuries later. In fact, More drew great consolation from knowing that he was to be executed on July 6, the day before another feast day honoring the brave Archbishop, the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket. Let us pray that “Our Lady’s Dowry” re-embrace its ancient Faith and that Pope Benedict XVI’s generous provisions in his 2009 Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus be accepted.

Lastly, when St. Sylvester died he looked out on a world that no longer butchered Christians and was beginning to appropriate Christian morality in its laws and mores. Today we look at the photographic negative of that picture, as persecutions of Christians increase worldwide and Western society increasingly abandons its sacred heritage. As we celebrate in the octave of Christmas the Light that came into the world, let us pray that It dispel the shadows of our age and its global godlessness. St. Sylvester, help!

[Michael P. Foley, an associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University, is the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites (Eerdmans, 2008).]


  1. “The Counts of Jesu Christo,” TLM 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. [back]

  2. Augustine, Sermon 10 on the Saints. [back]

  3. For more on station days, see my article, “Making the Stations: Stational Churches and the Spiritual Geography of the Roman Patrimony,” TLM 18:1 (Winter 2009), pp. 38-41. [back]

  4. Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1958), 133. [back]

  5. Joanna Bogle, A Book of Feasts and Seasons (Gracewing, 1992), 59. [back]

  6. Herbert Thurston, “St. Thomas Becket,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), , retrieved October 3, 2011. [back]

  7. Thurston, ibid. [back]

  8. Thurston, ibid. [back]

  9. In templo Cantuariae/ Pro legibus justitiae/ Fit sacerdos et hostia, from the hymn, Pia Mater Plangat Ecclesia. [back]

  10. “Thomas Becket,” Wikipedia,, retrieved October 3, 2011. [back]

  11. From “The Translation of Saint Thomas of Canterbury,” in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. [back]

  12. Thomas totius Angliae/ Flos vernans, from the hymn, Pia Mater Plangat Ecclesia. [back]

  13. From “The Life of Saint Silvester,” in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. [back]

  14. Weiser, Religious Customs in the Family (Liturgical Press, 1956), 62. [back]

  15. Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, Feast Day Cookbook (Catholic Authors Press, 1951/2005), 170. [back]

  16. Weiser, Handbook, 139. [back]

  17. Enchiridion of Indulgences, 60. [back]

  18. For the recipes, see Evelyn Vitz, A Continual Feast (Ignatius Press, 1985), 158-59. [back]

  19. See Weiser, Handbook, 133-34. [back]

[Michael P. Foley is associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. He is author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services(Eerdmans, 2008). Dr. Foley's article, "The Counts of Jesu Christo -- Part 2,” Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Fall 2011), pp. 44-48, is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]