Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina are a couple of my favorite Catholic authors. I found their previous book on the Catholic Mass (The Mass, Image Books, 2013) very helpful in understanding the intricacies and meaning of the Mass. Their latest book is The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics (Image Books). For those not from a high church background the church year can seem a bit foreign. Low-church Protestants recognize some elements of the church year like Christmas, Easter and increasingly some are celebrating advent but beyond that there is not much. Wuerl and Aquilina (hereafter W&A) offer an excellent introduction to the church year and the significance it holds for Catholics in the process of their spiritual formation.
“For Jews and for Christians,” they write, “the calendar is a catechism.” (p. 13) That is to say the calendar acts as a teacher of sorts with each passing feast and season. The celebration of feasts goes back to the Old Testament as God enacted laws “requiring people to enjoy a day of leisure and joyful worship.” (p. 28) Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “Jews absorbed the central ideas of their faith not by studying them systematically but by celebrating the weekly Sabbath and the annual cycle of festivals, and gradually absorbing the lessons they conveyed.” (p. 13)
Early on the Church began “recast the year to convey the mysteries of God and salvation in new terms—terms of fulfillment in Jesus, the Messiah—and the process continued through subsequent generations.” (p. 35) W&A trace the history of the church calendar showing the changes that took place and the reasons why. During the Middle Ages they recognize that “the calendar was thick with celebrations—and maybe too thick.” (Emphasis theirs. p. 39) The calendar went through a revision during the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and a new calendar was produced by Pope Saint Pius V. Other revisions took place in 1911 under Pope Saint Pius X and under Pope Pius XII (1939-1958). Still more work was done during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). (p. 39) Pope Saint John Paul II (1978-2005) “added a few celebrations . . . and restored some older ones. (p. 40)
The Catholic church classifies its days according to five basic categories: Sunday, Solemnity, Feast, Memorial, and Seasonal Weekday. These vary in importance with Sundays and Solemnities being among the highest. “Only solemnities (and a few select feasts) may take priority over a Sunday.” (p. 43) A solemnity “commemorates one of the principle mysteries of the faith—important events in the life of Our Lord, Our Lady, or the Church.” (p. 44) “The feasts honor certain mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary as well as some of their titles.” (p. 45) Memorials are “dedicated to particular saints, though some belong to the lesser mysteries of Our Lord and Our Lady.” (p. 46) Some feast days may vary in certain geographical regions (e.g., Ireland observes “St. Patrick’s Day as a solemnity, though it is only a memorial on the universal calendar.” p. 46.)
W&A cover all the major feasts, seasons and major days offering a description of each and its significance within the year and the lessons it teaches. The culmination of all the feasts and seasons is Easter. If you looked at the church year as a compass Easter would be the “magnetic north.” (p. 73) It was the ascension of Jesus that “made possible the celebration of all the feasts of the Church. For the church celebrates the feasts liturgically—ritually—led by Jesus, the eternal priest.” (p. 100) The newest feast to be added to the church year was made by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2000. In that year he established Divine Mercy Sunday which is the first Sunday after Easter. I found it intriguing that “[t]he Church forbids the celebration of any Mass, anywhere in the world, on Good Friday. On that day we recall the way the human race responded to God’s self-giving love. By our sins we still respond the way the crowds in the Gospel responded when they shouted, ‘Crucify him!’” (p. 173)
W&A have done Catholics a wonderful service in this book. It is easy to read and very informative. We all have various calendars that we operate around. As a retailer I know we do. Businesses have fiscal years and students have academic years. But as Christians there is something to be said for orienting our year around the life of Jesus and other events of importance to Christianity. The Feasts is a useful guide for those wondering how to do this. The book ends with words from Pope Pius XII which I think are appropriate: “The liturgical year is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ himself who is ever living in His Church.” (p. 185)
The Feasts is a hardcover with 189 pages and sells for $23.00.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is archbishop of Washington, DC, and the author of The Catholic Way and The New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today.
Mike Aquilina is the author of over 20 books, including The Mass of the Early Christians and Fire of God’s Love: 120 Reflections on the Eucharist. He appears regularly on EWTN with Scott Hahn.