We continue our unpacking of the ins and outs of celebrating the saints this week, and we start back in the 1500s when the Church’s liturgy was much more varied than it is now. We have grown accustomed to the Mass being in large part the same the world over, and outside of variety in language and culture, you should be able to go to a Catholic Mass anywhere in the world and follow the liturgy pretty well: the prayers, music, movement and rituals should all be familiar. Back before the Council of Trent, however, there were dozens of different missals, and countless different feasts, celebrating different saints, in different ways, on different days, in different countries. Of the many things that came from the Council of Trent, one of the requests it made of the Pope was that he unify the Church’s celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The Protestant reformation had shown a widespread lack of understanding of the sacraments throughout the Church, and though Trent was a spectacular theological response to them, it awaited the work of the Popes that followed that council to put into liturgical form the dogmatic teachings from that council of bishops. This meant a reform of the liturgy that would move most dioceses and orders to a unified Missal and calendar of feast days. I should note that exception was given to protect traditions that stretched back far into the Church’s history, that being ancient Rites (example: the Ambrosian Rite) as well as particular Rites connected to the great Religious Orders of the Church’s history (like the Dominican Rite), but all the recent customizations of the Mass would be unified in one Roman Catholic Rite.
Pope Pius V would be the one to complete the unifying of the Missal and Breviary in 1568 and 1570, but our story will stick with his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, upon whom fell the task to create a universal calendar. First he painstakingly established a list of all those that the Church considered saints: a document that would become the Roman Martyrology we came across last week. (Gregory would also promulgate the Roman Pontifical, with the rubrics for papal liturgies, and his successor, Pope Clement VIII would promulgate the Episcopal Ceremonial, for liturgies of the bishop, as well as the Roman Ritual, for blessings, other sacraments, and those sorts of things.)
The problem of establishing a common-calendar was actually a pretty gnarly one. Ever since Julius Caesar, the western world had been using the Julian calendar which had years with (on average) 365.25 days. That quarter day was created by the addition of an extra day in each 4 “leap” years. Back then, instead of adding February 29th, they actually duplicated February 24th. Funnily enough, with the feast of St. Matthias on February 24th, they had to decide to celebrate him on the second 24th of February during those leap-years… But there was a big problem: one year on earth is actually 265.2422 days long, so the extra-day-every-four-years after 15+ centuries meant the calendar was now about 10 days off.
It is bad enough to have the calendar gradually not quite matching reality, but the bigger reason that Pope Gregory XIII wanted to fix the calendar was that every time we celebrated the feasts of Our Savior’s life (or the saints), we were not quite exactly doing so on their anniversary, and Jesus matters enough to celebrate Him as perfectly as we can! So, Gregory fixed the leap-year problem by adding February 29th on years divisible by four except when the year is divisible by 100 (but, ignoring those years that are divisible by 400). This means that his “Gregorian” calendar has years averaging 265.2425, which is very close to reality (though we’re still set to be about a day off every 7700 years. Obviously, we have not had to deal with that problem yet.)
Of course, Gregory also had to move the calendar forward those 10 days to catch it up with Earth’s orbit around the sun: so October 5-14, 1582 never happened! Everybody (in a Catholic country) went straight from the 4th to the 15th of October in 1582. Plenty of people complained about “losing” 10 days of their life, and plenty of Protestant and Orthodox countries at first refused to accept this Papal dictate at all. In fact, for a number of years, crossing into some countries meant you went backwards or forward 10 or more days (and you thought daylight savings time was bad!). It took until the 1900s for Eastern Europe (Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Russia, Estonia, Romania) and others like China and Turkey to accept the update, and Saudi Arabia held out until 2016! Why those specific days in October? Because Gregory did not want to skip any important feast days, so he held out until right after the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4th.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin cannot move onto the final part of this series without recounting one fascinating saintly detail from those ten nonexistent days. St. Theresa of Avila died right about midnight on October 4th, 1582. So, we are not sure if her last words, “”My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another,” were spoken on the last hour of October 4th or the first hour of October 15th 1582! (Just to clarify, the Church decided to celebrate her feast day on October 15th.)