Wednesday, November 29, 2017

St Sylvester and St Andrew: The End and the Beginning of the Sanctoral Cycle

As anyone who has ever used an altar missal or a hand missal knows, the traditional Missale Romanum is laid out in different sections: the Temporal cycle, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent and culminating in the last Sunday after Pentecost; the Sanctoral cycle, beginning with the Vigil of St. Andrew (if one is using the pre-1955 edition) or the commemoration of St. Saturninus with the Feast of St. Andrew on its heels (if one is following the 1962 edition) and ending with the Abbot St. Sylvester Gozzolini on November 26; the Commons, beginning with the Vigils of Apostles (pre-1955) or the Popes (post-1955) and ending with the Blessed Virgin Mary; the votive Masses; and lastly, diverse prayers, the Mass for the Dead, and local Masses.

While missals have not always been organized thus,[1] it is obvious that the Temporal cycle as it has existed for quite some time makes perfect sense: we say that the Church’s liturgical year begins with the season of Advent and ends with the last Sunday after Pentecost. But, taking St. Andrew as the official beginning of the Sanctoral cycle[2] and Abbot St. Sylvester as its official ending, can we discern a similar fittingness to the way this cycle is set forth in the Missale Romanum?

Before proceeding further, I would like to make two qualifications. First, Abbot St. Sylvester Gozzolini, O.S.B. (1177-1267), founder of the “Sylvestrines,” is a relatively late addition to the General Calendar, having been introduced by Pope Leo XIII in 1890. As a result, he is not found on the calendars of some dioceses and of a number of religious orders.[3] Nevertheless, for the vast majority of Catholics who worship with the usus antiquior, the last saint in the Sanctoral is, in fact, Abbot St. Sylvester.

Second, while the medieval commentators on Scripture (such as William Durandus) say very little about the relationship between the Temporal and Sanctoral cycles, and while many details are initially the result of chance or practicality, we nevertheless know that the liturgy, as it organically develops under the care of Divine Providence, often exhibits a remarkable fittingness in the arrangement or disposition of its parts that goes well beyond the limited scope of human intentions.[4] This is the reason why we can aim the question of fittingness at any aspect of the liturgy and expect to find plausible answers, even as the medieval allegorists could look at the ceremonial actions — the kissing of the altar, the turning around of the priest, the making of signs of the cross — and see in them representations of phases in the life of Christ or of His bitter Passion.[5] Thus, there is every reason for us to offer a symbolic explanation of why the traditional Sanctoral begins and ends as it does.

St. Sylvester Gozzolini, O.S.B.
Let us begin with the ending. As my St. Andrew Daily Missal explains, St. Sylvester “owed his religious vocation to the sight of a relative’s dead body. He at first lived a solitary life, but later founded a monastery under the Rule of St. Benedict.” The slightly macabre story of his “conversion” in the old-fashioned sense of the term is, in fact, thematized in the Collect of the feast:
Most merciful God, who, when the holy abbot Sylvester, by the side of an open grave, stood meditating on the emptiness of the things of the world, didst vouchsafe to call him into the wilderness and to ennoble him with the merit of a singularly holy life: most humbly we beg of Thee, that like him, we may despise earthly things, and enjoy fellowship with Thee for evermore. Through our Lord.
We are not surprised to find the theme of “despising earthly things” in our pursuit of the unum necessarium, since it is a defining feature of the spirituality of the traditional liturgy.[6] We find it present, for example, in the potent Secret of the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which reads, in part: “...turn to Thyself the hearts of us all, that we may be freed from earthly covetings and pass over to heavenly desires [omnium nostrum ad te corda converte, ut a terrenis cupiditatibus liberati, ad coelestia desideria transeamus].” Yet the Collect of St. Sylvester takes on a peculiar appropriateness, falling as it does in the season of Fall. At least in climates of the northern hemisphere, the end of the liturgical year coincides with the time when the natural world darkens and sleeps. The vegetation has lost much of its green, as if the viridescence of the Pentecost season has finally worn off for sheer remoteness from its origin (“when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith left on the earth?”); leaves have browned and fallen to the ground like so many bodies of mortal beings ready to corrupt in their graves. Notable for its melancholy associations, the autumn is nature’s season of letting go and preparing for the long winter that precedes the paschal season of Spring and its supernatural analogue of resurrection. Indeed, the month of November is observed as the month of the dead, and we should see in this no mere accidental association with All Saints.[7]

The traditional Sanctoral, in fact, seems to concentrate our attention on what might be called “personal eschatology”: each of us must be vigilant, sober, ready for the coming of Christ our Judge. The eschatological note of the end of the year was furnished by the Gospels for the feasts of St. Cecilia on November 22nd (Matthew 25:1–13, the wise and foolish virgins) and of Pope St. Clement on November 23rd (Matthew 24:42–47, “be watchful, for you know not the hour…”). The former Gospel was then repeated on November 25th when St. Catherine’s feast took off in the West after the 11th century. Add to this the intensity of the prayers that were appointed for St. John of the Cross on November 24th (not December 14th as in the Pauline missal), and one sees an escalating theme of mortification with a view to our sinful mortality and our longed-for immortality.

Instead of wrapping the end of the liturgical year in the otherworldly, Teilhardian triumphalism of “Christ the King of the Universe,”[8] the feast of St. Sylvester on November 26 lends this juncture a more sober, introspective and retrospective note, as of a memento mori: look at the dead body in the open grave and see your own end; meditate on this in preparation for the start of Advent, when we celebrate the coming of the One who saves man from his sinfulness and mortality; see through the pomps and vanities of what the world counts as valuable, and set your sights on holiness, in imitation of the many saints who, beginning with the precursor St. John the Baptist, sought out the wilderness, or rather, sought God who called them and ennobled them. There is something of irony or paradox in the way the traditional liturgy winds down the year and starts it up again — as if illustrating T.S. Eliot’s line: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”[9] At least, that is how the world ends at the death of each one of us, at the moment we breathe our last. The quiet of the grave leads to the quiet of a wintry season that brings before our eyes a poor family, a stable, a manger, an infant in swaddling clothes, and no prospect of divine victory — except for the almost imperceptibly increasing daylight.

Turning to the beginning of the Sanctoral cycle, we find traditionally the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle on November 30th. Since the Sanctoral is concerned with remembering, venerating, and calling upon the disciples of the Lord, it is supremely fitting that the first saint is St. Andrew, who is the first disciple of the Lord in His public ministry. The Byzantine Church gives to Andrew the official liturgical epithet “Πρωτόκλητος,” that is, “the first-called,” and we see in the Roman calendar’s arrangement an analogous priority and prominence.

In this way, the Sanctoral as printed in the altar missal and in our daily missals reflects the priority of the calling of the disciple of Christ — “Come, follow Me” — and the necessary self-renunciation and via crucis this will entail, as we follow Him to eternal glory. We are to follow Christ, “in whom the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), rather than the emptiness of the things of this world. The entire Christian life is a passage through the wilderness to reach the fellowship of the promised land — and of this passage, the Sanctoral cycle, in general and in detail, is a vivid representation.

The feast of the Apostle Andrew has been celebrated for over a thousand years, while that of Abbot St. Sylvester has been celebrated only for a century and a quarter. But if one views the liturgical calendar as being like the construction of a great cathedral — say, that of Milan, which was begun in 1386 and was officially ended in 1965, taking almost 600 years to complete — we see how its development adds stone after stone, statue after statue, until the whole structure is finished. In adding St. Sylvester Gozzolini to the Sanctoral, Pope Leo XIII added a fitting final stone to the Sanctoral structure, making it yet more spiritually fruitful for those who avail themselves of the usus antiquior.

As a postscript, one must sadly point out that the way in which the new (Pauline) Roman Missal arranges the Sanctoral cycle departs from the framework, stable for over half a millennium, that starts on the cusp of December and ends in the last week of November. In a move illustrative of the conflation of aggiornamento with secularization, the new Sanctoral cycle conforms itself to the now-triumphant secular calendar by starting on January 1st (actually, January 2nd) and ending on December 31st, even though these dates have no special significance in the liturgical year as it unfolds from Advent to the season after Pentecost. The usus antiquior, in its Temporal and Sanctoral cycles alike, bears consistent witness to a more ancient and more authoritative structuring of time.

The beginning of the Sanctoral in the Novus Ordo


[1] There was no uniformity in the layout of missals in the Middle Ages. The very oldest liturgical books began the Temporal cycle with the vigil of Christmas, and ended with Advent (if they had it; some don’t), while the feasts of the Saints were woven in among the Temporal Masses. Obviously, this was not a very satisfactory arrangement, since things move relative to the Temporal every year. Later on, when the Temporal and Sanctoral Masses were separated, one finds books in which St. Andrew is the first Saint, but others in which it is St. Hilary on January 14, since all of the Saints from December 26 to January 13 were integrated into the Temporal.

[2] I speak of Andrew as coming first because the Vigil of his feast, which was observed until the drastic changes of Pope Pius XII in 1954, did come first and obviously took precedence over the Commemoration of St. Saturninus. Therefore it is more correct to say that the Roman Sanctoral begins with St. Andrew. The collateral damage of the removal of this Vigil included the loss of the Gospel unique to it, John 1:35–51. As if to make reparation, the 1962 Missale Romanum included a new votive Mass for Vocations featuring this Gospel.

[3] For example, the Franciscans, along with a large number of Italian dioceses, observe on this day St. Leonard of Port Maurice; the Dominicans never received his feast, but have one of their blesseds on that day, and, before 1911, were running the octave of St. Catherine of Alexandria; the Carmelites were running the octaves of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of St. John of the Cross, the Cistercians never received him, etc. He was removed without compunction by the Consilium in its revision of the General Calendar in the late 1960s.

[4] It makes no difference whether those who disposed the parts consciously intended a certain signification; for they are working with pieces that are ultimate provided to them by God and are orchestrared by Him into a whole that is greater not only than its part, but even than the sum total of its parts.

[5] The number of such interpretations, moreover, is indefinite, for the same reason that Scripture may be legitimately interpreted in many (perhaps even infinitely many) different ways, as St. Augustine explains in De Doctrina Christiana.

[6] As I recently demonstrated here in “A Tale of Two Collects: Different Worldviews in Old and New Prayers.”

[7] All the more, then, is it necessary for symbolic reasons that Christ the King take place at the end of October, prior to this season of decline.

[8] See my article at OnePeterFive, "Between Christ the King and 'We Have No King But Caesar.'"

[9] From Eliot's poem “The Hollow Men.”

My thanks to Gregory DiPippo for assistance with this post.

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