Memorial Day first began as Decoration Day. The Grand Army of the Republic – the group of Union veterans that survived the American Civil War – first established the day in May 1868 to decorate the graves of war dead with flowers. The focus for that day, and the array of activities that had come to define it, expanded after World War I to include all service personnel from all wars who lost their lives in service to the United States.
The Catholic Church has its own version of Memorial Days that date back two millennia, to the days of the Roman martyrs. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the liturgical calendar contains days that celebrate saints, men and women “who lived for Christ, who suffered with him, and who live with him in glory” (242). This last week in May presents an opportunity to better understand these sacred memorials, how they both broaden and deepen our faith, and how they display Christianity awake in all places.
The Roman Rite distinguishes memorials from solemnities and feasts. It also defines two distinct types of memorials. Obligatory memorials celebrate a specific saint during daily Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours with particular prayers, readings and writings. Optional memorials, if chosen to be recognized, always draw from common weekday prayers and readings. Obligatory and optional memorials are never celebrated if they fall on a Sunday, solemnity, feast, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, or during the Octave of Easter (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 355, 357).
Perhaps confusing at first glance, another way to distinguish between obligatory and optional memorials is by the accomplishments of the respective saint. For example, this past month had an obligatory memorial for St. Athanasius (May 2), recognized as a Doctor of the Church for defending the faith against Arianism in the 4th century. He stands clearly apart in Church history from other saints with optional memorials: Isidore (May 15), John I (May 18), Bernardine of Siena (May 20), Venerable Bede (May 25), and Augustine of Canterbury (May 27).
Why do memorial days matter? The Catholic Church “proclaims the fullness and the totality of the faith” as well as “bears and administers the fullness of the means of salvation” (CCCC, 166). Within this context, memorials produce a patchwork that appeals to the world and its history. The lives of some saints have clear universal implications. Other saints may find a place only in the heart of certain localities, cultures, and nations. One saint may mean more to you than to another. The teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church understand, respect, and bear witness to these realities. Yet all the blessed in heaven are a part of the same Church we belong to: One, Holy, Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic. We profess a “communion of saints” of those decorated with grace for a life lived and died in service to Christ – a communion that reaches across national borders, ethnic backgrounds, age groups and political ties. All the saints are one in Christ.
As you enjoy a long weekend with family and friends to start summer, take the time to commemorate all the men and women who died in service. Place flags and flowers beside the graves of those who have fallen in military uniform. And in the Church’s memorial days to come, petition the saints who are raised high in heaven to intercede for us.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas. You can find him on Facebook here.