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The Beauty of Catholic EducationThe Church’s Year of Grace in Catholic Education

(On the first Friday of every month, a special column dedicated to Catholic education will be posted on CNA’s website. Today’s essay is the first in the series entitled, “The Beauty of Catholic Education.”)

October is the perfect month to begin discussing the liturgical year and the importance of celebrating it in our schools and classrooms. 

Like most cultures, our Judeo-Christian tradition is guided by cycles of time.  Though distinct from civil time, sacred time is not separated from it but gives it meaning and makes it sacred. God, the author of history, is present and at work in history, and it is through the two concentric circles of civil and sacred time, that we live and work out our salvation. The Jewish liturgical year is highlighted by the holydays of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah.

What Is the Church’s Year of Grace?

The Catholic Church’s liturgical year of grace is so called because, through her liturgy, the Church makes present the saving events of the Lord, his passion, death, and Resurrection.  This graced-filled year is an infallible teacher educating us in reverence for the time we have to live out our lives with meaning in Christ. Over the course of a year, through signs, symbols, and the sacred arts, the Lord’s mysteries unfold.  In some European countries, the feasts of Epiphany on January 6th, Corpus Christi, and the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul are not only religious feast days but also civil holidays. The whole mystery of Christ unfolds from Advent to Pentecost, and finally to the feast of Christ the King. Then the cycle begins anew.  As the liturgical year is repeated, it becomes the primary way in which the Catholic can sacralize the year, the week, and the day. “The liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age,” writes Pius XII; “it is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church” (Pius XII, Mediator Dei, #165).

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The Liturgical Year, Week, and Day 

Living the Church’s year of grace calls for an understanding and devotion towards the year, the week, and the day. The year has been developed according to two cycles: the temporal and the sanctoral. The temporal cycle includes: (1) the Advent-Christmas cycle, or, in the Byzantine Churches, Philip’s Fast-Christmas, (between November 10th -14th), and (2) the Easter cycle, Lent, Passiontide, Easter and its extended celebration, Ascension, Pentecost. The Sundays after Pentecost to the Christ the King belong to Ordinary time. The sanctoral cycle celebrates feasts of the Mother of God and the saints according to the calendar year. 

If Easter is the center of the liturgical year, then Sunday is the weekly celebration of Easter. Sunday, the Lord’s Day symbolizes the eternal rest and joy of heaven. It points to a state of peace between man and nature and a faint resemblance of that messianic kingdom where lion and lamb lie down together and swords are turned into ploughshares (Is 11).  The day, every day, brings with it its own ups and downs when we unite with Christ in his Paschal Mystery.

Liturgical Life in the Middle Ages

In medieval times, the Church year guided the lives of the faithful and united them in a spiritual bond.  From Baptism to the Eucharist to the Last Anointing, from processions and pious devotions to blessings of crops, animals, and boats, the church year “shaped their perception of the world and their place in it,” and these “central moments gave Catholics the key to the meaning and purpose of their lives” (Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 11-46). As a way of making sacred the French countryside, churches and cathedrals dedicated to the Mother of God were built in strategic locations to resemble the constellation Virga. The French cities that formed the constellation of Virga are: Amiens, Evreux, Rouen, Bayeux, Spica, Chartres, Paris, Reims.

Liturgical Life in Nineteenth-Century American Parishes

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With the arrival of immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century, the prospective Americans sought a familiar religious atmosphere in their parish churches which became part of family life. Parish activities lightened their encounters with anti-Catholicism and cultural bias. They comforted the faithful living and working in wretched conditions, and served as magnets that drew families together for liturgical feasts.  Their beauty lifted people whose lives were otherwise marked by squalor.  Anticipating one feast after the other, families lived with a liturgical frame of reference.  Receiving the sacraments was a joyful occasion for the neighborhood, as were feast days of the Mother of God, St. Joseph, and the saints. In living the year of grace, their faith was handed down to be lived and cherished by the next generation.

The Parish Church Today

Today, the American Church faces new challenges to universalize the Church in the particular, the local parish.  The parish supports not just a program of religious education; it has also become the nerve center for the religious education of the family.  In John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, “Catechesi Tradendae,” catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life.  Nothing in life escapes the Church’s concern. In all that is human, it has a pastoral concern: from global affairs to social justice, from science to the arts, to sports and care of the environment, to the media.  Moral questions about human sexuality and that of marriage and the family call for concentrated attention. The Church is committed to strengthening the family, and where public morality has broken down, the parish assumes virtually all aspects of Christian formation. Comprehensive religious education begins with externals, from clean and well-cared churches to attractive bulletins to the care with which the sacraments are celebrated to concern for our children and the most vulnerable.

The Catholic School

Catholic schools, and not just in grades 1-8, afford a splendid opportunity to celebrate the liturgical year.  Both the temporal and sanctoral cycles bring with them many ways in which our students can joyfully celebrate the liturgical feasts. These will remain as unforgettable memories as children mature. From school, they can bring the practices into their homes where perhaps their parents are not familiar with liturgical customs.

October, the Beautiful

The quiet month of October is resplendent with its welcome of fall iridescent colors.  For years, October claimed center stage from which to primp her changing foliage before our very eyes.  Freshly-harvested hay bales, fall vegetables like corn, squash and pumpkins still recall grateful harvesting by our first colonists in Massachusetts.  Garlands and wreaths of fall colors are still proudly displayed on many a doorpost.  It’s a glorious time of the year—October, when man and woman seek communion with the earth and give thanks for its good things.

Halloween, the Creepy; Hallowe’en, the Christian

Sadly, over the years, the culture has steadily pushed aside the pageantry of spectacular fall colors for black and orange worn by witches, devils, dry bones, and oversized cats. More about this below. 

October 31st: the Christian Celebration of All Hallows’ Eve

The story of All Hallows’ Eve is filled with twists and turns. Hundreds of years before Christ, the pagan Druids of Celtic lands, prompted by the long nights and early dark of winter months, made mischief by heckling others with mean tricks and scaring them into offering fruits and sweets.  In contrast, Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens, was celebrated on November 1st.  In the Roman Empire, the custom of eating or giving away fruits, and especially apples, became popular.

From the seventh or eighth century, October 31st was marked on the Church calendar as a Christian feast, All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints’ Day, the feast of all those unnamed men and women who had joined the heavenly Blessed. It resembled other “Eves,” Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the eleventh century, the day after All Saints was dedicated to the commemoration of all the departed faithful, All Souls Day.  All Hallows’ Eve was then linked to the two feast days. In Ireland and Great Britain, the end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the barren winter; the faithful were reminded of the call to sainthood as well as the reality of death and Purgatory.

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Depending on where one lived, All Hallows Eve was celebrated by praying that one would attain sainthood like all the saints and, at the same time, by praying for the dead whose prayers they sought.  In her book, The Year and Our Children, 270-78, Mary Reed Newland writes: “Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes and curds, and cider.  And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite Psalm 129, the De Profundis, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” and then go to bed.’”

The Doughnut

If hot cross buns are traditionally associated with Lent, and pretzels with prayer, the soul cake gave rise to a new development and ingenious variation: the doughnut.  To remind people that life on earth was but a transitory reality, a hole was carved out of the middle of the cake so that those who ate the cake were reminded of eternity. Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas were developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation.  With the remembrance of a saintly life came images of evil, ancient symbols of the devil, goblins, witches, and cats.  Still, the familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, cornstalks and pumpkins were given out to beggars. Pagan and Christian symbols existed side by side. Wouldn’t Dunkin’ Doughnuts love to have this piece of trivia!

Knocking on Doors

The English custom of knocking on doors began by begging for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household.  The refrain sung at the door varied.  It could be as short as: “A soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake” to a later version:

“Soul, soul, an apple or two,
If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for the Man Who made us all.” 

In 1955, All Hallows’ Eve was stricken from the Church calendar, and the pagan celebration stood alone on central stage. Today, Halloween, with its element of vandalism and violence, is fast losing its innocent fun.

All Hallows’ Eve and Contemporary Christianity

Although the pagan cult of witches, devils, dry bones, oversized cats, or other images continue to dominate the environment, the Church has a splendid opening to engage the culture as it did centuries ago. All Hallows’ Eve can be restored to its religious meaning as a better alternative to what we have today. Children of grade school age in many Catholic schools can be encouraged to combine a celebration of All Saints’ Eve and All Souls’ Day. With the help of parents, teachers, and/or catechists, they can find success stories of the Judeo-Christian heritage to imitate.  Their stories include: kings and queens, biblical heroes, Indian and American saints, teen-aged saints, founders of religious orders, and modern-day martyrs and other role models worthy of imitation. Children can dress up like the saint of their choice.  The list is endless.  It could be King David, Queen Esther, or Ruth of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Others might include sainted men and women: Joan of Arc, Kateri Tekawitha, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Martin de Porres, Maria Goretti, Thérèse of Lisieux, John Bosco, Dorothy Day, and Pierre Toussant. 

Children should also be encouraged to dress up like their own sainted grandparents or other deceased family members. Praying to them gives the children them a strong sense of the other part of the Church, the heavenly Blessed.

If our youth look to the social and sports super-stars as role models, if they wear shirts with stars’ photos on the front, the Church has her own saints to boast of.  By studying their lives and by imitating them, we have our own spiritual super-stars and the ultimate success stories who have a message to all of us, a message that is of life in Christ. We close this reflection with a poem by Joseph Thomas Nolan on the beauty of the fall season:

For autumn and the leaves of death
We give you thanks, O Lord, and seek to praise
Those northern lands that can be a glory,
And men and women at peace find rest from empty fields
And spilling barns.  We thank you for abundant days,
For all the richer life your Son has promised,
More than eye, taste, and even autumn can provide.

And present things:  books, faces, friends return,
The fires dance, the shouts of play,
The scarlet maple and the distant hills.
Your gift is like a wine,
Pressed down and running over,
Good manners for October days.

We give you thanks for banquets and for bread,
But more, that you are he who saves
The very leaf that falls
And seeks communion with the earth.
And we are never dead,
Although we sleep and winter will return.
Gather us, O Lord: we are the sons and daughters of your desire.

Lord of the harvest,
God of the beautiful world,
We are your glory, and we give you praise.

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