Formation for Christian Life
The ancient custom of observing an annual saint's day (or feast day), is so ancient that before the Church claimed 25 December for Christmas, it was already the feast day of Saint Anastasia! The observance of saints' days is important for us and the various ways we celebrate them are also important. On 19 March, the universal Church is moved to great devotion as she lovingly observes the feast of her patron, Saint Joseph, with various traditions. Lent notwithstanding, he never goes unremembered on his respective feast day. Also in March we remember Saints Patrick, Clement Hofbauer, Louise de Marillac, Stephen Harding, Casimir, Kieran, Katherine Drexel and Cyril of Jerusalem, to cite only several.
On a saint's day, we might well reflect upon the meaning of the observance of the saints' feast days for us today. Why do we remember them? Why do we keep an annual feast day for each of them? What does that accomplish? Should we maintain such customs in our families, parishes, religious houses and dioceses? If so, why?
We believe the saints accompany us. The Catechism reminds us that in our profession of faith we say "I believe... in the communion of saints". In Pope John Paul II's 1989 Apostolic Exhortation, Redemptoris Custos, with reference to Saint Joseph, he elaborated on that article: "I am convinced that by reflection upon the way that Mary's spouse shared in the divine mystery, the Church — on the road towards the future with all of humanity — will be enabled to discover ever anew her own identity within this redemptive plan, which is founded on the mystery of the Incarnation" (Introduction).
Pope Benedict XVI often recalls the value the saints have for us today. He has taught extensively in the past year about the great saints of the 13th century friar movement. At the conclusion of his audience on 13 January of last year, the Pope spoke about the 13th century mendicant movement itself, and his Holiness prayed "[M]ay [the Holy Spirit] ... make each one aware of the urgent need to offer a consistent and courageous Gospel witness so that there may always be saints who make the Church resplendent, like a bride, ever pure and beautiful, without spot or wrinkle, who can attract the world irresistibly to Christ and to his salvation".
In subsequent general audiences, Pope Benedict's addresses included instruction on Saints Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Anthony de Padua and Bonaventure. Last year on 3 February, at the conclusion of his remarks, His Holiness recalled Saint Dominic with these words: "May the life of Dominic de Guzman spur us all to be fervent in prayer, courageous in living out our faith and deeply in love with Jesus Christ. Through his intercession, let us ask God always to enrich the Church with authentic preachers of the Gospel". One week later, speaking about Saint Anthony of Padua, the Pope concluded his remarks with the appeal, "May preachers, drawing inspiration from ... [Saint Anthony's] example, be effective in their communication by taking pains to combine solid and sound doctrine with sincere and fervent devotion".
With these words the Holy Father is reminding us of the important formative roles the saints occupy in our lives. The Pope explained that they serve as inspirations and examples for us as we try to live good lives and they act as intercessors on our behalf before the Throne of God.
Therefore, we are not simply engaging in a sentimental remembering of noteworthy people from the past when we celebrate a saints' day. Indeed, the saints not only teach us that we should lead holy lives, but they show us how! The Church places the saints and their conspicuous virtues before us, so that by cultivating a friendship with a saint through prayer and learning about them, we can grow in our understanding of how they managed to live good lives in the face of all the temptations and discouragement that the people of their own ages must have endured. This is why it is so valuable for us to observe saints' days: we need to keep their good example before us and we need their prayers.
So how does one observe a saint's feast day properly? To begin with, it is good to remember that
the saints are our friends in heaven. Whereas we hope eventually to enjoy eternity with the saints and thereby share in deep intimacy with each of them, it seems to be in the Providence of God that there are usually several saints whose lives, personalities, mission, struggles or some other aspect of their lives appeal to us uniquely and draw us into friendship with them. It is the Catholic custom: to be named after a saint at Baptism, and many people realize at some point during their lives what a loyal friend or protector or good example their patron saint (i.e. the saint after whom they are named) has been for them.
Therefore, a laudable custom is to celebrate one's name day. In many Catholic cultures the custom has been to celebrate one's saint's day (the terms "feast day" and "saint's day" are interchangeable) instead of one's birthday. I suggest celebrating both! Let your patron saint's day be special for you. Be sure to attend Mass that day and spend some time in prayer with your patron saint. Some saints are associated with particular forms of prayers (such as Saint Dominic and the Rosary or Saint Margaret Mary and devotion to the Sacred Heart). Participation in any prayer form uniquely attached to a particular saint is a good way of observing their name day authentically. Other saints have shrines or other holy places associated with them; sometimes a local parish is named after one's favourite saint. One can keep such a saint's feast by making a pilgrimage to that holy place for some time of prayer. Observing each family member's feast day can also be an important way to celebrate a saint's day properly.
Wishing someone who might not be active in the faith a happy feast day on the saint's day whose name they bear could be pleasant for them, and in some cases it could serve to be an effective way to signal openness to discussion about the faith with someone who is not practicing their religion. Remember that evangelization is an urgent responsibility for all of the baptized.
There are still other practices for celebrating a feast day that can be uniquely beneficial for yourself and others. Many people are moved to make a sacrificial donation to the Church's charitable works upon the occasion of the feast days of the various saints who gave their lives caring for the poor: Saint Vincent de Paul; Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, and others. The feast of a great teacher of the faith like Saint Thomas Aquinas could become an occasion for planning your annual program for studying your faith more closely. For example, you might decide that every year on the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, you will visit the library at your local seminary, convent or theology school and spend time planning a personal religious study program for the coming year. You might end up choosing three good books on the Blessed Mother and resolve to read those books during the course of the coming year. Or you might decide on that day that you will read the sixteen major documents published by Vatican II during the course of the next year.
Our Blessed Mother is known by very many titles for a good reason and that is so that each person can relate to her in an intimate and loving manner. It can be good to choose one favourite title for Mary and keep the feast day associated with that title in a personal, prayerful and even celebrative way.
In other words, after attending Mass, a good feast day observance can be constructed out of acting on any form of inspiration that a particular saint provides. God gave us the saints as our brothers and sisters to inspire us, to protect us and to intercede for us. The keeping of the saints' feast days is a keenly authentic form of Catholic spirituality. It behooves each of us to commemorate, in our own way, those saints who have had a special influence in our lives or who have won a special place in our hearts. And when we honour one of the saints, we are honouring God and growing in our love for Him at the same time. After all, the wise person takes to heart the lesson every Catholic hears many times over in life through the last of the Divine Praises at Benediction, "Blessed be God in His angels and in His Saints".
*Professor of Liturgy, Homiletics and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Rome