When the Saints Are Marching Out





The drastic changes that were introduced by the liturgical reform of Vatican II can be illustrated by comparing two liturgical calendars, the one of 1937 and the one of 2016. In 1937 all the days of the year except the Sundays of Lent celebrated a saint, as can be seen on the left for the month of March and on the right for July. After the Vatican II reform, the celebration of saints was removed from all the days of Lent, Advent and all Sundays. In 2016 March happened during Lent; hence no saints are celebrated.

During the weekdays of Ordinary Time, that is, the days outside of Lent and Advent, the celebration of saints has also been drastically reduced. In July 2016 only three saints from the 1937 list are left, while in August only eight survive, all others have been reclassified as "memorials" or "commemorations," not as "feasts."

What is likely to have been lost is the sense of the communion of saints which included not only the major saints who survived the Vatican II reform but the numerous local saints, angel guardians, personal patrons (canonized or not) and all the souls of the departed. This sense of the communion of saints created a sacred cosmos of sacred times and sacred places. When this is lost, space and time become secular. Religion tends to retreat into the sanctuary, and the sacred time is reduced to one hour on Sunday.

Before Vatican II all children had a patron saint. The celebration of one's patron saint was often more important that the celebration of one's birthday. A family of 5 siblings, 25 cousins, and 15 adults had maybe 20 patron saints in the family. In 2015 the three most popular first names in the U.S. were Liam, Noah, and Etham for boys, and Emma, Olivia and Sophia for girls. The first saint in the list for boys is James who ranks 12th. Even the baptismal names have been secularized (but not in Orthodoxy).

The secularization of time and space can also be seen in the churches built after Vatican II; they tend to be structures with few religious images, as in the cathedral of Brasilia (leftt) and Christ of Light in Oakland, CA (right). These buildings are remarkable, but could equally be used for Protestant services or secular concerts. In Lourdes and Bethlehem underground structures were built for big crowds; they look like underground parking. On Christmas Eve of 2,000 the midnight Mass of the church of the Nativity was projected in the underground place of Bethlehem on a big screen – as if a video Mass were the same as a real one. I could have watched it at home.

Because of the decline popular religiosity and the religious imagination, home altars and family creches tend to disappear. The celebration of St. Nicholas which in the pre-Vatican II days delighted the hearts of children has been replaced by the secular Santa and his reindeers. The enchantment of Christmas stories has been replaced by the fantasies of Disney & Co. and by the ever more enchanting shopping malls.

There is no returning to the past. Nostalgia is not the answer. The future is ahead of us not behind. Creativity is the answer.

The religious imagination is still alive and well in dynamic parishes and intentional small Christian communities. Latino Catholics hold on to their devotional images and practices in the U.S. as well as in the continental South. The charismatic movement and Pentecostalism have often revived ancient local traditions. The frequent reading of scripture often creates a new imaginative subculture. Finally, ecumenism today requires a new sense of the communion of the saints because there are saints in all churches and religions, canonized or not.

French Catholics can find great comfort in the company of their companion saints: St. Blandina, a slave girl who was savagely martyred in the arena of Lyon in 177; St. Genevieve who saved Paris from Attila and the Huns in 451; St. Louis, a king of justice; St. Joan of Arc, a national hero by supernatural vocation; St. Vincent de Paul, the friend of the poor, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a special flower in the garden of dedicated souls.

Watch the Litany of the Saints of Paris (by the Fraternity of Jerusalem, St. Gervais, Paris):



1. On the decline of traditional devotions. Did your parents/grandparents have a home altar, a creche, statues or pictures of saints in various rooms of the house?

2. On the decline of Christmas traditions. In the somewhat distant past, Christmas was essentially religious, the Christmas gifts were small and even home-made, there was the singing of Christmas carols, and the midnight Mass started at midnight not before. How much has Christmas changed since then?

3. The social imaginary is the collective memory of common images, values and expectations of a given community. What is the imaginary of the communion of the saints that shapes the American church today as you know it? What would you like it to be?