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Forgotten Customs of Saints Days – Part 1

The Church’s Liturgical Year is a harmonious interplay of feasts and fasts interwoven in both the temporal and sanctoral cycles that define the rhythm and rhyme of Catholic life. While there are many customs associated with the seasons of the liturgical year and high ranking feast days, the entire year is replete with opportunities to live out our Catholic heritage through the customs our forefathers instituted.

In addition to the saints previously covered in this series, St. Luke, St. Clement, St. Anthony, St. John the Baptist, St. Christopher, and so many others provide opportunities for us to live a truly Catholic life. Likewise, the patronal feasts of our own areas should be restored as festive celebrations and occasions to publicly showcase our Catholic Faith.

Patronal Feast Days as Former Holy Days of Obligation

The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a concise, high-level overview of Holy Days of Obligation from 1150 to the changes in 1642:

The Decree of Gratian (about 1150) mentions forty-one feasts besides the diocesan patronal celebrations; the Decretals of Gregory IX (about 1233) mention forty-five public feasts and Holy Days. It was subsequently reduced in 1642 to the days listed by Pope Urban VIII which took the older list and maintained it.

In 1642, when Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull “Universa Per Orbem” which altered the required Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church to consist of 35 such days, to these were added the principal patrons of one’s locality. Such local patronal celebrations had previously been holy days of obligation. This is one of the reasons why patronal feastdays were celebrated with such fanfare and piety. For instance, the Feast Day of St. Roch painted by Canaletto (pictured above) beautifully illustrates the devotion of the Venetian people on St. Roch’s Day (August 16th).

Diocesan Patronal Saints & Titular Feasts

Who are the patron saints for your Diocese? Do you know if your Diocese has secondary patrons in addition to your primary patron? Did you know that your Diocese’s patron saint might not be the same as the Cathedral’s titular patron? I was disappointed to find no list online of the various patron saints for each of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in the United States. Since the feast days of these patrons should be kept as first-class feasts in each diocese, they are important to honor in our prayers at Mass and in the Divine Office in the local churches. In fact, the primary patron saint for each diocese would have been a Holy Day of Obligation up until the time of St. Pius X’s changes in 1911. As a result, I sought to create such a list. Click here to download a copy of it.

Care should also be taken to ensure that we understand the difference between a patronal feast day and a titular feast day. The Sacred Heart Review published on June 29, 1889, concisely teaches:

At other times, in order to show special devotion to some mystery, or to some manifestation of God’s love, the church receives a name that will keep that mystery or mark of love always before the people of the parish. Thus churches are sometimes called after the Holy Trinity, the Precious Blood, the Assumption, or, as in our own case here, the church of the Sacred Heart.

The intention in so naming churches is, in the case of a saint, that the people should have special love for that saint; that they should place themselves under his protection, and, by the study and imitation of his life, make themselves worthy of his intercession before God. That saint, in whose honor the church is named, becomes the patron saint of the place, and his feast is called the patronal feast. But when a church is named in honor of some mystery or mark of divine love or divine object, the people are supposed to have great veneration and love for the mystery, mark or object commemorated by the church’s name: and the name of the mystery, mark, or object is called the title of the church, and when the anniversary of the feast comes around, it is called the titular feast.

Practically speaking, we should honor the patrons and titulars of our parish and diocese by attending Mass on those days and celebrating, as far as possible, those days as holidays.

St. Luke’s Day

In 1295, Pope Boniface VIII enacted the decretal Gloriosus which “commanded that each of the feasts of the twelve apostles, four evangelists, and four doctors of the Church be celebrated as an officium duplex.”[1] As such, one of the former days preceding the changes in 1642 under Pope Urban VIII was the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist on October 18th, which had been kept in the ecclesiastical province of Mexico previously.

St. Luke is the patron of butchers. For years when St. Luke’s Day is not on a Friday, it would be an appropriate custom to honor him with a nice cut of steak. October 18th is also known as “Sour Cakes Day” in Scotland because baked cakes were eaten with sour cream in Rutherglen in his honor.

We can also honor St. Luke’s Day by praying for doctors and artists, since he is the patron saint of both. And we can take time to read the Acts of the Apostles or the Gospel according to St. Luke on his feastday.

St. Clement’s Day

While not commonly known, St. Clement’s Day on November 23rd is also known for its’ own unique customs as the Latin Mass Society related on its Facebook Page:

[Today] is the Feast of St Clement (23rd November) and traditionally children would go clementing – knocking on doors begging for apples, pear, and nuts in exchange for reciting rhymes. Indeed, it is believed that is the origin of the nursery rhyme “Oranges & Lemons.”

Also as Pope Clement I is the patron saint of metalworkers and blacksmiths and celebrations on Old Clem’s Night began with a bang, quite literally. Blacksmiths filled a small hole in their anvil with gunpowder. This was then struck with a hammer, creating a shower of sparks and a loud boom. The village blacksmiths would dress up in a wig, mask and cloak to represent Saint Clement and gather in the streets, singing loudly and staggering from tavern to tavern.

St. Anthony’s Day

The “Hammer of Heretics,” St. Anthony, is one of the most beloved saints. Besides being the patron saint of lost things, he is honored in many nations as the patron of sailors and fisherman. He is also the patron saint of the poor, which is visible in some places were the title on poor boxes in churches is “Saint Anthony’s Bread.”

In Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, Father Weiser also relates the connection of St. Anthony to Tuesdays:

Tuesday is devoted in a particular way to the veneration of St. Anthony because he was buried on Tuesday, June 17, 1231. In the 17th century, the practice began of holding weekly devotions to St. Anthony; even today, most ‘perpetual novenas’ to him are held on Tuesdays. Portugal and Italy, where the saint was born and where he died, honor his feast day with unusual festive splendor and great devotion. In Portugal, the epithet ‘of Padua’ is never used, for to the Portuguese he remains ‘Anthony of Lisbon’ or ‘of Alfama,’ the district of Lisbon where he was born. There, every house on June 13 displays, among other decorations, a shrine with a statue of the saint.

To be continued in part 2.


[1] The Cambridge History of Medieval Canon Law by Anders Winroth and John Wei

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