The Americans always like to wish each other ‘Happy Holidays’, which is sometimes taken to be secularising the feast of the Nativity; but the Italians often say ‘Buone Feste’ as much as ‘Buon Natale’. It is worth noting that the idea of ‘happy holy days’ is not so very far from the truth. Christmas is one feast among many; it is the pre-eminent feast, with its Octave and its Twelve Days of Christmas, but it is not the only feast at this time of year.
On the 21st December, often neglected in the last days of Advent, though not by the Jesuits, I suspect, is the feast of Saint Peter Canisius. He was canonised as recently as 1925, and certainly deserves to be better know. He was one of the first generation of Jesuits, born in 1521, and the first Netherlander to join the Society. The name Canisius is a Latinisation of the Dutch surname de Hondt. It is thanks to St Peter that so many German speaking territories today are still Catholic. The Reformation never had a clear run in the Hapsburg lands or in the German principalities, and this was in part at least due to the hard work and dedication of Peter and his confreres, who tirelessly re-evangelised so many places that were falling away from Catholicism or had already done so. His chief weapon in the war against error was the German Catechism that he produced: written in German, it was an accessible guide to the Catholic Faith, and meant to counter Luther’s catechisms. In addition, Peter was a great and tireless preacher, as well as a promoter of devotion to Our Lady. He is credited with adding the sentence “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners’ to the Hail Mary.
Right now, in the festive season, we may be painfully aware of the way so many of our countrymen and women simply do not get ‘the reason for the season.’ St Peter Canisius is a saint who points us towards not only the need for re-evangelisation, but also the way any such evangelisation ought to happen.
On the 31st December we celebrate St Sylvester, Pope. He died on this day in the year 335, having reigned for 21 years. He was the first Pope of a Church at peace. As such he had to steer the Barque of Peter through the difficult challenges. Previous Popes had led a persecuted Church; but Sylvester was the one who baptised the Emperor Constantine, and who doubtless found that when the world wants to be your friend, that too can be challenging. Indeed, the Church still finds its relation with the world something of a puzzle. St Sylvester is one who we need to invoke, in order to prevent ourselves falling into the trap of forgetting that we are in the world but not of it.
The day after the night of St Sylvester, as the Italians call New Year’s Eve, we have the Octave Day of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Just as we can entrust the old year to St Sylvester, we can entrust the new one to the Blessed Virgin. Again, this feast, which is a recent innovation, established in 1974 (or better, re-introduced then) seems a little overlooked. It ought not to be. The Madonna is the best and greatest of Christians, so we should contemplate her at the start of the year. Looking at any icon of her, or any statue, we see a human being completely wrapped up in God, completely happy, utterly serene. Turbulent times may lie ahead of us all in 2014; we are surrounded by people who are tormented and troubled, as we are ourselves, caught up in the maelstrom of sin. The Madonna lights the way into the New Year, assuring us that all will be well. Under her patronage we shall, and we already do, find refuge. She is the powerful sign of our blessed future.
Saint Peter Canisius, Saint Sylvester, and Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us all! And to all readers, Happy Holy Days! May God bless us all in the remaining days of 2013, and in the year to come.