The anniversaries of 2017 are a chance to ponder events that profoundly shape the world today

The anniversary is the columnist’s reliable friend. Nothing in the news today worthy of comment? How about the news of 10, 50 or 100 years ago? At this distance only the highlights remain. Just wait until this coming summer when journalists will escape the late August news doldrums by marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. (Catholic journalists will recall that St Teresa of Calcutta died the same week.)

Uninspired by today’s leaders? Use the 65th anniversary of the Queen’s accession or the 90th birthday of Benedict XVI to shift attention to more favourable subjects.

Chesterton wrote about the democracy of the dead: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to walk about.” Commentators who have never read Chesterton agree with him; the anniversary column frees the writer from the tyranny of what is happening right now.

Every year, by definition, has anniversaries to mark, beginning with the first anniversaries of everything that happened last year. Soon we’ll have stories on Brexit – one year later. Americans are more impatient; they mark the first 100 days of a presidency. But those don’t really count. Milestone anniversaries are what we are after.

There is a bumper crop of major anniversaries in 2017 for the religiously minded. I hope to explore them over the course of this year in these pages.

The one that will get the most attention is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Pope Francis was eager to get the observances underway early, heading to Sweden last Reformation Day to kick off the celebratory (?) year. British Catholics are likely to take a dimmer view of the signal event that divided the Church – and Europe.

We can look backward another 100 years to the election of Pope Martin V at the Council of Constance in 1417. His election marked the resolution of the Great Western Schism, when there were three contenders for the See of Peter. Had the schism continued, even limped along, the credibility and capability of the Petrine office might never have recovered.

Even further back, we find in 1217 the sending by St Francis of Assisi of the first friars to the Holy Land. Eight hundred years later the Franciscans still administer the Catholic holy places. Indeed, the current bishop of Jerusalem is a Franciscan, appointed when the Holy See could find no one suitable among the local clergy.

The anniversary most observed in the Catholic world will be the centenary of the Fatima apparitions of 1917. The shrine of the God’s Providence in our history, Fatima is linked to world events from World War I to the defeat of communism, and is intimately joined to the great pope of the millennium, John Paul II.

The apparitions at Fatima coincided with the Russian Revolution, and the introduction of totalitarian atheism to 20th-century politics. It would prove the most lethal development in the history of humanity. The 1917 revolution laid waste to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has still not fully recovered from its liquidation by Stalin and subsequent reconstitution as a branch of the Soviet state. All that is still reverberating in Ukraine today.

As the old world order disintegrated a century ago, a new one emerged to take its place. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration indicated that a homeland for the Jewish people was a possibility after nearly 18 centuries of exile. But for Jews, the principal anniversary of this year will be the 50 years since the Six Day War reunited the Old City with the rest of Jerusalem and Jews returned to pray at the Western Wall (forbidden during Jordanian rule). Christians and Muslims also care about Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of the world, and the events of 1967 still shape an important aspect of Middle East politics.

A Canadian might be thought parochial for including our confederation of 1867 amid the world anniversaries. But Canada is one of the world’s older and most stable democracies, and our sesquicentennial year provides a model for how diverse peoples can coexist peacefully. Religious toleration under the British crown existed in Canada long before it did at home; not for nothing was there an English cardinal for Kingston, Canada, even before the restoration of the hierarchy in England.

Of the making of anniversaries there is no end, but so many of those that fall in 2017 profoundly shape the world in which we live today. History is not merely history. The century immediately past was a dolorous one, as foretold by the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Fatima. Sometimes it seemed as if the world, so bruised and bloodied, itself needed a new heart. It was 50 years ago, at Groote Schuur Hospital in South Africa, that the first human heart transplant was performed.

This article first appeared in the March 31 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here