Cardinal Wuerl answers questions about his new book authored with Mike Aquilina entitled, The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics.
In The Feasts, Cardinal Wuerl and Aquilina explore the festivities in the calendar of Catholic holidays. From Christmas to Easter, the Feast of the Guardian Angels to the Pentecost, the authors reintroduce readers to the true beauty and meaning of each centuries-old celebration.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for a book about feasts?
The feasts have an outsized importance in Christianity. They teach doctrine. They form culture. They deliver the truths and mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ in a way that’s delightful and memorable. Think of Christmas and Easter. Every ethnic group marks those days with special customs, special foods, special songs. It’s a powerful experience for the senses; and it makes a deep impression on the mind. If you drive home from church and you’re still humming the hymns, then you’re probably also rehearsing the doctrine in your mind — without realizing it.
This book marks the third book in a series Mike and I have written for Image Books. The three books consider three Christian institutions that are supremely important for forming Christian community and individual Christians — the Mass, the parish church, and the feasts.
Q. Who should read this book? Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing it?
We wrote it for everyone, really. I think Catholic families will get more out of celebrating feast days after they’ve gained a deeper understanding of each day’s biblical roots, historical development, and particular symbols and customs. Clergy will find the book a treasury of good material for homilies. Non-Catholics will, I hope, find it an easy way to get to know the celebrations of their Catholic friends, neighbors, and family members.
Q. In The Feasts, you refer to the calendar as a catechism and teacher. In what ways can we learn from the feasts?
The feasts are a great delivery system for doctrine. Every Sunday, Catholics recite the Creed, confirming that they accept certain basic propositions about Jesus: that he is true God, and that he is true man, that he took flesh to be the Savior of the world. It’s good that we recite the Creed; and it’s good that we commit the propositions to memory. But I think they become more truly part of us when we sing them in Christmas carols and when we kneel before the manger. In a similar way, our Lenten exercises, like the Stations of the Cross and meatless Fridays, work on us — mind, body, and soul — in a way that abstract lessons on the atonement never could. If we have been tending to these things faithfully since childhood, that’s all the better.
There’s more than one way to teach doctrine and more than one way to learn. Through much of history, many Christians could not read. They didn’t own catechisms or subscribe to religious magazines. Yet they too kept the faith and passed it on to their children. They learned it, to a great degree, as they celebrated the cycle of feasts in the common life of the Church.
Q. In the introduction, you write: “Catholics love to celebrate the feasts, but often passively. The time rolls around each year, and we show up because we have an obligation to do so. And participating brings us joy. But our joy could be far greater if we celebrated with understanding.” What can Catholics do to better understand the feasts of the Church and celebrate them with greater intention (other than read your book, of course!)?
The feasts are part of a greater enterprise called the calendar. The Church keeps time to its own ancient rhythm — or, more accurately, eternal rhythm. If you live the life all year round, you’ll have a better appreciation of the special times. If you’ve lived a good Lent and Easter, you’ll be better prepared for Christmas, next time it rolls around. There are many good guides that help Catholics “stay tuned” in between the major holidays. The magazines Magnificat and Word Among Us come to mind. They give ordinary Catholics a way to walk prayerfully at life’s pace, from feast to feast and season to season.
Q: You write, “The feasts are to time what churches are to space.” How did you come up with such an interesting analogy?
Prayer is important to the life of both authors. Mike and I have also done a lot of spiritual reading down the years. So, if you like an analogy, there’s a good chance we learned it from some long-ago — and unfortunately long-forgotten— master.
As for that particular analogy: it seemed self-evident to Mike and me. A Church is a holy place. A feast is a holy day, a holiday.
Q. What is your favorite Catholic feast day?
My favorite liturgical celebration is the Easter Vigil, with Easter Sunday and Christmas as very close seconds. It’s my privilege to celebrate all of them in Washington’s beautiful Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle.
Of the feasts, I particularly love the Annunciation on March 25 and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. The Immaculate Conception has a very special place in my heart for two reasons. It is the patronal feast of the United States — and I get to celebrate that Mass in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in D.C. And it is also the anniversary date of my Baptism (December 8, 1940).
A newcomer among the feasts, but very dear to my heart, is the Feast of Saint John Paul II, October 22. It was my privilege to know the saint, and so the prayers of the day affect me in a powerful and personal way. That Mass I can celebrate in the National Shrine of Saint John Paul II, also here in Washington, D.C.
My co-author, Mike Aquilina, shares my love for the Easter Vigil and for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. He has a particular devotion to all the saints of the early Church, and he keeps their feasts in a special way, as he also keeps the Memorial of the Guardian Angels. The beauty of the calendar is that we hold it in common, and yet it becomes something different and beautiful in every Christian life, assuming the contours of each personality and each person’s particular vocation and graces from God.