Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist — A question for PrayTell Bloggers

I take today’s Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist — unusual in that it celebrates the birth of a saint rather than the day of his death, important in that it foreshadows Christmas by six month, and richly blessed with popular devotional practices (at least in the past) — to raise a question about how Pray Tell bloggers themselves mark liturgical time.

I find myself taken aback when I go to Pray Tell on an important liturgical day to find some wisdom for the living of the day, only to find some posting over missal shtuff [pardon my personal short-hand for this subject] or some completely unrelated humor or anything else oblivious to the importance of the day in the liturgical calendar.

I am not raising this issue in the spirit of a more-liturgical-than-thou attitude.  My concern is with how we, as participants on a liturgical blog, mark or occlude a foundational feature of our liturgical tradition, namely, how it spells time and rhythm in our lives, including our lives in the contemporary blogosphere.  I would welcome some thoughts on that.

And I hope you all have a blessed Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.


  1. Although Corpus Christi is celebrated on Sunday in the USA and many other places, it has some wonderful celebrations in other parts of the world on its traditional day of Thursday. I would have like to see and understand the piety of the Church in its rich and cultural diversity as Eucharistic Processions are held in many places and in quite lavish ways. These of course flow from the Mass out into the streets as it were. You point about the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist’s birth is well taken. Our Liturgical calendar allows us to celebrate our faith and feast days in a variety of ways and leads to all kinds of popular devotions which give character to our faith and hope to our lives.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Fr. Allan, and especially for your comments on Corpus Christi and the rich traditions that surround it. I was just thinking yesterday (the actual feast day) about how that feast, for me growing up in Germany, was the most beautiful feast of all, with the lavish processions through the city, and the women of the parish who, overnight, made a tapestry of flower petals on the ground in front of the sanctuary, for when the Blessed Sacrament was carried out of the church. If you want to know more about all these practices, the (older) book of my Jesuit uncle, Francis X. Weiser, “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs,” is a treasure trove.

    2. Our Mass for Corpus Christi (yesterday evening at Christ the King, Sarasota FL) featured a procession around the immediate neighborhood, complete with flower-petals laid upon the pathway and the chanting of Adoro te Devote, Ave Verum Corpus, Jesu Dulcis and Anima Christi (we had to repeat some parts as it was a rather long procession!).

      Such celebrations hold a special place in the Catholic faith…times we come to worship that aren’t on a Sunday. This special character has been lost in many places that transfer these feast days to Sunday. Particularly since many of these feast days are tied to specific days (Ascension Thursday… Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday) the celebration of them on Sunday seems more expeditious than for any other reason. I am already looking forward to our Mass for Sts. Peter and Paul next week…

  2. To be honest, I haven’t expected PTB to be a blog that would give daily liturgical-calendar-related posts.

    Personally, I used to be more attuned to the liturgical year when I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours (and attended daily Mass with regularity). I enjoyed hearing the priest pray aloud in the Mass the same prayer I had prayed quietly in my home that morning.

    Now, I find myself struggling to keep track of Sundays. I follow some blogs that provide regular posts on the passage of the liturgical year, and I know enough about the year to know when solemnities and some feasts and saints’ days are. I remember the nativity of John the Baptist very easily because it’s the day after my wedding anniversary, and I had the delight of learning the next day that HIS nativity is observed on its proper day even when it falls on a Sunday!

    I wonder if Pius Parsch’s book(s?) on the liturgical year — mutatis mutandi — would be a decent contribution to the liturgical year blogosphere.

    1. Pius Parsch: Seasons of Grace and The Church’s Year of Grace, if I remember rightly, both of them translated into English by Harold Winstone, whose mother was German and who thus grew up bilingual.

      He had trained at St-Sulpice in Paris, but not as a liturgist. It was his work in translating German liturgical authors which awakened his intuitive understanding of matters liturgical, and turned him into one of England’s great triumvirate of liturgical pioneers (the others were Clifford Howell and James Crichton).

      This is the same Harold Winstone, incidentally, who was the classicist who taught Latin and Greek at St Edmund’s College, Ware, and was one of the primary translators for the 1973 ICEL Roman Missal, chair of ICEL’s Advisory Committee for a number of years, and co-chair with Canon Ronald Jasper of ICET, the interdenominational liturgico-textual body.

      Winstone had the good fortune to serve as a parish priest in a very disparate range of parishes, including working-class parishes. The one he was working in while doing the ICEL translation work, St Thomas More in Manor House, North London, was fairly typical: mostly people who lived in real poverty and were uneducated, though with a sprinkling of educated middle-class people too.

      He and his colleagues were convinced that working-class parishioners could never use the full-blown texts of the Missal as means of prayer, which is why the 1973 Missal contained simplified versions of many of the prayers. Yes, those translations lost a lot of the scriptural and patristic allusions in the Latin, but they attempted to distill the essence of what the prayers were trying to say in terms which working-class Catholics could understand. It has to be said that in this respect they were extraordinarily successful.

      1. Fr Z and others have characterized them as bland or “lame duck”, but in the hands of a skilled presider these texts can come alive and be every bit as fulfilling as the texts of the forthcoming new translation. The problem is that most presiders have not taken the time and trouble to find out how to proclaim these texts and preach about them. Those who have done so have provided their parishioners with rich food. Those who have not have, let us admit it, failed their parishioners. Those who have written off the current translations as inadequate have quite probably never found out to to use them properly. There is an art to using the current texts that is every bit as subtle as the art that will be required for using the new translation. Once you have witnessed it, you will know what I am talking about.

        Harold Winstone himself was not the most dynamic of presiders, but he knew how to make the liturgy come alive for his “simple faithful”. I think it is time for a re-evaluation of his contribution to liturgical development.

        The classicist in him would have asked Jeffrey to correct mutatis mutandi to mutatis mutandis. The analyst in him would have asked Jeffrey what on earth that phrase means in the context he used it!

      2. The tribute to Canon Harold Winstone is greatly deserved.
        He was learned, unflappable, generous, and deeply pastoral.

        He could be a bit whimsical, and had a delightfully dry sense of humor.

        Gigantes erant in diebus illis.

      3. Paul – thanks for this tribute and historical lesson. It goes to the point that the forgotten “history” are those who made up the ICEL and ICET – who they were; their experiences and lived wisdom; what insights they brought to a very valuable development in the history of liturgy and the church.

        Would simply state that Fr. Z probably couldn’t name who made up the ICEL in 1973; much less tell us anything about these individuals; what compelled them to translate as they did; etc.

        Now I want to get some of his books and expand my own knowledge, thanks. Realize now how much of our seminary education was deficient even in the heady days of implementing 1973 and after.

  3. I attempt to get to daily Eucharist/Mass at my parish and one item that the deacon or priest will comment about is the Feast of the Day… and possibly some history as well as commentary on how it might be celebrated. StJB is revered in Puerto Rico, the Saint of the Island… one of our choir members is Puerto Rican and spoke of some of the traditions there on this day. I would like to hear from others as well… we are a multicultural society and these celebrations do mark us… Living in San Antonio, the month of June marks our annual Novena to St. Anthony de Padua at the parish named for him, which is celebrated with Masses, evening prayer and music from a variety of cultures and in a variety of languages. For me personally, July 11, my birthday, is also the Feast of St. Benedict and it reminds me of aspects of the Rule and the contribution that the Benedictines have made to my life, and how I am called to live my life…

    Yes, Feasts are important markers… I agree with Teresa…

  4. Some scattered thoughts on John:
    The Eastern church has a great tradition of honouring him as Prodromos, the Forerunner. There are many icons of him. My favourites are the ones where he carries in his hands a plate on which his head rests, all the while still retaining his head on top of his shoulders!
    Musically, it seems we owe to Guido of Arezzo in the 11th century the Tonic Sol-fa, derived from the hymn Ut queant laxis from the office for the feast of St John.
    In the area of popular traditions marking feasts, we have Moussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, set on the eve of the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. It is a traditional night for bonfires around Europe – fire services were busy in some parts of Ireland last night.
    Jerome Murphy O’Connor has an article on John on
    If you have access to Hypericum St John’s Wort which flowers at this time, why not use it for decorating the church or home?
    John was patron of the medieval guilds of tailors – I like to think it is because of his camel-hair coat (or shirt?)

    1. I believe that those bonfires and other celebrations pre-dated John the Baptist. I also believe it very appropriate that those pagan traditions were baptized! I remain a Catholic in part because Catholic culture at its best recognizes the Creator in all things, even a celebration of the Summer Solstice!

      Celebrations such as this remind us that we are not alone and that the Kingdom of God is here.

  5. Thanks for the encouragement to declare things like feasts and solemnities via blogs and social media (and in conversation here). I think many people are simply unaware of such things, and we may be able to shed some light on these important markers of time.

  6. In Italy, my family in the town of Bolsena, lives along the procession route. Every year, they construct a religious scene on the space in front of their home. Like the Rose parade, everything must be made of flowers, seeds, pods, grasses… things. They have a book of photos of all the scenes they have done over the many years.

  7. Today is la fête nationale du Québec, the “National Holiday”. The holiday is always held on the feast of St. John the Baptist, a patron of Quebec. Many call the holiday “la St-Jean” even if the very secular Quebecois have the lowest Sunday Mass attendance rate out of all industrialized countries.

    Nowadays the holiday is a day to celebrate Quebecois arts, food, music, and cultural pride. The religious aspect of the day is almost completely forgotten. From one perspective, la Révolution tranquille (the “Quiet Revolution”; the 1960’s transformation of Quebec from a clerical state to a social democratic state) liberated the Quebecois from an oppressive conflation of church and state. Yet, the Quebecois discarded Catholicism almost entirely during this transformation.

    The acrimony between traditional and progressive Catholics hides the reality that post-Christian societies require a new and innovative evangelization. The Latin vs vernacular, OF vs EF question is irrelevant in a society where many now neglect to baptize their children. Many priests struggle to minister and preach to both francophones and the minority anglophones. The laity will play an important role in the evangelization because of their lay charism, and not merely because the clergy are overextended.

    I don’t know which liturgy will bring the Quebecois back to the Church — better that more people just show up on Sunday.

  8. The Latin vs vernacular, OF vs EF question is irrelevant in a society where many now neglect to baptize their children.

    I’m not sure if that makes the question irrelevant, or more relevant than ever…as the liturgy is both the “source and summit” of our faith it would seem that there might be some importance to the issue. I guess what I am saying is that the discussions, debates and at times internecine battles that take place, while sometimes stooping to the level of petty and shameful, are nonetheless far from trivial.

    1. I’d agree that the question of the Mass, and especially how it is celebrated, is an important issue. We’re light-years away from that point in societies like Quebec, where the majority of the culturally or nominally Catholic population has little or no knowledge of the faith. I haven’t seen an archdiocesan media campaign to publicize the catechumenate. The best way to bring people back to the Church is through conversion or the completion of the sacraments of initiation. I pray that more lay people hear the call to become RCIA catechists. I don’t speak French, so I can’t help that much.

      As for a possible MR3 French translation: “vulnerable” Catholic societies need ritual stability. Let’s hope that the French MR3 is off in the future. At least, give Quebec an indult for the old translation. Don’t rock the boat. The EF is not encouraged in Quebec — but for good reason! The EF communities here are often reactionary and prejudiced. I’d say that the OF is better for evangelization in this society. I’m surprised that I think this way given my usual ideological stance. Still, the focus should be on bringing people back through practices free of cultural baggage. Worship should reflect mainstream Catholic practice.

      1. Jordan,

        Don’t worry about an MR3 French translation. It’s years away. The French-speaking bishops’ conferences’ response to Rome’s attempt to impose a LA-type translation on them (they were apparently tearing their hair out over it) was to set up a special new commission to do the translation of MR3. This commission is working at a very deliberate pace, and does not expect to have anything to show for a number of years — 2015 at the earliest. Then it will take several years for all that to go through the approval process of the various French-speaking conferences, followed by recognitio from Rome. That means we’re talking about a decade before anything changes, and if Rome doesn’t like what the commission produces it could be a lot longer. By then we might have MR4, LA rescinded, and Comme le Prévoit back in place.

  9. Teresa
    Good idea. Let’s have the occasional truce from saying how liturgy should be celebrated to understanding the feasts and seasons.
    Has any reader ever eaten a locust?
    Does anybody have any ideas where he baptised: the Israelis and Jordanians each have sites on their own sides of the river? I suspect that our prejudices will trump our archeology here.
    At least I was able to get to Mass during the lunch hour.

  10. I was married around John the Baptist’s feast day. SInce it coincides (or nearly) with the change of seasons to summer, and the longest day of the year, it seemed like a good time to get married. It also reminds us both that we “must decrease so He may increase!”

    Here is a link to St. John’s Abbey’s very unique statue of John the Baptist in their baptistery:

    This statue really scared me for my first years as a student there, and then I came to understand how the statue is like a 3D icon. Now I love it!

  11. At St. Nicholas parish in Evanston, Illinois, we mark June 24 with Mass in the morning in the church and evening prayer in the style that Bill Storey and others characterized as “cathedral” (versus “monastic). (We celebrate parochial evening prayer about once a month, on carefully chosen dates. June 24 is our June date, as well as Pentecost Sunday this year.) For a lucernarium, we build a bonfire in the courtyard, on the spot where we kindle the Easter Vigil fire, and yards away from the site of the first wooden church building that–in typical Chicago fashion–burned down in the late 1890s. We sing a hymn in honor of the Baptist, John Mason Neale’s “The Great Forerunner of the Morn,” which is a long meter adaptation of Bede’s “Praecursor altis luminis” We light the fire at this point, and the presider leads a thanksgiving over it, with the people singing a Gloria refrain that we know–to make the Christmas connection. We sing Psalms 141 (and use incense with the fire) and 112, read from Acts 13, have a homily, sing the Magnificat and offer intercessions with the presider announcing the broad topic (for the church, metropolitan Chicago, the sick and so on) with members of the assembly adding names of needs or persons for each one. The Lord’s Prayer, the collect, and the peace conclude the prayer. People are invited to linger and enjoy the fire and the company as long as they wish. We provide mosquito spray for those who need it before prayer begins. This was our third year–attendance is growing and people’s understanding and appreciation is deepening. If you’re in the area, join us next year.

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