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Dialogue Mass - LXXXV

When the Saints Go Marching Out

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
From the time of the early liturgical books, it was an accepted tradition to allocate two or more feasts in the Calendar to some of the Church’s major Saints. But the progressivist reformers came up with a wholly arbitrary aim to curtail “duplications” of feasts devoted to a particular Saint. They decided that their feast days, with hardly any exceptions, should be reduced to no more than one per Saint.


Angels proclaim the Saints; the new Calendar, instead, expelled them from the Liturgy

The fact that a hand-picked group of reformers could make up the rules as they went along meant that they could invent and use this convenient excuse to eliminate a whole clutch of feast days from the General Calendar under John XXIII (1) – and get away with it.

The point of having multiple feasts for an individual Saint was to provide an opportunity for the faithful to contemplate the Saint’s life from more than one angle, so as to reinforce more powerfully different elements of the Faith enshrined in them. We have seen how admirably this worked for the feasts of the Chair and the Chains of St. Peter.

Feasts celebrating relics were expelled

In 1960, John XXIII eliminated from the General Roman Calendar two feasts which had been integral to the Roman Rite from ancient times – the Finding of St. Stephen (August 3) and the Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3).

Their disappearance is all the more reprehensible because they were the only Feasts which gave liturgical expression to the cult of sacred relics, as such, in the Universal Calendar. (2) We will deal with each in turn.

The Feast of the Finding of St. Stephen

From the 5th century up to 1960, the Church commemorated a miraculous event – the discovery of the body of the Protomartyr St. Stephen 400 years after his martyrdom. (3) The exact spot of his burial near Jerusalem was revealed in a series of visions to a priest named Lucian, and, upon disinterment, the relics of the Saint immediately wrought many cures.

finding of relics

The Finding of the Relics of St. Stephen
Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, c. 1650

After they were distributed throughout the Catholic world, they gave rise to an abundance of well documented miraculous cures, conversions and raisings from the dead, some of them personally witnessed and recorded by St. Augustine of Hippo. (4) In fact, so convincing were the many written and oral testimonies to these miracles that they were widely accepted as being of divine origin. (5)

As a measure of the faith and joy of contemporary Catholics at the discovery of St. Stephen’s body, a Basilica in his honor was erected in Rome in the late 5th century to mark the occasion. (6) Thus, this feast day, recorded in the early Martyrologies as August 3, acquired a distinctively “Roman” character and was accorded an honored place in the General Roman Calendar.

What, then, must be the dismay of traditionally-minded Catholics today on learning that this feast, instituted to celebrate the finding of St. Stephen’s body in 415, was written out of this General Calendar by John XXIII in 1960? It was, after all, a feast that had originated spontaneously from the faith and devotion of the early Christians and enjoyed the protection of the Church down the centuries.

The Church’s intention in placing the August 3 feast in the Universal Calendar was to make known to all the faithful – the priests who said the Mass on August 3 and the people who attended it – the miraculous events associated with the finding of St. Stephen. It was meant to imbue the liturgy with an enhanced sense of the supernatural and provide an opportunity for all to reflect on God’s miraculous intervention in History.

Why did the feast day have to go?

The official reason was to avoid the “duplication” of having two feasts dedicated to St. Stephen – on August 3 and December 26. Anyone familiar with the pre-1962 Missal will know that these feasts were not mere duplications, but had their own distinctive character and purpose of existence. The former commemorates the discovery of the relics of St. Stephen and the latter his martyrdom. Hence, they feature two separate, though interrelated, themes for celebration, as the Collect of each Mass specifies. (7)

And, what was the real reason? Mgr. Bugnini had already mapped out the path of this reform by 1955 when he proposed a sort of liturgical “triage” procedure for prioritizing or eliminating Saints from the Calendar, based on their appeal to the spirit of modern times:

“The Church should choose the types of sanctity to be proposed for imitation and example, according to the times and the spiritual needs of the faithful. Hence arises once more the necessity of a revision of her prayer-texts in which some saints, whose spiritual features have lost contact with the modern soul, may be replaced by others more typical, more present-day, closer to us.” (8)

What, precisely, were the criteria for judging which feasts to eliminate from the General Calendar? “Simplification” was supposed to be of the essence in the reform, but this turns out to be a transparent pretext to cloak the real intention of the reformers – gradually to weed out certain feasts that would be unacceptable to modern man.

We are enlightened on this issue by Fr. Carlo Braga, who had been Bugnini’s right-hand man since the time of Pius XII, and was witness to all the stages of the liturgical reform. (9)

Fr. Braga explained that the liturgical changes of the 1960s leading to the Novus Ordo liturgy stemmed from the “new positions” the Church had taken in that decade. There were, he alleged, “ecumenical reasons” to suppress “devotional aspects, or particular ways of venerating or invoking the saints” in the light of the “new values and new perspectives” of contemporary man. He even admitted that these changes affected “not only form but also doctrinal reality” (10) ‒ in other words, the lex orandi and lex credendi.

What was being proposed by Bugnini in this reform was a cynical calculation about the relative desirability of having “some saints, whose spiritual features have lost contact with the modern soul” eliminated from the Calendar.

We can forget about “simplification.” The elimination of the Finding of St. Stephen would, according to Bugnini, be justified on the grounds of being too much of a “stretch” for the credibility of modern man. So, after his Finding, St. Stephen was, as it were, promptly re-buried along with his miracles.

Baneful consequences of the reform

By eliminating this feast from the Calendar, the impression was given that belief in such miracles is no longer required. There is also a covert suggestion that the events commemorated in the feast did not really happen, but were a figment of some people’s imagination.

It is, of course, only a short step from there to casting doubt on the integrity of the holy men – including St. Augustine – who witnessed and documented the events, and implying that they were fable-mongers, gullible or merely delusional.

As a direct result of this reform, what had once been described as “one of the most celebrated events of the 5th century” (11) has now fallen into oblivion among priests and faithful of the Roman Rite. It was to prevent this fate that St. Augustine had recorded the spate of miracles in his day:

“When I saw, in our own times, frequent signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those that had been given of old, I desired that narratives might be written, judging that the multitude should not remain ignorant of these things.” (12)

Ironically, as a direct result of this reform, ignorance – or, worse, skepticism – now reigns about a feast that had nourished the spiritual life of our forefathers.

This reform marks a definite rupture with the traditional Calendar relating to a feast that reflected one of Catholicism’s deepest values – the idea that God works miracles through His Saints and their relics. As it is a distinctively Catholic doctrine denied by Protestants – who have always denounced the veneration of relics as superstition and idolatry – the Finding of St. Stephen was also, like other “inconvenient” feasts, excised for “ecumenical” reasons.


  1. Examples of feasts removed from the General Calendar in 1960 on the grounds of being “duplications” are: The Finding of the Holy Cross, St. John before the Latin Gate, The Apparition of St. Michael, St. Peter in Chains, The Finding of St. Stephen, The Chair of St. Peter at Rome, St. Anacletus Pope and Martyr.
  2. This applied only to the General Roman Calendar which formerly mandated these two feast days for the Universal Church. They were relegated to an Appendix of the 1962 Missal where, together with other feasts expelled from that Calendar, they were designated as optional Masses pro aliquibus locis to be celebrated in certain local churches or dioceses to which they pertained.
  3. Other bodies discovered in the same grave were those of Sts. Gamaliel, Nicodemus and Abibas. A full account of the history of St. Stephen’s relics is provided by Dom Guéranger in The Liturgical Year, vol. 13, pp. 267-272.
  4. In The City of God (book 22, chapter 8), St. Augustine mentions the miracles that happened soon after the relics were brought to Africa: “It is not yet two years since these relics were first brought to Hippo-regius.” As for the publicly attested miracles that he attributes to the intercession of “the most glorious Stephen,” “those which have been published amount to almost 70 at the hour at which I write. But at Calama, where these relics have been for a longer time, and where more of the miracles were narrated for public information, there are incomparably more.”
  5. Even the habitually skeptical 17th century historian, Lenain de Tillemont, who excelled in punctilious concern for discarding unauthentic sources of information, was convinced of the genuineness of these testimonies concerning the miracles wrought by the relics of St. Stephen. See de Tillemont, Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire ecclésiastique, Paris, 1694, vol. 2, pp. 10-24.
  6. The Basilica of St. Stephen was originally commissioned by Pope Leo I (440-461), and was consecrated by Pope Simplicius in the late 5th century.
  7. The Collects of the feasts mention St. Stephen’s inventionem (finding) and the natalitia (birth to eternal life, i.e., martyrdom) respectively
  8. A. Bugnini, ‘Why a Liturgy Reform?,’ Worship XXIX, n. 10 1954/5, p. 564.
  9. Fr. Braga had been involved in all the preparatory work of Vatican II’s Liturgy Constitution from his “apprenticeship” as Bugnini’s personal assistant during the time of Pius XII’s Liturgical Commission, although he was not formally appointed as a member of that Commission until 1960.
    Archbishop Piero Marini, Bugnini’s personal Secretary, said that Fr. Braga was “a friend of Bugnini’s, and, like him, was a Vincentian” and “was to become one of the most important resource people at the Consilium”. In fact, Bugnini chose him personally in 1964 to be his Assistant Secretary of the Consilium. (Apud P. Marini, A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, 1963-1975, Liturgical Press, 2007, p. 41). Fr. Braga was also a collaborator with the periodical Ephemerides Liturgicae of which Bugnini was Editor.
  10. Carlo Braga, Ephemerides Liturgicae, 84, 1970, p. 419.
  11. De Tillemont, Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire ecclésiastique, p. 12.
  12. St. Augustine, The City of God, book 22, chapter 8.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted May 6, 2019

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