Catholics can celebrate “leap day” as a uniquely Catholic holiday because of a saint — Oswald — and the fact that the idea of a leap year is a Catholic one.
The pagan Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, began in 45 B.C., and from its start, it was out of sync with the progression of the stars and seasons. So a new calendar with a leap day was proposed.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII mandated a reform to the calendar — after the Church’s astronomers determined that one year was actually 365.2425 days. He also amended the rule for determining a leap year by defining it as a year that was divisible by 100 as long as it was also divisible by 400. Thus, 2012 is a leap year, as was 2000, but 1900 wasn’t because it’s not evenly divisible by 400.
Thus, the Gregorian calendar repeats itself every 400 years.
Catholic countries followed the Pope’s lead and adopted the new calendar. However, the British Empire, and others in conflict with the Holy See, didn’t use the new calendar until 1752.
In the United Kingdom, a person born on Feb. 29 is referred to as a “leapling” or a “leap-year baby.” Consequently, St. Oswald is the Church’s saintly “leapling” because he was born into eternal life on that day.
Oswald, the archbishop of York, died on Feb. 29, 992.
He was born in Denmark but was raised in Britain by his uncle Odo, archbishop of Canterbury. Desiring a stricter ascetic life, he entered the Benedictine Monastery of Fleury. Odo had been a monk in the same monastery. He worked toward Church reform.
In 962, with St. Dunstan’s help, he became bishop of Worcester, where he continued his work to reform the Church by purging it of many clerical abuses. He was instrumental in bringing religious communities such as the Benedictines into many parishes and other diocesan positions and re-established Ripon as a diocese. King Edgar supported this move by handing over administrative decisions for the monasteries of St. Albans, Ely and Benfleet to Oswald for reform.
Oswald’s most famous founding was at Ramsey in Huntingdonshire, whose church was dedicated in 974.
In 972, Pope John XIII, St. Dunstan and King Edgar appointed Oswald as archbishop of York. The Pope allowed him to retain jurisdiction over the Diocese of Worcester, where he often resided in order to implement his monastic reforms.
Though it seems Oswald was heavy-handed in his reforms, he strictly refrained from violent measures, relying instead upon prayer, fasting, dialogue and fatherly admonitions. He promoted learning amongst the clergy in his diocese and invited many scholars, including mathematicians and astronomers from Fleury, to instruct and preach in England.
Unfortunately, King Edgar’s death in 975 saw the dismantling of a great deal of Oswald’s reforms, mostly at the hands of Elfhere, king of Mercia, who broke up many communities that Oswald had labored to create.
The holy man died while washing the feet of the 12 poor men near his monastery, as was his daily custom during Lent. He was so well loved that news of his death was met with city-wide mourning. His relics are reserved in the priory Church of St. Mary in Worcester, which he helped build.
Happy St. Oswald Day!
Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York City.