Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and author Mike Aquilina’s forthcoming book, The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics (Image Books, September 2014), is the last in the duo’s triology, which also includes The Mass and The Church. Cardinal Wuerl offered the Register a “behind-the-book” take on the release.
Please introduce your new book, The Feasts. What inspired you to write it, who is it for, and how do you think it will impact the way Catholics live out their faith?
The Feasts is the third of a trilogy of books in which Mike Aquilina and I explore the basic elements of Catholic life. Our first book, The Mass, took a slow walk through the liturgy, examining each of its parts — all the prayers and gestures, vessels and vestments, postures and furnishings. In our second book, The Church, we gave a similar tour of an ordinary parish’s place of worship. Now, in The Feasts, we look at the sacred calendar — all of its special days and seasons — and explore their meaning, history and biblical roots.
Catholic liturgy is the ordinary way the Church passes on the faith. The liturgy is a teacher. The very walls of our churches give lessons in the faith. And the calendar is a catechism. We grow in the faith as we celebrate the Christian feasts. These three books are all about the ordinary means the Church has always used to pass on the faith.
I imagine that you, as a cardinal, already had an extensive knowledge about feasts in the life of the Church, but what did you learn while writing the book that you didn’t know before? Did anything catch you by surprise or cause you to wonder or impact your own outlook about the feasts?
I live the feasts, for the most part, by celebrating the liturgy in my archdiocese. So my view is almost always from behind the altar. As Mike and I prepared the book, I had the opportunity to look at the feasts from many other perspectives. We took into account the customs of many different ethnic groups and many periods of history. To have such an opportunity is a grace, and it will surely enrich the way I experience the feasts from now on. To widen one’s perspective — culturally and historically — is to become ever more Catholic.
What can the Church teach modern culture about the concept of feasting?
Secular society, as it distances itself from God, is losing the ability to enjoy its leisure.
We keep developing labor-saving devices, but somehow are working more hours per week. And the dominant cultural model for celebration is raucous, but also fairly joyless and unsatisfying.
Apart from God, people easily lose their sense of what to do with their “free time.” But God’s people know how to celebrate.
We worship a God who built rest, leisure and feasting into our calendar from the beginning of creation. It’s no accident that so many of the greatest works of music and art have been fashioned for the celebration of Christian feasts in Catholic churches.
The Church designates some of the great feasts as holy days of obligation. How do you think this book will help some Catholics switch their mindset from the obligatory feeling of “I have to go to Mass” to the more privileged outlook of “I get to go to Mass”?
That is a holy and wholesome thought. All those obligatory feasts — Christmas and All Saints and Ascension [to name a few] — should be considered holy days of opportunity. Think of the many persecuted Christians who are forced to celebrate the feasts in secret. They ache for the privilege that so many free Catholics see as a burden.
What is your favorite part about the book?
The parts that deal with my favorite celebrations: Easter vigil and Christmas. These are like bookends on our remembrance of Jesus’ life. They arrive with such a freight of memory, emotion, doctrine and history, both personal and cultural. The feasts are a powerful experience, and I hope the book gives a strong sense of their power.
Can the reader benefit from reading the unique, complementary perspectives of both a cardinal and a layman?
Readers seem to think so. If we had failed with the first or second book, there would have been no third! Mike and I are old friends, but we are different men, with different vocations, different ethnic backgrounds and different experiences of living the calendar. Our approaches are complementary, and I think that makes for a better book.
Katie Warner writes from California. Her website is CatholicKatie.com.