Sanctoral Cycle

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In her liturgy, the Church celebrates the mysteries of Christ every Sunday and on all the feasts of the temporal cycle. Almost every day a feast of a saint is celebrated. Such feasts, spread throughout the year, make up a sanctoral cycle.


There were two characteristics of the cult of saints in the Church's beginning. One was that it was directed only to martyrs, confessors, and bishops. The other was that it was strictly local; each church venerated only those martyrs whose tombs were in the locality and only those bishops who had exercised their functions in the city.

Martyrs. Martyrs were the first chosen to be the objects of the Church's cult, such veneration being but a more solemn form of the honor paid to the dead, for members of the Christian community assembled each year at the tombs of the dead on their anniversaries. The East venerated its martyrs long before the West. The oldest witness concerns St. Polycarp, martyred between 155 and 177; the Christians of Smyrna gathered each year at his tomb with joy and gladness to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom (Martyrdom of Polycarp 18; The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, ed. R. J. Deferrari et al. [New York 194760; Washington 1960] 1:160). In the West the earliest information comes from Cyprian, who attests to the regularity of such anniversary celebrations at Carthage (c. 250); he indicates that the Eucharist was a part of the celebration (Epist. 12.2, 39.3; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum [Vienna 1866] 3:503, 583). Rome does not seem to have given any particular cult to martyrs before the middle of the 3d century; the persecution of 258, which took the life of Sixtus II and seven of his deacons, probably led the Church of Rome to begin liturgical celebrations in honor of her martyrs.

Confessors. In the course of the fourth century, another category of Christians became the object of liturgical cult, those who had not shed their blood for the faith, but who had nonetheless given extraordinary testimony of their attachment to Christ. The first such group consists of those who during persecution suffered exile, imprisonment, or torture. They are generally called confessors, but sometimes they are given the name martyr, for example, Popes Pontian (d. 235), Cornelius (d. 253), and Eusebius (d. 309), all of whom died in exile; and Bishops Paulinus of Trier (d. 358), Dionysius of Milan (d. 359), Eusebius of Vercelli (d. 370), and Athanasius of Alexandria (d.373), all of whom were likened to martyrs because resistance to Arianism led to exile.

Another group is made up of those monks who, the moment the persecutions ended, fled to the desert to engage in asceticism. They were the successors of the martyrs in their renunciation of the world, their attachment to Christ, and their struggle against the powers of evil; they also soon succeeded the martyrs in popular veneration. Immediately after their deaths, for example, St. Anthony (d. 356) and St. Hilarion (d. 372) became the object of a cult that manifested itself in the construction of a sanctuary and a solemn celebration of their anniversaries [Jerome, Vita Hilarionis 31 (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 23:45); Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. 3.14 (Patrologia Graeca. ed J. P. Migne [Paris 185766] 67:1078)]. It is to be noted that the ascetics who received liturgical honors were all men; until the fourth century, only women who were martyrs received such cult.

Bishops. Toward the end of the fourth century, Christian communities began to celebrate the anniversaries (depositio ) of their more illustrious bishops. As Irenaeus asserts (Adv. haer. 3.3.1; Patrologia Graeca 7:848), every church kept a list of its bishops. Soon the custom arose of reading these lists during the Mass at the time when the commemorations were made; little by little these lists of deceased bishops who were commemorated became lists of bishop saints who were given a liturgical cult. The first bishops to be inscribed in the calendar were SS. Gregory the Wonderworker (d. c. 270) and Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) in the East, and SS. Silvester (d. 335) and Martin (d. c. 397) in the West. Subsequently, every episcopal city celebrated the anniversary of its principal bishops.

Diffusion of Saints' Feasts. During the fifth and sixth centuries (the fourth in a few exceptional cases), local calendars were broadened to include some saints from other churches and those of interest to all Christendom. This extension, at once geographical and theological, led to the elaboration of a universal sanctoral cycle.

In the Roman calendar of 354 there appeared the names of three martyrs of Carthage and a few from towns near Rome. At the end of the fourth century, Constantinople celebrated the feasts of SS. Athanasius and Cyprian. St. Augustine states that in his day St. Vincent, a deacon of Saragossa martyred in 304, was venerated in the whole world (Sermo 276.4; Patrologia Latina 38: 1257).

Perhaps theological reasons helped favor the acceptance of foreign saints; there was a desire to manifest the unity of the Church. However, the really determining factor was without doubt the transfer of saints' bodies and distribution of relics. This process began in 350, at least in the East. Possession of an illustrious martyr's relics was looked upon as a pledge of protection for a given community, and the transfer of such relics almost always brought with it the institution of an annual feast.

In the same epoch, calendars began to carry the names of saints who belonged, not to any particular community, but to the entire Church. Sometime before 380, Caesarea of Cappadocia observed the feast of St. Stephen on December 26, those of SS. Peter, James, and John on the 27th, and that of St. Paul on the 28th. A Syrian martyrology of 411 also mentions these feasts, and a Carthaginian calendar from the beginning of the sixth century has the feasts of John the Baptist (June 24), Peter and Paul (June 29), the Maccabees (Aug. 1), Luke (Oct. 13), Andrew (Nov. 29), Stephen (Dec. 26), John and James (Dec. 27), and the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28). By describing these Apostles and early witnesses of Christ in their calendars, the Christians of these times showed they recognized that the honors they paid to martyrs and bishops were due also to those who played an essential role in the birth and propagation of the universal Church. This is a fact of capital importance for the history of the sanctoral cycle: the cult of the saints emerged from the veneration of the dead.

Later Evolution. Reflection on the role of the saints became more systematic in the Middle Ages. The question was posed: Which saints had so important a function in the Church that an official cult not only may, but should be paid them? Thus at the beginning of the nineth century, Frankish liturgists inserted into the Roman sanctoral cycle a series of feasts for Apostles and evangelists; in the 11th century Gregory VII, desirous of restoring the prestige of the Holy See, decided that all pope martyrs would have the right to a universal cult.

At the end of the 12th century a very important step was taken; no longer were the saints of the past alone to be feted, but, also and above all, those of the present. Thus the sanctoral cycle became a reflection of the Church's life. The first modern saint to be inscribed in the Roman calendar was St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, martyred in 1170; his feast appears in a Lateran Basilica Missal from the end of the 12th century. Almost all the other saints who were inserted into the sanctoral cycle during this period were members of the religious orders recently founded, at first Franciscans and Dominicans, later Jesuits and those of younger congregations. This invasion of the calendar on the part of religious was due, not only to the vitality of the new orders, but also to the fact that, in a world that seemed to become more and more unchristian, it was thought that sanctity flourished only in the cloisters.


The history of the sanctoral cycle shows that the cult of the saints is directed to persons more remarkable for their functions in the Church than for their personal sanctity. From the very beginning, the Church has classified her saints in the liturgy according to categories: martyrs, bishops, Apostles, virgins, confessors, abbotseach corresponding to a role in the Church. The establishment of a Common of Doctors and a Common of Popes has further accentuated the functional aspect of this cult. The greater attention given in the 20th century to the role of the laity in the life of the Church, especially by Pope John Paul II have resulted in the canonization and veneration of those laity who live out their faith in their daily lives.

In this perspective saints' feasts appear as a celebration of the mystery of the Church, an immense feast of the Church spread throughout the year and recapitulated in the Feast of All Saints. In observing these feasts of the saints, the Church celebrates the success of Christ's redemptive work in human hearts. The cult of the saints, in other words, does not stop with them, but goes beyond and through them to God whose glory they reflect, the "God who is admirable in all the saints."

If one looks upon the saints' feasts as a celebration of the mystery of the Church, completing the celebration of the mysteries of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, one will avoid the pitfall of opposing or separating the sanctoral and temporal cycles or of allowing saints' feasts to take precedence over the feasts of the temporal cycle (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 106). The veneration of saints is one aspect and moment in the liturgical celebration of the mystery of salvation. Moreover, if one takes the time, one can discover the intimate connection between certain sanctoral and temporal feasts.

If martyrs alone were venerated in Christian antiquity, it was because only they had fully lived the paschal mystery; having followed Christ through His Passion and death, they joined Him in glory. It is very significant that the Christians of the first three centuries who feted no other saints but martyrs knew no other temporal feast but Easter. The Common of Martyrs in Paschal Time still evidences the special association between the martyr and the paschal mystery.

The Apostles' feasts too have a paschal character, for Apostles were, above all else, witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ. A special Common of Apostles in Paschal time is also provided by the liturgy. If, in the older calendars, feasts of the Apostles had been fixed for the days after Christmas, it was because they were venerated as companions of Christ before they were feted as actors in the drama of salvation.

The oldest marian feasts are Mary, Mother of God, January 1, at Rome, and the Dormition of Our Lady, August 15, in the Christian East. St. Joseph's feast, which some Byzantine churches had celebrated on December 25 or 26, was introduced into the West in the tenth century and fixed by Sixtus IV for March 19, the date of an older Roman popular celebration for laborers. The liturgical cult of SS. Anne and Joachim, of Eastern origin, was introduced in the West by the Crusaders and reached its high point in the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1584 Gregory XIII extended the feast of St. Anne (July 26) to the universal Church. St. Joachim's feast, fixed at first on March 20 by Julius II, was suppressed by Pius V, then transferred to the Sunday within the octave of the Assumption, placed on August 16 by Pius X, and finally combined with the feast of St. Anne (July 26) in the 1969 revision of the liturgical calendar.

Many saints' feasts are linked, by object and date, to the mystery of the Incarnation. Since the beginning of the sixth century, the feast of St. John the Baptist has been observed on June 24, six months before Christmas. And the Holy Innocents have always been feted on December 28 as the first martyrs.

The second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy spelled out the norms for the revision of the sanctoral cycle of the Roman Calendar. In paragraph 111 it stated: "Lest the feasts of the saints should take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation, many of them should be left to be celebrated by a particular Church or nation or family of religious; only those should be extended to the universal Church which commemorates saints who are truly of universal importance."

The Roman Calendar was revised with the guiding norm of universality in mind. Universality was desired not only in importance, but also with regard to class (martyrs, bishops, etc.), date of birth, and geographical origin. The 1960 Calendar served as the working basis for the general revision.

The saints were divided into three categories: popes, non-Roman martyrs, and saints who were not martyrs.

The 1960 Calendar included 38 popes, of which 26 were honored as martyrs of the first centuries. Few of the 26 appear in the early Roman sacramentaries since their cult developed only in later ages. In the 1969 revised Calendar, 15 popes are included.

In the 1960 Calendar many non-Roman martyrs were included. The revised Calendar has representatives of three classes of martyrs: those of early antiquity (e.g., Polycarp, Cyprian), those whose cults were especially popular in Rome and elsewhere (e.g., Vincent, George), and those who represent the medieval and modern ages (e.g., Stanislaus, Paul Miki and companions).

It is also fitting that a universal Calendar honor saints from various geographical areas, most of whom would not be martyrs. The desire for such a geographical universality caused some 30 saints to be removed from the former general Calendar, many of whom were of Italian origin. Saints from other regions were in turn inserted into the revised Calendar (e.g., Isaac Jogues and companionsCanada, U.S.A.; Charles Lwanga and companionsAfrica).

As the Roman Calendar was reformed, the particular or local calendars took on greater importance. In the establishment of the particular calendars of countries, dioceses, and religious communities, local and patron feasts are to be given proper consideration.

While recent calendar reforms reaffirm the centrality of the Christological mysteries in the celebration of the liturgical year, the traditional respect for the memory of the martyrs and other saints is maintained. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy provides the rationale: "For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in his servants, and display to the faithful examples for their imitation" (111).

Bibliography: h. delehaye, Sanctus: Essai sur le culte des saints dans l'antiquité (Brussels 1927; repr. 1954); Les Origines du culte des martyrs (2d ed. Brussels 1933). p. rouillard, "Le Culte des saints au temps des pères," Assemblées du Seigneur 89 (1963) 7285; "Le Recrutement des saints," La Vie spirituelle 109 (1963) 342360. p. molinari, I santie il loro culto (Rome 1962). United States Catholic Conference, Roman Calendar, rev. by decree of Vatican Council II and pub. by authority of Paul VI (Washington, D.C. 1970); Lectionary for Mass, the Roman Missal rev. by decree of Vatican Council II and pub. by authority of Paul VI (Washington, D.C. 1969). Missale Romanum, Ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum auctoritate Pauli PP. VI promulgatum (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1970). a. adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History & its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (New York 1981). a. j. martimort, ed. The Church at Prayer IV: The Liturgy and Time (Collegeville 1986). t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, 1991).

[p. rouillard/

t. krosnicki/eds.]