Review of “New Book of Festivals and Commemorations” by Philip H. Pfatteicher

Philip H. Pfatteicher, New Book of Festivals and Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

Though published five years ago already, I only just came across this revision of Pfatteicher’s Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship, which was published in 1980, two years after the LBW itself. That older hymnal had done much to introduce a renewed if still modest form of the observance of saint days among American Lutherans—a practice that has precedent in modern European Lutheran churches—and the companion volume was to give further context and information about the saints to be commemorated. The 2008 book has a more ambitious goal: it is a proposal for a common, ecumenical calendar of saints, analogous to the Revised Common Lectionary.

To that end, Pfatteicher has drawn on a number of other proposed calendars, none of which offer themselves as ecumenical in their own right even if they tend to have common features. There is the revised Roman calendar, of course; the Christian Year established by the Church of England in 1997; the Evangelical Calendar of Names compiled in the 1960s by the Evangelical Church in Germany (=Protestant, i.e. mainly Lutheran with some Reformed and United regions); and even a calendar proposed by Wilhelm Loehe himself all the way back in 1868—all of which calendars are included in the appendices at the back of the book. The dates for particular figures are not identical in every case, so Pfatteicher makes a judgment call and places them where he places them.

The saints are set in a kind of descending rank of importance, as Pfatteicher distinguishes five levels of observance. The first rank are the Greater Festivals such as Christmas and Epiphany that can be placed firmly on the calendar—movable feasts like Easter and Pentecost have to be omitted, of course. Next come Lesser Festivals, such as the Holy Name of Jesus (on Jan. 1, kicking off the whole year) or the Conversion of Paul or the Confession of Peter and a handful of other biblical saints. These are followed by Commemorations of such figures as Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Birgitta of Sweden. Optional Memorials are still famous but not quite as famous saints such as William Wilberforce or Lucy (though I imagine she ranks higher than “optional” among many Swedish communities). Last of all come the “Days of primarily denominational interest”—presumably Methodists will not see any compelling reason to commemorate Bartolomäus Ziegenbalg, the first Lutheran missionary, or Catholics to commemorate Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first ordained woman in the Anglican communion.

At the back of the book there are two helpful charts that document which century the saints in and where in the world they came from. Assuming Pfatteicher to be representative of larger Christian trends in saint observance, these are telling indeed. The sixth through fifteenth centuries are remarkably thin—so are the second and third, though that is presumably for lack of information—but surely there are more than three saints (Julian of Norwich, John Hus, and Thomas à Kempis) worth commemorating in the 1400s! The sixteenth through twentieth centuries do much better; of course, this is where the “Protestant saints” come in. I was struck, though, by the extreme poverty of Orthodox saints, other than in the early church. Perhaps Pfatteicher assumes the Orthodox will not be interested in sharing a Western calendar, but it seems no more likely that the Catholics would want to share a calendar naming Martin Luther or Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill (who was often drawn by but finally chose not to join the Roman Catholic church), either.

Likewise, the geographical distribution is overwhelmingly geared toward Europe, though North America has a decent showing. Unfortunately, in the actual descriptions of the saints, those few who hail from Africa, Asia, or the Pacific tend to get only a very brief description or “also ran” status, not a full-blown article like the others. Surely a calendar proposing to be truly ecumenical could do better; after all, the word “ecumenical” originally meant “of the whole inhabited world.”

Pfatteicher’s introduction, beginning with the question “Why have saints?”, is evidence that much deeper and more extensive thinking is needed among Lutherans and Protestants generally on this topic. He certainly gives emphasis to important matters, such as the incorporation of church history into worship, the need for a variety of kinds of saints (in other words, not just the clergy or religious), and the ideal of “hearing from” the saints on their days through writings or hymns by those saints.

But even for a short introduction, it is rather impoverished. Granted, there is not much to go on in the Lutheran tradition when trying to articulate an expansive theology of the saints. But what Pfatteicher has synthesized is not so much wrong as lacking in any profoundly Lutheran insights. He starts with the triumph of Christ over death, but there is no word of Christ’s triumph over sin! He asserts that “[t]he saints are not like the heroes of the world who achieved fame through their own strength and courage and perseverance,” but then goes on to say it is dangerous to use the word “saint” in its biblical sense as “any baptized believer in Christ” since so many Christians “have very little concern for actually practicing” the faith, thus the proper use of the term is to refer to those “who have earned the distinction by taking the faith seriously and acting upon their baptismal adoption into God’s family and who are worthy of emulation.” The saints “encourage each of us to become all that we are capable of being”—recruitment into God’s army, anyone?

The question is how the saints can be moral without becoming moralistic, and how they can be gifts without becoming rival givers. I still find Melanchthon’s basic outline of evangelical saint veneration to be helpful: the saints are first gifts to the church, to be received with gratitude and confidence that our heavenly Father is caring for us; they are second visible reminders of forgiveness, because even they sin and yet are forgiven and commissioned with the gospel, like Peter; and only third are they models and inspiration, but only according to our own vocations.

It seems unlikely that Pfatteicher’s proposal will be widely adopted across denominational lines; probably a joint committee (whee) will be necessary for that. Nevertheless, those who are interested in the topic will find this a useful reference book.


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