From the Pastor: Laetare Sunday!
This past Thursday was the midpoint of Lent. You are now more than halfway done with your Lenten penances and it is time to rejoice! At one time Thursday was the big day of celebration but, as most people couldn’t make it to church in the middle of the week, Laetare Sunday began to take on the role of that midpoint mini-celebration. The violet liturgical vestments of Lent are allowed (not mandated) to be replaced with rose-colored vestments (they are supposed to be a somewhat light shade of burgundy or red, not Pepto Bismol Pink!) if the church is so fortunate as to have them. The organ may be used once again in order to bring a bit of extra solemnity to the milestone and give the people a little hope that they can indeed make it through the rest of the penitential season. Even flowers, after having been noticeably absent from the church for the whole of Lent up until now return and, because they have been missing for the past 3 Sundays, even the few that are put out should bring more joy and cheer than an extravagant display of flowers would at any other time of the year. We are to “rejoice” (which is the meaning of “laetare,” the first word of the Introit of today’s Mass) in realizing that Our Lord is willing to forgive even us if we but repent of our sins and return to Him, while not forgetting that we still need to do penance to “make up” for our sins in some small way instead of taking His forgiveness for granted as if it was owed to us.
This is also the traditional day for the Pope to bless the Golden Rose. This was a special rose, made of pure gold slightly tinted with red or, later, decorated with rubies and other red gems. It was crafted by specially skilled artisans and given as one of the most cherished symbols of Catholicism that can be obtained on this earth. The Pope may have given it to a special parish, to a Catholic King, Queen, or other royal personages, to a distinguished military general (in the days when a Catholic military was seen as a good—even necessary—force for moral good in the world), to a city or government that was outstanding in promoting or defending the Catholic Faith, or to any other true Catholic that he wanted to honor in a special and unique way. Because the rose has both beauty in the flower and thorns in the stem, it is seen as a wonderful natural symbol of the middle of Lent.
According to the online Catholic Encyclopedia, the golden rose was originally about 6 inches tall and carried easily by the Pope in his left hand, leaving his right hand free to bestow blessings upon the people as he rode his Popemobile (horse) through the crowds. But the size and weight of the rose varied tremendously over the years and sometimes twenty pounds of gold was used to produce what I can only imagine to be a spectacularly beautiful bouquet of golden roses.
The last year the golden rose was bestowed was 1893, a gift from Pope Leo XIII to the Belgian Queen, Marie Henriette. I understand, though, that this year the Holy Father is bringing back this almost forgotten tradition. I was let in on the secret because, according to the rumors, at least, he will bestow it upon Epiphany of Our Lord parish as a token of his gratitude for the heartfelt prayers and support the Catholic Church has received from its parishioners. The only reason I am able to write about this without spoiling the surprise is that the rose will have been already delivered by the time any of you read this. I sure hope that the Pope’s horse can swim well enough to bring him to America.
Getting out of fantasyland now and returning to reality, as I was perusing the old Catholic Encyclopedia for details needed to write this article, it struck me that in the “old days,” Sundays—even Laetare Sunday—were not exempt from the quite severe Lenten abstinence from all meat and “lacticinia” such as eggs, milk, and cheese, even though Sundays were exempt from fasting in the Latin Church. But the severity of the penance was soon mitigated, little by little. This 1917 edition says, after describing the relaxation of certain rules to allow earlier meals and more food to be taken (my emphasis), “Other mitigations of an even more substantial character have been introduced into lenten observance in the course of the last few centuries. To begin with, the custom has been tolerated of taking a cup of liquid (e.g., tea or coffee, or even chocolate) with a fragment of bread or toast in the early morning. But, what more particularly regards Lent, successive indults have been granted by the Holy See allowing meat at the principal meal, first on Sundays, and then on two, three, four, and five weekdays, throughout nearly the whole of Lent. Quite recently, Maundy Thursday, upon which meat was hitherto always forbidden, has come to share in the same indulgence. In the United States, the Holy See grants faculties whereby working men and their families may use flesh meat once a day throughout the year, except Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, and the vigil of Christmas. The only compensation imposed for all these mitigations is the prohibition during Lent against partaking of both fish and flesh at the same repast.” In the 100 years since that was written, we have mitigated the Lenten observances even more, so that there is now not even a prohibition against eating both meat and fish at nearly every meal! I wonder if there will be any obligatory penance at all in another twenty or fifty years...
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka