The Translation of St. Katharine Drexel

The tomb of St. Katharine Drexel in the Basilica.
from Wikimedia Commons.

On August 2nd, 2018, the mortal remains of St. Katharine Drexel were moved—“translated” in ecclesiastical terminology—from their former resting place at the Motherhouse of the Shrine of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, PA to a new shrine at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.

For someone who grew up next to Bensalem and was used to paying his respects to this beloved saint at the Motherhouse without a drive down I-95, the event offered some real-life experience in what it was like to be on the losing side of a historical translation of relics.

Five years out, thankfully, the sting has mostly subsided, and Providence has even seen fit to provide a wonderful liturgical consolation in exchange.

In a previous article on the Pre-55 Calendar on Inculturation, I noted how much richer and fuller the Catholic calendar used to be when it came to local feasts.

As we now stand, the mid-20th century reforms have left us only two calendars to work with, neither of which have that same richness or fulness. The calendar of 1970 has shuffled and disrupted many venerable feast days of the past, and the calendar of 1962 resists the beloved saints and observances of the present.

St. Katharine Drexel’s official feast falls on March 3rd as an Optional Memorial. As is typical of the modern approach, this is the only day in the whole year on which she is officially commemorated, though additional votive Masses are allowed under the general rubrics.

St. Katharine's former shrine in Bensalem.

But before the 20th century, a major see like Philadelphia would generally have relished in multiple opportunities to honor a hometown saint: with octaves, feasts of translation, and other observances; this was not seen as mere repetition, but as a testament of a strong and exuberant devotion. Since her feast falls in Lent, even under the more generous traditional rules Drexel would not have gotten the full octave that typically attended patronal feasts. Nevertheless, the city would probably still have had an opportunity or two to celebrate her later in the year.

And delightfully, that is exactly what we are starting to see: the old-fashioned Catholic sensibilities reasserting themselves.

On each of the five years since the translation of Mother Drexel’s remains, the Cathedral Basilica has offered a Votive Mass of St. Katharine Drexel commemorating the anniversary. This Memorial is observed only at the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul and is not found on the common liturgical calendar for the United States, or in the other churches of the diocese.

Yet in these humble beginnings we see, I think, the birth and infancy of a feast day. By making use of the provision for a Votive Mass, and (importantly) by using it in a traditional manner in a regular, annual fashion, a pattern is established which can be codified in the liturgical books of the diocese and, eventually, extended to all the churches within it. The Translation of St. Katharine Drexel is a purely local observance inspired by the popular devotion of the faithful of Philadelphia and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a feast made in modern times, but one wholly in the traditional spirit.

Nor does their devotion stop there. The Cathedral Basilica also observes the anniversary of the solemn installation of Drexel's tomb and shrine by Archbishop Charles Chaput on November 18th, 2018. The annual observance falls one day previous on November 17th.

October 1st is the anniversary of Mother Drexel’s canonization. Even before the translation, on milestone years the day was observed not only in Philadelphia but some other churches as well, either on the day itself or the Sunday following. In traditional diocesan liturgical books, we don’t see as many liturgical commemoration of canonizations as we see translations, but an old Catholic sense seems to be behind them as well. The Olivetan congregations of Rome kept the 300th anniversary of the canonization of St. Frances of Rome on May 29th, though somewhat less solemnly than her feast on March 9th. Other monasteries transferred the celebration to the following Sunday, May 31st.

And we learn that the propers for St. Frances’s anniversary of canonization were taken from the commons until 1853, when the Congregation of Rites granted to the monastery a proper Mass and office for the feast.

The adding of commemorations on August 2nd, October 1st, and November 17th are what organic liturgical development looks like at its very earliest stages. Barely a quarter of a century after Drexel’s canonization, and only half a decade after her mortal remains were moved and a new shrine dedicated, the faithful of the city are already able to liturgically honor her not only on her Lenten feast day, but also in the summer and the fall as well. If they remain true to this tradition, some of these days may eventually become so well established in the liturgical life of Philadelphians that they could be formally codified as part of the diocesan Ordo.

While it is for good reason that the liturgical life of cities and regions are regulated by competent authorities, Catholics have a great deal of liberty in their personal devotions. Anyone in the Archdiocese or across the nation who is particularly devoted to St. Katharine Drexel but cannot attend official celebrations of her Translation or canonization can always honor her devotionally on those days in their domestic churches.

Overall, it is very heartening to see that notwithstanding the multiple disruptions of the liturgical calendar throughout the mid-20th century, the old Catholic sensus fidelium is quietly reasserting itself once again, by continuing to ornament the official liturgical books with the natural devotions of popular piety.

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