The custom of holidaying in August predates Christianity. The Feriae Augusti were initiated by the Emperor Augustus to allow agricultural workers a respite from their labours. These Augustali marked a period of rest and relaxation, which even extended to relieving donkeys and mules of their burdens, and was celebrated with horse races across the Roman Empire. This tradition is continued in the chaotic August Palio, a bareback race which takes place on 16th August in the city square of Siena. The name Palio can be traced to the pallium, which originally was a strip of precious fabric presented to the winners of the August races in the ancient world. The coincidence of the mid-August festivals with the glorious feast of Our Lady’s Assumption in Heaven later ensured that Ferragosto became an unmistakably Christian celebration, marked to this day in Italy by a three day holiday (ponte di ferragosto), or for some fortunates, a whole month of leisure.
When Fr Faber brought the Oratory to London in the middle of the nineteenth century, he was determined that an Italianate atmosphere should be infused into the life in the church and house. For many years, the main doors to the church were hung with heavy leather curtains known as “baby crushers”, in imitation of the unwieldy hangings employed in Italian churches to keep out the stifling heat of summer. In the house, the porter’s lodge is still referred to as the porteria, and the balconies from the upper storeys of the house that look down towards the sanctuary of the church are called correttos. This Romanità was also nurtured by the high importance given to the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption. Until relatively recently, the fathers’ summer visits to their families had to be co-ordinated so that half of the community would return from their travels on the 14th August, and the rest would leave for theirs on the 16th, ensuring that the whole community was present in order for the Assumption to be observed with maximum celebration. The rules about summer holidays are a little more flexible these days, but all of the fathers certainly avoid being away from the house on the 15th August.
We are truly blessed at the Oratory to have access to musical and liturgical resources which enable us to celebrate the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption with utmost solemnity. As the liturgically green season after Whitsuntide progresses, the glory and the consolation of Our Lord’s Resurrection can seem increasingly distant. The Assumption of Our Lady body and soul into the highest heavens reassures us, if we could possibly be in any doubt after Our Lord’s Ascension, that Heaven is a real place, in which a dwelling has been prepared for each one of us. These mortal bodies, which on earth can end up causing us so much discomfort and pain, have actually been created to participate in eternal glory, along with our immaterial souls. Meanwhile this Church to which we belong, which can seem so disfigured by scandals and in-fighting, will one day be subsumed into the Church Triumphant in Heaven, where She will be perfected and glorified for evermore.
In an age in which there is a temptation to reduce our magnificent Catholic religion to the level of mere social activism, the Assumption also reminds us of the profoundly supernatural character of our Faith. We engage in corporal as well as spiritual works of mercy because that which is corporeal matters greatly, and has been created to share in the life of the Resurrection in eternity. Our mission to extend the Kingdom of Heaven on earth involves ministering to the sick, providing shelter for the homeless and feeding the hungry, in our belief that human suffering is one of the consequences of human sin caused by the Fall. The Word was made flesh in order to reverse those consequences, and this reversal will be fulfilled when the bodies of those who have departed this life in a state of grace are resurrected from the dead, reunited with their souls and glorified in Heaven. Meanwhile, we are called to contribute to that mission of tackling the effects of Original Sin by relieving suffering wherever we are able, sharing with those in need our hope in the glory for which we have been created.
If sceptics mock Catholic belief in the Assumption of Our Lady, we should remind ourselves that to Bl. John Henry Newman, who possessed one of the most intellectually rigorous intellects of the modern age, the truth of the Church’s doctrine on the subject seemed obvious. Saint Matthew’s Gospel relates how, at the Resurrection, the bodies of many of the saints rose from the dead and were seen walking around Jerusalem. “The holy Prophets, Priests and Kings of former times rose again in anticipation of the last day,” wrote Newman, adding: “Can we suppose that Abraham, or David, or Isaias, or Ezechias, should have been thus favoured, and not God’s own Mother?” Clearly not. With doom and gloom particularly prevalent at the moment, thank Heavens we have the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption to raise our hearts and minds to Heaven in joy and thanksgiving. Through Her all-powerful intercession, may we keep them fixed there as we prepare for the wonderful day this 13th October when we shall see Bl. John Henry’s banner hanging from the façade of St Peter’s Basilica at the Mass of his Canonization.
Father Julian Large