It is the twelfth and last day of Christmas for those who count the Christmas season as having only 12 days. Twelve drummers are drumming today, hopefully all in the same, or at least in compatible, rhythms.
“Twelfth Night,” the eve of the Epiphany (see January 6), was once in much of western Europe a day for gay celebrations, merrymaking, and all that. In some Catholic countries it was the beginning of the Carnival season, although few of those countries will admit it nowadays. Centuries ago, a now-obscure playwright wrote a play to present on this day, long forgotten and rightfully so. An actor named Shakespeare also wrote one, which is somewhat better known and occasionally staged.
In the eastern Church, today is a strict fast, as is often the case on days before great feasts. As such, it is marked by strict fasting, in one of those rare instances of calendarspeak where the words actually mean what they say (unlike, for instance, “all-night vigil,” which isn’t). Our saint for today is Amma (Mother) Synclectica (d. 350), one of the greatest of the Desert Fathers, that rather austere group of men and women who took to the deserts of Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine to seek God as hermits or monastics. Dorothy Frances Garney, who quipped, “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth,” clearly misspelled “d-e-s-e-r-t.”
Syncletica was both rich and beautiful, which was unfortunate in that day and age if you were hoping to become a nun, which she was. Parents in those days had a way of trying to marry their daughters off, and her beauty guaranteed many enthusiastic suitors. Somehow, though, she managed to give them all the slip and enter the monastic life anyway. This goes to show something. After her parents died she and her blind sister, of whom she was guardian, gave away their considerable inheritance to the poor and fled to the desert to lead a life of prayer. But, as is not unusual with hermit wannabes, pilgrims flocked to their sanctuary and in time it became a monastery. At first Syncletica thought herself too humble to be dispensing wisdom, but judging by the amount of it that has come down to us, she got over it.
In the west, Bohemian-born American bishop John Neuman (1811-1860), is fêted today. Stymied in his career goals by the Bohemian priest glut, after seminary he emigrated to the United States, where he was ordained a almost before he got off the boat and sent by his bishop to work among the German immigrants near Niagara Falls. After founding a parish in Williamsville, which was close enough for the Bishop, he decided that what he really wanted to be was a Redemptorist in Pittsburgh. My sources say this order was founded to look after neglected country bumpkins near Naples, but clearly by the mid-19th century it had spread to the Steel City, which my sources say still has a goodly number of Italians, though none so loved and lionized as Mr. Negri of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
After some time with the Redemptorists, John was made bishop of Philadelphia and an American citizen, albeit through two different agencies. He founded a diocesan school system as well as many parishes and convents. Indeed, he was doing so well serving the Catholics of Pennsylvania that the Know-Nothings, a gang-turned-political party whose claim to fame was hatred of Catholic immigrants and a desire to see all political and educational posts filled by WASPs, took notice and burned down various buildings in his diocese. (The Know-Nothings, thankfully, have no modern-day successors or admirers.) It must be admitted he had his moments of doubt, and wrote a letter to Pope Pius IX asking to be released from his episcopal duties. The pope demurred, however, and John soldiered on until his untimely death at age 48. He was made a saint in 1977, and a shrine to house his remains was built in Philadelphia, where this great Bohemian is still rhapsodized.
Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.