A Golden Rose (1818-19), photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A Golden Rose (1818-19), photo courtesy of Wikipedia

My apologies for being later than I anticipated with this post.  This year, Laetare Sunday was March 22!

In the UK, Laetare Sunday is Mothering Sunday, or as it is becoming more popularly known, Mother’s Day.  The name derives from an ancient tradition of people travelling back to their ‘mother’ church on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, or Laetare Sunday.  The ‘mother’ church was the one in which they had grown up.  This tradition derives from the Epistle reading which states that the source of our joy should be in knowing that we are sons of God looking forward to redemption through the risen Christ.  (The faithful celebrate Christ’s Resurrection at Easter, the greatest of all Church feasts.)

Because transport was difficult and travel lengthy — people journeyed home by horse, carriage or on foot — it was also a special occasion for their families.  Those who made this trip were said to be going ‘a-mothering’. This carried a double meaning of pilgrimage to their church and a visit to their mother. The Canterbury Tales blog says the custom lasted for 300 years and ended sometime in the 19th century.

I mentioned in my explanation of liturgical colours last week that Laetare Sunday was a break from the penitential nature of Lent.  Therefore, a reunion which was centred around a brief pilgrimage to one’s home church turned into a family reunion with a bit of a feast, as best as one could manage.  Simnel cake is linked to Laetare / Mothering Sunday, although these days it is also popular at Easter.   

As many other more timely online postings explained last weekend, Laetare Sunday is so called because ‘laetare’ means ‘rejoice’.  The words ‘Rejoice, Jerusalem’ are still part of the Catholic Introit, or entrance antiphon, for that liturgy.  The priest wore — and in most cases still wears — rose-coloured vestments

Why rose?  Pope Leo XIII said that its scent should remind the faithful of ‘the sweet odour of Christ’ at His Resurrection.  The red petals and thorns tell us of his Passion as prophesied in Isaiah 63:2: ‘Why then is thy apparel red and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?’  For this reason, almost every year for more than 1,000 years, popes have blessed a rose made by skilled goldsmiths. This is called the Golden Rose. Until the late 15th century, the Golden Rose had a red tinge to its petals.  Precious gems sometimes replaced the red hue.  In the late 1400s, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned a Golden Rose which was a set of roses formed like a Jesse Tree.  Later popes have commissioned Golden Rose arrangements in different styles, e.g. a bouquet. 

The popes gave these Golden Roses to members of royal families and various dignitaries as well as to special churches and sanctuaries. However, it is given only in exceptional circumstances and not every year. Therefore, the Pope retains a Golden Rose year after year until he finally distributes it.  It is more common now for a pope to give one to a church instead of a person.  Pope Benedict XVI has given away four Golden Roses.  They went to the Sanctuary of Jasna Gora (Częstochowa, Poland), to the Basilica of Aparecida (Brazil), the Mariazell Basilica (Austria) and to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.       

The University of Notre Dame awards a Laetare Medal each year to a dignitary seen to espouse Catholic virtues.  The 2009 recipient is the former Ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican), Mary Ann Glendon.  The University has given a Laetare Medal since 1883.  It is considered the American counterpart to the Golden Rose.  Although the announcement was made on Laetare Sunday, Dr Glendon will receive the award at the University’s Commencement exercises on May 17.