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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Days of Obligation

by aquinasandmore on August 13, 2008

For those who weren't aware, this coming Friday August 15th is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in the United States. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commemorating Mary's body being taken up to heaven, is one of six prescribed days (in addition to Sundays) that Catholics in the United States are required to attend Mass. These Holy Days are January 1, the feast of Mary, the Mother of God; Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter; August 15, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; November 1, All Saints; December 8, the Immaculate Conception; and December 25, the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In some dioceses throughout the country (and elsewhere), the Ascension has been moved to the following Sunday. Also, certain holy days in the United States - the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, the feast of the Assumption, and the feast of All Saints - are moved to Sunday when the actual feast days fall on Saturday or Monday, to reduce the pressure on priests to celebrate so many Masses in a short period of time. However, the obligations of the Immaculate Conception and Christmas are never moved to Sunday because of their great importance in the life of the Church. (This means that even when Christmas is on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, as it was a few years ago, Catholics must attend two separate Masses to fulfill both the regular Sunday and the Christmas obligations.)

Attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is the first in the list of the precepts of the Church. The Code of Canon Law lists ten days as Holy Days of Obligation: in addition to the six listed above, they include January 6, Epiphany; the feast of Corpus Christi on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday; March 19, the feast of St. Joseph; and June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Where they are not counted as Holy Days of Obligation, Epiphany, the Ascension, and Corpus Christi are moved to the following Sunday. (Epiphany is moved to the Sunday between January 2 and 8.) Some countries include all of these Holy Days, most include fewer, and some places have additional Holy Days that are not part of these ten (Ireland, for example, counts St. Patrick's Day as a Holy Day of Obligation). In Hawaii, there are only two Holy Days - Christmas and Immaculate Conception - because the Bishop of Honolulu asked for and received an indult for this in 1992 so that Hawaii's practices are in conformity with those of the South Pacific Islands.

Canon Law also states that, on these days, the faithful "are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord's day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body." In an attempt to follow this directive, our store is closed on all Holy Days of Obligation. Very few places do this (and of course for many people it isn't feasible or possible not to work on these days), but it gives us an opportunity to be an example to others while we try to worship God as we are called to do on Holy Days. These holy day feasts are kept important in the Church so that, even with our busy and hectic lives, once in awhile we are forced to slow down and think about our faith and what we believe, beyond just our normal Sunday Mass attendance. This is partially why Christmas and the Immaculate Conception are retained no matter what day of the week they fall on, because they are so important in the life of the Church (although, of course, all Holy Days are important). Feast days are intended to celebrate and remember those people and events that have helped shape and exemplify the Church and her teachings, and those that are Holy Days of Obligation are meant to make us even more aware of these feasts.

So don't forget to go to Mass on Friday to celebrate the life of Mary and the end of her time here on earth.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill August 14, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Two Mass attendances required if Christmas/IC fall on Sat or Mon (eg 1 for Christmas + 1 for Sunday).

If they fall on Sunday, a single Mass qualifies for both the Feast and the Sunday.

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David Coit August 14, 2008 at 7:03 pm

Does the morning Mass fullfill the obligation?

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R J McDonald August 16, 2008 at 10:59 am

After seeing in your “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Days of Obligation” several glaring problems that present Holy Days of Obligation incorrectly, I wish to correct misconceptions. While it was a “good faith effort,” with all due respect to someone who wrote the reverential article about Holy Days, and who sincerely wished to clear up misconceptions about them, the first mistake the author made is that no one can ever correctly write “EVERYTHING You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Days of Obligation” except—should either one wish to do so—either the Prefect of the Congregation of the Divine Cult and Sacraments, or the Holy Father, himself, because they are the ultimate authority. Why can no one else adequately write “EVERYTHING You Ever Wanted to Know”? Because just when you think you have a handle on understanding it, another exception pops up, like this year. It is not easy to speak of the Church’s special days of observance in the liturgical calendar. It is really quite complicated. But I do think the following is presented correctly, if not the best one can.

Almost always, Holy Days of Obligation are recognized on the Church’s Universal Calendar as Solemnities. The Universal Church has a Universal Calendar of special days of observance hierarchically ranked in which national conferences of bishops can request changes to it. Yes, Canon Law lists from the many Solemnities on the calendar ten Holy Days of Obligation. There are actually many Solemnities that are celebrated without much fanfare (i.e., are not Holy Days of Obligation) anywhere but observed in the Universal Church nonetheless liturgically (March 19 is rarely if ever, a Holy Day of Obligation anywhere, yet universally it is, except when falling on a Sunday or when falling during Holy Week, the Solemnity of St. Joseph). There are, too, exceptions where, for their nation’s purposes, e.g., the bishops’ have sought and been allowed to exalt the patron saint of the country’s memorial or feast as a Solemnity and also require Mass attendance thus making what is elsewhere at best an optional memorial a Holy Day of Obligation in their nation: March 17 for St. Patrick in Ireland. The nations’ bishops can also, and do, seek permission to set the observance of some solemnities. Just as the article mentioned that in Hawaii there are only two Holy Days of Obligation, so too, in Canada, only about three Holy Days of Obligation are observed nationally, because the nation’s bishops sought permission for such from the Holy See.

It confuses the issue to refer to any of the six Holy Days of Obligation mentioned in the first paragraph as “feasts.” They are not technically or liturgically speaking “feasts.” Those six mentioned are ALWAYS SOLEMNITIES, as are the SOLEMNITIES recognized in the Universal Calendar of the Church: Epiphany, Jan. 6; St. Joseph, March 19; the Annunciation, March 25; the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24; Sts. Peter & Paul, June 29; and others (such as Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart), that change dates from year to year. Epiphany, Jan. 6, is commuted to the nearest Sunday in many nations such as ours. Most nations have done the same with Corpus Christi, which is traditionally on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. In Rome proper, and Italy in general, it is celebrated on Sunday, but within St. Peter’s at Vatican City and also the three other major basilicas that are property and hence part of the extraterritorial Vatican City State, Corpus Christi is still observed on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Still within the twentieth century, (but probably not anymore!), some of the major Catholic nations of Europe still had Corpus Christi not only as a Holy Day of Obligation on Thursday, but it was also a national holiday!

The Church has rankings for days of observance. “SOLEMNITIES” are the highest; going lower, but next in rank to solemnities are “FEASTS,” such as we will experience this liturgical year on the Sundays of Sept. 14th with the “Feast of the Exaltation [or Triumph] of the Most Holy Cross” and Nov. 9th with the “Feast of the Dedication of the Cathedral Basilica of the Lateran”; the only other feasts celebrated when landing on a Sunday are those of Jesus Christ (e.g., Feb. 2 the “Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple”)—whereas, e.g., Sept. 8 is the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but not celebrated as such when falling on a Sunday. Most feasts celebrate Christ, His Mother, His Angels or His Apostles. A few, such as Aug. 10, incongruously celebrate a saint most beloved (usually in Rome) St. Lawrence. Ranking after “feasts” and lower are UNIVERSALLY OBSERVED MEMORIALS, which are, therefore, observed by the Universal Church everywhere: e.g., Aug. 11, St. Clare of Assisi; Oct. 4, St. Francis of Assisi. Pope John Paul II in his last years mandated that the theretofore optional Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, celebrated the day after the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is always on a Friday, now always be everywhere celebrated on that Saturday following. Except, of course, when it is pre-empted by falling on a date where there is a higher ranked special day of observance. For instance, this year, May 31st , the Feast of the Visitation of Mary, pre-empted the celebration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary when the Sacred Heart of Jesus fell on May 30. When—and it has happened—two solemnities collide on the same day: e.g., when June 29, the usual Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul, falls on the Friday immediately after the observance of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of Jesus Christ takes precedence; hence, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, and not, Sts. Peter & Paul is observed on that day. How to determine what should be celebrated when two special days of observance collide on the same day? The order of rank is God (Jesus), Mary, John the Baptist, Joseph, Angels and Apostles, other Saints.

Coming after universally observed MEMORIALS are OPTIONAL MEMORIALS. A good example in the U.S., is St. Patrick. If he is the patron saint of the parish church, the cathedral or the diocese, he should be celebrated. If the pastor, using his choice of options, reasons that the day in the midst of Lent should be observed as a regular day of Lent, then poor St. Patrick is ignored. Perhaps trickiest of all to understand, is a COMMEMORATION, which generally rank after memorials. This is where another problem comes in from the first paragraph.

Whoever wrote this flawed “explanation” did not bother to look that EVERYWHERE in the United States, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008, IS STILL the Solemnity of All Saints, but not a Holy Day of Obligation. You make an affirmative statement that the Solemnities of Mary the Mother of God, All Saints, and Assumption are transferred to Sunday when they fall on a Saturday or Monday. Where in the nation does that legitimately happen as authorized by the Holy See? Nowhere! The Observance in the United States as Holy Days of Obligation is merely lifted when they fall on a Saturday or Monday, but they are still celebrated at church all the same on the day itself even when they fall on Saturday or Monday. This year Nov. 1, All Saints Day, falls on a Saturday and is celebrated at Mass in the morning and afternoon in churches around the nation, but there is no obligation to attend Mass that day.

Nov. 2, All Souls Day is a COMMEMORATION—it is not an optional memorial or a memorial, much less a feast, and certainly not a solemnity. This year All Souls Day falls on Sunday. Elsewhere, in the wisdom of bishops, it is transferred to Monday, Nov. 3. In that manner, it is what is done to the observance of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Patroness of our Nation, when Dec. 8 falls on a Sunday. In the latter case, Monday, Dec. 9, then becomes a Holy Day of Obligation only in the U.S., and Sunday, Dec. 8 is strangely observed in the U.S. but not in Italy as the Second Sunday of Advent.

What is inexplicable is that the U.S. Bishops have issued a mandate that the usual Saturday Vigil Masses for Sunday that fall on Nov. 1 NOT be celebrated as the Solemnity of All Saints but rather be celebrated as the Commemoration of All Souls, the Sunday observance in the United States. Nowhere in liturgical law or practice is anything ever less than a Solemnity meant to trump a Solemnity. For instance, when Christmas falls on Monday, Sunday evening Masses are those of the Christmas Vigil; when Christmas falls on Saturday, if there are Sat. evening Masses, they would have to be Masses of Christmas Day and not Vigil Masses of the Sunday observance; but practically nowhere has Dec. 25 evening Masses. And yet, the U.S. Bishops have turned liturgical law and canon law inside out in mandating that late afternoon and evening Masses on the Solemnity of All Saints be celebrated as Masses of the Commemoration of All Souls. That is the current state of affairs.

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Ben August 18, 2008 at 9:06 am

RJ – thanks for being so literal. I’m sure it serves you well in life.

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R J McDonald August 18, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Yes, Ben, it helps to be literal when one is a canonist and liturgist.

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tfm August 18, 2008 at 10:18 pm

I believe R J McDonald is mistaken with respect to the treatment in the case that December 8 fall on a Sunday. In such case, it is necessarily the 2nd Sunday of Advent, and Sundays of Advent outrank Solemnities of the Blessed Virgin Mary listed in the General Calendar, according to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar. It is natural then to translate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception to Monday, December 9. If they do not do so in Italy, the reason is beyond me.

Moreover, the last time this occurred, in 2002, I distinctly recall that in the US the Solemnity was so translated, but the obligation to assist at Mass was not! How weird is that?

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