Online Edition – September 2006
Vol. XII, No. 6
We Do Need Holy Days
What message is sent when Bishops move (or remove) Holy Days from the Church calendar?
by Joanna Bogle
Editor’s note: In recent years, several national bishops’ conferences have transferred Holy Days of Obligation — days in addition to Sundays on which Catholics are required attend Mass — from the dates on which they have traditionally been celebrated to the nearest Sunday, or have eliminated the requirement altogether. The calendar for the universal Church includes ten of these days (see sidebar). But observance of these days varies widely from country to country. British journalist Joanna Bogle comments on the recent calendar change in the Church in England and Wales.
This summer, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, announced a major change concerning Holy Days of Obligation. The Church allows national bishops’ conferences to arrange about the celebration of these days, with prior approval of the Holy See (see: Holy Days of Obligation or below).
In England and Wales there are seven of these days on the Church calendar: Epiphany (January 6), Ascension (forty days after Easter), Corpus Christi (the Thursday after Trinity Sunday), Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), the Assumption (August 15), All Saints (November 1) and Christmas Day (December 25).
Attendance at Mass on some of these days — Christmas is an exception — is low. So it was announced that, to deepen people’s “understanding of these mysteries of the life of Christ”, the feasts that directly relate to the life of the Lord — Epiphany, Corpus Christi, and the Ascension — will now be moved to the nearest Sunday.
The thinking behind this is not daft. Many people, by failing to attend Mass on a Holy Day, miss out on the great reality of the feast, and the importance that it holds for us in our lives as Christians. The bishops believe that, rather than allow this to occur, the feast should be observed on a Sunday when more people are likely to be at Mass.
The announcement came almost without warning — and a good many Catholics in Britain think it is a deeply regrettable move. Perhaps a number of us assumed that Pope John Paul II had put more backbone into us all, encouraging us to think along larger lines. Certainly, when a Catholic newspaper leaked the plan this summer, encouraging people to make their views known to our bishops, some readers thought that the story couldn’t be true. But it was, and the change in the Church calendar for England and Wales will take effect from the First Sunday of Advent.
It is a sort of compromise, as it only affects “feasts of the Lord”, which will be moved to Sundays. Other feasts, such as the Assumption of Mary on August 15, will remain as they are. But no one seems happy. “It’s a sort of Anglican solution, isn’t it?” sighed one parish priest, a former Anglican minister. “Not the sort of thing to inspire anyone, and it will only add to the confusion”. Indeed — how does moving an important Church feast to a Sunday rather than giving it a day of its own make it more important?
One thing that has emerged from this situation has been a general discussion about Holy Days of Obligation and why they matter in the first place, which is not a bad thing. The debate over observance of Holy Days began with a simple recognition that numbers attending Mass on such days are small — often between a half and a quarter of those attending on a Sunday. But is the solution simply to abolish the idea of a Holy Day?
Some have said the phrase “Holy Day of Obligation” stressed necessity and commitment more than joy and feasting — and there was something dreary about an emphasis on it being a mortal sin to miss Mass on such a day, rather than grasping the full and glorious significance of whatever festival was being commemorated. In recent years, many Catholics have seemed confused about whether missing Mass could ever really be a sin.
Holy Days draw us closer to God
Of greater significance are all the positive arguments in favor of having Holy Days during the week: attending Mass midweek to observe a specific feast gives us an identity, marks us as members of the Church, brings God into the reality of our lives and gives Him priority, offers an opportunity to share the Faith with a friend or some one who has lapsed and may be waiting for some encouragement.
For most of us, a Holy Day is just that — a chance to get a bit closer to God, to acknowledge His presence (even at some minor inconvenience to ourselves), to have a sensation, however brief, that we are part of something that matters, that has a significance beyond the mundane.
And there is more. Attending Mass on a Holy Day unites us with other Catholics around the world — it gives us a brief vision of a Church that is global and stretches down through history. Many of our Feast Days have glorious, interesting, amusing or touching traditions associated with them, which are worth discovering. There is material here for minds that can feed on history, for families seeking a reason to celebrate, for children with enquiring questions.
We still use the word “holiday” to describe a time off work or school. Most of us know that the word originally comes from “holy day”. It seems a pity that where this connection is actually part of our everyday language, that most Catholic Holy Days are to be abolished.
For that is how it is being perceived. Most Catholics won’t see a feast as being “transferred”. They’ll see it as simply merging into Sunday. It will lose whatever special flavor it possessed.
Holy Days help build Catholic culture
In Catholic schools, a major Feast Day — a Holy Day of Obligation — was an excuse for a school Mass. A Holy Day at school was an opportunity to teach about the particular aspect of the Faith that was being commemorated — no small matter in a culture where most pupils at Catholic secondary schools come from families that are non-practicing and where Sunday Mass simply isn’t on the household agenda. Religious Education in Catholic schools may be poor — indeed it is often deplorable — and abolishing Holy Days removes one good opportunity for a priest to light some small sparks in some receptive young minds.
In today’s culture, having some mark of religious identity is positively useful. Here in England we are beginning to see a faint but worrying trend of conversion to Islam — and all those I have so far met who have followed this path have been ex-Catholics. They seek in Islam what they have not found in their own nominally Christian homes — a clear set of beliefs and an associated culture.
And is it so unrealistic to expect Catholic people to attend Mass on occasional weekdays throughout the year? Today, it is easier than ever to attend Mass. A century ago, when employers could be difficult, when few people had private transport, when evening Masses were unknown, when anti-Catholic prejudice was still rife, when many towns still lacked a proper Catholic church and Mass in a strange place was sought with difficulty, Holy Days were still observed and people took some trouble to attend Mass.
Those who advised our bishops on this matter misjudged the mood of their flock. Challenge and sacrifice are always a more creative way forward for Christians than a slide into the easier path.
Today, a new generation of young Catholics is emerging: it is not as numerous as it should be, but it is making its presence felt. These are the young people who are part of prayer groups, and/or who have attended a World Youth Day, or belong to some pro-life organization, or who have found their own way into the Church despite everything. They include, too, those who have found in Christ a real and living consolation for damage done by a broken home or through drugs or casual sex. There are also those who come from happy and flourishing Catholic families and who rather enjoy a sense of being counter-cultural while finding joy in establishing a Catholic family of their own.
The celebration of the common feasts of the Church can be a uniting and genuinely inspiring aspect of the Faith for this “JPII generation”. They are hungry for identification with a living Faith: something tangible, something that exists in time and place. They are a people drawn together in commitment to the communal worship of the Church. They are not saints, and there are plenty of tensions among them. But they are the raw material for a Church that can certainly flourish into the new Millennium and grow well, if it is nurtured and encouraged. They — and we, who grew up in the 1960s and 70s when just about every once-central Catholic belief and tradition seemed to be up for questioning — need our Holy Days.
I am not unsympathetic to our bishops: they are trying to make pragmatic and prudent decisions. They (and we) know about priest shortages and overwork. They are the public face of the Church in a culture that is opposed to most of what Christianity has to offer: they get unfair media coverage and must occasionally wonder why they are committed to a set of beliefs that most of their countrymen would regard as daft. But they need us, the lay faithful, in the task of evangelization and renewal, and dropping Holy Days is not the right strategy to accomplish this.
A brief letter to the Catholic Herald says it all: “‘Bishops plan to drop Holy Days of Obligation.’ They just don’t get it, do they?” Exactly.
Joanna Bogle, who lives in London, writes for many Catholic publications, and appears frequently on radio and television.
Canon 1246 ß1: Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
ß2: However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.
The number of Holy Days of Obligation other than Sundays has varied considerably through the Church’s history, and at some periods and places dozens of saints days were included as obligatory. In 1911, Pope Pius X reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation for the universal Church to eleven, eliminating most patronal feasts. Even earlier, at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), the US bishops had already removed the obligation from the Epiphany, Corpus Christi, and saints days (other than the Blessed Virgin Mary), reducing the number of these days to six, as in the present calendar.
In 1983, the year the new Code of Canon Law came into effect, the US bishops issued a “Complementary Norm” to Canon 1246, decreeing that the Holy Days of Obligation to be observed in the United States remain as follows:
• The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1)
• The Solemnity of the Ascension (Thursday, 40 days after Easter)
• The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15)
• The Solemnity of All Saints (November 1)
• The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8)
• The Solemnity of Christmas (December 25)
At the same time, they transferred the celebration of the Solemnity of the Epiphany (January 6 on the universal calendar) to the Sunday after January 1, and the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday on the universal calendar) to the second Sunday after Pentecost, with the intention of restoring greater importance to these feasts of Christ, omitted as Holy Days of Obligation on their traditional dates in the US, though they are obligatory on the Church’s universal calendar.
The US bishops’ action was approved by the Holy See in February 1984.
In 1991, the US bishops further amended the Church calendar, by removing the obligation to attend Mass whenever January 1, August 15 or November 1 fell on a Saturday or a Monday. Their action was approved by the Holy See in 1992.
A change affecting the celebration of the Ascension in the US was made in 1999, and approved by the Holy See. It decreed that Ecclesiastical Provinces of the United States “may transfer the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ from Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter to the Seventh Sunday after Easter”, by the vote of 2/3 of the bishops of any Ecclesiastical Province. Each province would then communicate their decision to the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and to the conference president. Thus the date of celebration of the Ascension varies among the dioceses of the United States.