Holy Days of Obligation: A Defense

With the approach of the Solemn Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, American Catholics can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to the work of the USCCB. For this year, the Assumption, a holy day of obligation, falls on a Saturday. Ordinarily, this would mean—horrors!—that the faithful must attend Mass on the Saturday of the feast and again the very next day on Sunday!

A burden worthy of the Pharisees it would be to attend Mass on two consecutive days. Surely the hearts of the martyrs in heaven weep for their posterity. While they faced lions, axes and guillotines, we in twenty-first century America must cope with an obligation to make time for Mass, once a year, two days in a row.

Thankfully, the bishops’ conference has come to our rescue. According to a 1992 decree of the USCCB, issued pursuant to Canon Law 1246, the “precept to attend Mass is abrogated” whenever the Assumption falls on either a Saturday or a Monday. Translation: You don’t “have to go” to Mass this August 15.

Similarly, whenever the Solemnities of Mary Mother of God (January 1) or All Saints (November 1) fall on a Saturday or Monday, your obligation to attend Mass is “abrogated.” Alas, this rule does not apply to the Immaculate Conception (December 8) or Christmas (December 25), even though you must attend Mass for two holy days in the same month! Some solemnities, it seems, are more solemn than others.

Though we must bear the heavy weight of two holy days in December, our good shepherds have made May a bit more reasonable by allowing dioceses to “transfer” the holy day of obligation, the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, commonly called Ascension Thursday, to the following Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Most American dioceses have affected this “transfer.” So while it may seem logical to mark the Lord’s Ascension 40 days after Easter—a concept someone perhaps gleaned from the Gospels—the transfer nonetheless allows the faithful an escape from the dreaded duty to attend Mass during the week.

Farewell, Seventh Sunday of Easter. After all, putting the laity through 50 whole days of the Easter season is a bit much. Thus, the Easter season is truncated, cut-off like those boring octaves of yesteryear, with their endless focus on some great mystery of our salvation.

But seriously, folks, this sort of fiddling with the Calendar is a disservice to the faithful. It has the obvious effect of discouraging attendance at Mass and diminishes the significance of both the “demoted” feast days and the Roman Calendar in general. These “loopholes” form a small part of the broader message that many Catholics gleaned from the aftermath of Vatican II: We don’t have to do certain things anymore, so we won’t.

The “abrogated” holy days are also of a piece with the post-conciliar fetish for “options” that have disrupted our liturgical tradition and sent confused, even illogical, messages to the laity. Certain practices are required—except when they are not (reception of Holy Communion on the tongue). In the Mass, we no longer have an actual Canon, as nothing is truly fixed. The priest may choose this, that or the other, and most hope not to bore the Faithful with the Confiteor or Roman Canon, opting instead with a lengthy “Pray of the Faithful” and tedious parade of “Eucharistic Ministers” into the sanctuary prior to Communion.

This August 15, most Catholics in the United States will skip Mass on the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption. We have surely lost sight of what is fundamental. The notion that the Church can accomplish much of anything on this Earth without a vibrant Mystical Body that is consistently fed and nourished by the Bread of Life is pure folly. If the Sacrifice of the Mass is the “source and summit” of Christian life, it follows logically that the Church should do all in its power to ground the spiritual lives of the faithful in the Sacred Liturgy.

Thus, it is not a mere trifle to steal the obligatory status from certain days when they happened to fall just before or just after Sunday or to replace the Sunday Mass with a feast that has its own special place on the General Calendar. The General Calendar itself is a great font of the spiritual life, as it gives us pause to reflect upon the many varied aspects of the life of Our Lord and his mother, as well as upon the virtues and tribulations of the saints.

The Church should, therefore, promote its liturgical life, and call the faithful to immerse themselves in it. Instead of diminishing holy days of obligation, the American bishops should create more of them. Is there a more overlooked feast in the life of the Church than the Annunciation? Why not Corpus Christi (celebrated in its proper place on a Thursday), Sacred Heart, the Visitation of the BVM, the Transfiguration or the Exultation of the Holy Cross?

Somewhere amidst the post-council euphoria, the idea of the “obligatory” was discarded. It seems that acts done under a rule were considered empty, the result of the legalism from which the reformers hoped to save the Church. It is true that acts done out of some compulsion can take on such a character, but it is equally true that man has certain duties. No one quibbles with the notion that one has obligations to family, work or school. Our lives are filled with tasks and commitments we say we “must” do.

But man’s first and greatest obligation is the praise of God. It is this duty that the Church should exhort each individual to meet in some way every day of his life. The highest and best way to praise God is via the Sacred Liturgy. The Church, mater et magistra, should teach her children well, and oblige them in so far as she is able for the good of their immortal souls.

Have a blessed Assumption.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Coronation of the Virgin” painted by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).

Christian Browne

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Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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