Making New Year’s Day a Holyday of Worship

January 1, 2018, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, falls on a Monday. Because it falls on a Monday it ceases, according to norms the American bishops adopted in 1992, to be a holy day of obligation.

The Code of Canon Law contains ten holydays of obligation but allows local conferences of bishops to alter that list. The American bishops had long observed six of those holydays (Mary, Mother of God; Ascension; Assumption; All Saints; Immaculate Conception; and Christmas). The four not observed in the United States are Epiphany and Corpus Christi (transferred to Sundays) and St. Joseph and Ss. Peter and Paul. Canada has pared the list to two (Mary, Mother of God and Christmas), others being transferred to Sundays. Hawaii may also have its own discipline.

In addition to their fundamental significance as solemnities honoring important mysteries of the Church, the six American holydays were visible expressions of a distinctive Catholic subculture: like Friday abstinence or Lenten ashes, the holydays were distinctive features of American Catholic life that marked Catholics out from their largely Protestant milieu. And, like Friday abstinence, the hierarchy since the 1960s has been backpedaling those distinctive Catholic practices.

Some years ago, voices were already being heard in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to abolish some holydays or transfer them. Some bishops observed that Mass attendance on these weekday feasts was declining, it was supposedly a “hardship” to force people to Mass on what was otherwise a workday, and so “pastoral adaptation” suggested modification. Others objected to further adaptation to secularism and hollowing out of distinctive Catholic practices.

The situation of the Solemnity of the Ascension illustrates how bishops prefer “consensus” to clear winners and losers. The Ascension, which historically occurred forty days after Easter (and is, therefore, always a Thursday) became the victim of compromise tampering. The compromise was that the Solemnity could be transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter if the bishops of a given ecclesiastical province (the archbishop and all his suffragan bishops) agree. So, the Solemnity of the Ascension is a Thursday in approximately ten states but a Sunday in forty others (where the Seventh Sunday of Easter is permanently suppressed).

A similar “adaptation” applies to three solemnities: Assumption, All Saints, and Mary, Mother of God. They are holydays of obligation if they occur on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. If they fall on Saturday or Monday (as January 1 does this year), the obligation ceases.

I want to plead for revisiting this “adaptation,” at least as far as January 1 goes.

Christmas is always a holyday of obligation, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls. It is telling how spiritual minimalism has infected our mentality when the American bishops felt it necessary last February to reiterate that there are no “two-fers.” You have to go to Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24 and on Christmas, December 25. In Britain, there’s even a pretty graphic to help you figure out what to do.

Now, Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1) are always going to be on the same weekday in a given year, because the Solemnity is also the octave day of Christmas. So, this year, both fall on Monday: Christmas is a holyday, January 1 is not.

Part of the argument for mitigating the obligation to attend Mass on certain holydays was that, not being civil holidays, it was a hardship to ask Catholics to go to work and Mass. (Notice the priority: nobody suggests work would be dispensed with.) But January 1 is always a civil holiday, too. The argument doesn’t hold.

Let’s look at the reality of things. January 1 is a civil holiday. People will not be working on January 1. Time-wise, there is really no hardship to attend Mass on that day. But in the Washington, D.C. area where I live, lots of parishes have a strange practice called a “federal holiday” schedule—on those days that are federal holidays (like, say, Columbus Day) the Mass schedule is reduced and usually bundled into the morning. My parish will observe its “federal holiday” schedule January 1 this year: Mass is at 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

Now, in addition to being a civil holiday, January 1 will also be the day that follows a night of celebrations. A fair number of people are going to be out and about at midnight or later. Is it pastorally realistic to schedule 50 percent of your parish’s Masses at 6:30 a.m.?

Granted, part of the problem is the mishmash of themes that crowd around January 1. The Roman Calendar has returned the Octave Day of Christmas to the ancient Feast of Mary, Mother of God. I say “returned” because for some centuries January 1 marked the Feast of the Circumcision (which is the theme of the current Gospel lection for that day, anyway). In the late 1960s, Pope Paul VI approved a Votive Mass for “World Day of Prayer for Peace” on January 1. Finally, in addition to these restored, abolished, and optional ecclesiastical themes that crowd on January 1, the day marks the beginning of the civil new year, of which the Church’s liturgy takes no official countenance.

My guess is that few Catholics could explain why we honor Theotokos on January 1 and probably wonder why, except for the priest’s greeting and maybe an intercession in the prayers of the faithful, there isn’t much about the new year in the day’s liturgy. I will not even ask whether the average Catholic would have understood why we once honored Jesus’s brit. It’s kind of like the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception: are most Catholics aware of whose conception we honor? There is certainly room for catechesis.

Now, I strongly believe that it is a good thing that Catholics begin the new year under the patronage of the Mother of God, and that should be a particular focus for Catholics in the United States, for whom Mary is their patroness. But I have often thought that the January 1 liturgy should also be adapted to account for the fact that the civil new year shifted from late March to early January centuries ago, and is practically universally observed on that date.

So, since January 1 is always an American civil holiday, always the dawn of new beginnings in a new civil year, always connected with the Blessed Mother, and always the octave day of the Christmas feast that itself will always be a holyday of obligation, I suggest the American bishops rescind their 1992 Complementary Norm and restore January 1 as a feast of precept, irrespective of the day of the week on which it falls.

I also suggest that parishes consider celebrating both the ecclesiastical and civil aspects of the day. Scheduling Masses throughout the day, even if the day is not a holyday, at times that take account of the likelihood people were out very late, would be a start. Another would be to consider having a parish New Year’s Eve celebration that combines both the religious and the social. Why not begin the New Year’s Eve celebration with a Vigil Mass followed by a parish party? Or join a parish party with a “midnight” (or slightly later) Mass? If we want Catholics to have an identity as Catholics, there is a value with them socializing with other Catholics, knowing fellow parishioners, and both praying and having fun together. Those two realities are not opposed. Furthermore, parishes, as compared to friends from work or one’s own social circles, also tend to be more egalitarian and diverse: parishes encompass the richer and the poorer. Such a parish party might be a good way to learning again how to bowl together.

I leave adaptation up to the creativity of people. Civil society has branded New Year’s Eve “first night” or “watch night.” There is an old Catholic set of prayers for the hour from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. spanning the arrival of the New Year, although I do not endorse this site’s “traditionalist” agenda and do not know if the indulgence mentioned still applies. The USCCB also has a briefer set of prayers for the New Year. Have pastors ever asked whether there might be enough Catholics in their parishes interested to organize a Holy Hour at the time?

There seems so much we could do with this great day; it’s a shame we seem ready to reduce the discussion to whether it’s a holyday because it falls on a Monday.

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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