Whatever happened to ‘Holy Days of Obligation?’
Growing up in Catholic school in the 90s I remember them fondly as we were often sent home early ‘so that we could attend Mass that evening’! And for some of us we probably think Ash Wednesday is one of them! It’s not, but that isn’t the only area of confusion.
To begin let’s consider what it means to be a Catholic. Not a good Catholic – just a Catholic. As a species we are always tempted to ask ‘what is the bare minimum I can do?’ Understanding human nature, the Catholic Church whittled down the essence of a Catholic to just 5 key points. Again I reiterate, this is not what it takes to be a good Catholic, or effective Catholic – just a Catholic. The following is the list of the Five Precepts (or Commands) of the Catholic Church:
1.You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.
2.You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3.You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season.
4.You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5.You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
These should each be unpacked in their own blog post, but today we will just look at number 1: Attend Mass on Sundays and on Holy Days of Obligation (HDoO).
First it’s key to notice just how generous these precepts are. If we all fully comprehended how glorious a gift the Eucharist is, we’d understand that the Church would have every right to suggest our attendance at Mass every-single-day! But she doesn’t! In her mercy the Church asks us just to attend on Sundays and on a select few other days of the year. The same could be said of asking us to confess more, or fast more (item 4 only really refers to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday!), or give a specific percentage – but in her generosity the Church does not.
The reason that some of us may feel that HDoOs have been disappearing is that for some of these feasts, the Vatican has granted permission for Bishops to celebrate them on the closest Sunday in their Dioceses. Again this is another merciful and generous act by the Church, helping to make it convenient for the faithful to fulfil their obligation – requirement number one of the bare minimum of being a Catholic.
In recent years the Epiphany, the Ascension, Corpus Christi have been celebrated on near Sundays in the UK (England and Wales). From this year 2017/18, they have been moved back to their specific date. In some countries it is also common that the feast of the patron Saint has been deemed a HDoO too. The following is a general list of solemnities (the highest level of feast) observed by most nations as HDoOs:
1 January: Mary, the Holy Mother of God
6 January: the Epiphany of the Lord
19 March: Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Thursday of the sixth week of Eastertide: the Ascension of the Lord
Thursday after Trinity Sunday: the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi).
29 June: Saints Peter and Paul
15 August: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
1 November: All Saints
8 December: the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
25 December: the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)
So what about Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday? Not Holy Days of Obligation! Of course many faithful Catholics would attend such important liturgical celebrations, but it is not an obligation.
And what about Easter Sunday? Remember that Sunday’s are days of obligation in their own right, and Easter Sunday is the day by which all other Sundays attain their dignity as “the Lord’s Day”.
So I hope to see as many of you that can make it on Wednesday to celebrate the Holy Day of Obligation that is the Solemnity of All Saints. Some of our Catholic Schools may be lucky enough to secure enough priests to celebrate the Solemnity for you Children in school. Unfortunately I cannot for my school so will be encouraging our pupils to attend their local parish Mass. All Churches will have an evening Mass as well as one during the day. For us at Saint Helen’s we 10.00am and 7.30pm – I’m excited to be preaching at my first solemnity Sunday evening!
I hope many of you are able to make it, not only to fulfil this basic requirement of being Catholic, but to celebrate the lives of the Saints who have gone before us so that we might receive some of the same grace that enabled them to enrich humanity as they did.