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Holy days of Obligation

by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.


After their general annual meeting in 1991, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States of America issued the following decree on December 13.


In addition to Sunday, the days to be observed as holy days of obligation in the Latin Rite dioceses of the United States of America, in conformity with canon 1246, are as follows:


Whenever January 1, or August 15, or November 1 falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.


This decree of the NCCB was approved and confirmed by the Holy See, and became effective January 1, 1993.


Holy days are usually regarded in terms of obligation and imposition. But should they not be considered rather as graced times of opportunity to mark a special mystery of our faith? In recent years holy days have come in for a good deal of discussion, evaluation, and renewal.


As early as the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom was concerned about the celebration of holy days in Constantinople. This Father and Doctor of the Church commented in a homily that, “Many people celebrate the holy days and know their names; but of their history, meaning, and origin they know nothing.” Today this challenge persists, and needs to be addressed anew. We might respond to the Bishop of Constantinople in the words of our earliest forebears in the faith: How can I know the meaning and history of the holydays and other feasts ?. . . unless someone explains it to me? (Acts 8:31).


The comment of St. John Chrysostom and the words of the Acts of the Apostles invite us to do some homework, and to draw a historical perspective on holydays of obligation, which are really opportunities to celebrate, to renew, and to enrich our faith. What can we do? To acquire an understanding and to develop an appreciation of the history, meaning, and origin of holydays celebrated in the United States of America, we can call up some helpful historical background. Do we know why we celebrate in the U.S. the six holydays we have now rather than other feasts? Do we understand that holydays vary from one country to another?


What is a holy day of obligation? A simple answer is that a holy day is an important feast of Our Lord, Mary, or the saints that Catholics are morally obliged to observe by participating in the celebration of the Eucharist and abstaining from unnecessary servile work. These days are made solemnities like a Sunday in terms of festivity and observance because of their special importance and meaning for the local Church.


To understand holydays of obligation and their meaning in our life of liturgical worship, it is first necessary to understand and appreciate the nature of the liturgical year and its re-presentation of our salvation history. It is difficult to enjoy something of which we know little.


Why do we observe six of ten once prescribed by Church law, and why do other countries observe different feasts? Our American Catholic history tells us why in the U.S.A. six holydays of obligation have special significance.


Before we received the current Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, holydays of obligation were regulated by the 1918 Code of Canon Law. The same ten holydays for observance were required by both the 1918 and 1983 Codes. Exceptions were made by the Holy See in special agreements with various countries. When the 1918 Code became effective, the Church in the United States was permitted to continue observing the six holydays designated by the U.S. bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884.


Sunday, the Lord?s Day, is the focus of the entire liturgical year, the day on which we celebrate our salvation in Christ?s death and resurrection. We are asked to celebrate a holyday of obligation with the same solemnity as the Lord?s Day.


By honoring another mystery of Christ, or by honoring Mary or a saint of local significance, we are celebrating the same as we do on a Sunday, but with a special orientation. In coming together as a community of faith for the celebration of the Eucharist, we declare the importance of the feast in the life of the particular Church. For this reason parishes are urged to celebrate holydays with all their resources as they do on Sundays. A deeper understanding by pastors and faithful of the nature and meaning of each holyday helps to elicit a more appreciative celebration and a commitment to excellence for these special occasions.


A real appreciation of the history, doctrine, and liturgy of each holyday leads to a deeper realization of how holydays help the Church to celebrate special events. In turn this can develop a more festive celebration when we gather for Sunday Eucharistic Sacrifice.


The history of holydays of obligation in the United States follows the complex origins of Catholicism in our country. The faith was planted in American soil by waves of Catholic immigrants from all corners of the world. The wide variety of ethnic groups brought different languages and customs. Each lived an expression of Catholicism with its own distinctive cultural impress. The first three countries to bring the Church to America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ? England, France, and Spain ? had a definite impact on the liturgical calendar of the United States. The six holydays we now observe are a distillation of the liturgical calendars followed by the English, French, and Spanish colonists. These were made official by the U.S. bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884.


The first diocese of the new United States of America was established in Baltimore in 1789, the very year that George Washington was inaugurated first president of the fledgling nation. Prior to 1783 the American colonies were under the jurisdiction of London, and followed the practices of the Catholic Church in England, which then was weakly organized and frequently persecuted by the British government. American Catholics of English origin were observing the same holydays celebrated in Great Britain.


Before 1777 England included thirty-four holydays of obligation in its liturgical calendar. In 1777 Pope Pius VI reduced that number to eleven.


Considering that Catholics were persecuted in all thirteen colonies (even in Maryland, which had been founded by and for English Catholics), how could they celebrate thirty-four holydays of obligations? Catholics were often dispensed from the obligation, not only because of persecution, but because they were widely scattered and lived far from the churches that existed at that time.


There is yet another aspect of the history of our holydays?the influence of the French and Spanish colonies. With the insertion of parts of New France (Canada) and Mexico into the new republic, the number of American Catholics increased, and with them came the customs and feasts different from those of the Anglo-American Catholics. French America and Spanish America gave us the observance of Mary?s Immaculate Conception as a holyday of obligation.


This diversity of origins resulted in almost every U.S. diocese following its own calendar of holydays until 1884, even though the Archbishop of Baltimore had repeatedly attempted some measures of uniformity. In 1791 ten holydays of obligation were specified for the United States of America. By 1839 that number dropped to eighth. However, dioceses of non-English origin?San Francisco (Spanish), Santa Fe (Spanish), New Orleans (French and Spanish), Chicago (French), Detroit (French), and others?continued to observe their own particular holydays before 1884. In that year the Third Plenary Council met in Baltimore and all bishops approved the uniform calendar of six holydays that are still now observed: Mary, Mother of God; Assumption of Mary; All Saints; Immaculate Conception; Christmas; Ascension. The decision of the bishops was approved by the Holy See in 1885.


In a pluralistic and secular society, this history?past and present?will influence how we observe holydays of obligation. Let us pray that we will see them as opportunities to draw closer to the mysteries of our faith and that American Catholic pastoral creativity and ingenuity are equal to the challenge.


Brother John M. Samaha, S.M. is a Marianst who writes from Cupertino, California.