I am confused about holy days of obligation. What or who decided that if the holy day falls on Saturday or Monday, we are not required to go to Mass unless for certain feast days? From childhood, it did not matter what day the holy day fell on, it was still a holy day of obligation. In addition, how come some dioceses and the requirements to attend Mass on these days sometimes differ?
— Dorothy in Springfield
The topic of holy days of obligation has indeed become a little more confusing over the past several decades, as I will explain in just a moment. But let us first look at the “why,” before considering the “what” or “when” and “who” of these celebrations. With holy days of obligation, the church is inviting us to pause and focus on the extraordinary nature of certain feast days in our liturgical cycle because they are so important to who we are as members of the Body of Christ, the church. Since the Mass is our greatest form of celebration as Catholics, it is fitting for us to mark the special character of these days by attending Mass. The use of the word “obligation” throws people off as we do not always like to be told what we have to do. I like to invite people to consider seeing these days as holy days of opportunity, where we have the opportunity to celebrate in a special way these important feasts.
In addition to every Sunday, the Universal Law of the Church has set aside 10 holy days of obligation, though the law gives flexibility for each conference of bishops to suppress some of those days or transfer them to the following Sunday. Here in the United States, the bishops have determined the following to be the holy days of obligation:
- Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God;
- Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the Solemnity of the Ascension;
- Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
- Nov. 1, the Solemnity of All Saints;
- Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception;
- Dec. 25, the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, is not listed above because it has been permanently transferred to the Second Sunday after Pentecost throughout the United States, whereas other parts of the world celebrate it on the Thursday prior to that Sunday. However, the Ascension is listed above because certain parts of the county, known as ecclesiastical provinces, have also decided to move the Ascension from a Thursday to the following Sunday. In other places, it remains on Thursday. That sounds a little confusing, right? Now, things get a little more complicated. When certain holy days of obligation fall on a Saturday or a Monday, the obligation is lifted for that year (Jan. 1, Aug. 15, and Nov. 1).
The question you raise is why these exceptions exist, but space prohibits me from going any further. This is where I invite us all to go back to seeing these days as opportunities, not so much as obligations. When we do that, regardless of whether we are obliged to go or not, we should want to go to Mass to celebrate these great feasts of our church.
Father Brian Alford is pastor of St. Jude Parish in Rochester and director of the Office for Vocations.