Should Holy Days Be “Obligatory”?

In my parish, which is one of the largest I’ve ever seen, we have six Masses that satisfy the Sunday obligation–one Saturday evening Mass and five on Sunday. Remarkably, the large church is mostly full for all of the Masses. In fact, if one doesn’t get to the 10:30 a.m. Mass a little early, one might have to stand in the back.

Given the parish demographics and the availability of priests, this seems to be the right number.

For that reason, I was a little surprised that for January 1st, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God–a holy day of obligation–we had only three scheduled Masses, one Monday evening and two on Tuesday. Members of my family attended two of the three Masses, and the church was not nearly as full as it typically is for a Sunday Mass.

So, much less than half of our parish attended Mass on this past holy day. Without judging any individual’s actions or motives, we can say that this is a most troubling phenomenon, and surely my parish is not an isolated example.

In addition, I think it’s eminently fair to forecast that this Sunday we will have our usual number of Mass attendees, and virtually everyone will receive Communion, even though missing a holy day Mass is serious business–canon 1247 of the Code of Canon Law treats holy days of obligation like Sundays in terms of the faithful’s duty to assist at Mass.

In fairness I should note that nowhere in our parish’s 12-page bulletin on the preceding Sunday was there mention that January 1st is still a holy day of obligation in the United States, though the special Mass times were given. It seems obvious that catechesis on the parish level is an important part of the solution here, but I tend to think that even if the bulletin noted in bold letters that New Year’s was a holy day of obligation, many of our parishioners still would not have gone to Mass that day (or read the bulletin, for that matter).

What is to be done about all this? Should my parish schedule six holy day Masses, with a Field of Dreams “if you build it they will come” mentality? A similar analysis could be used in terms of allotting enough time for all parishioners to regularly get to scheduled Confessions, even though at present the overwhelming majority go to Confession once a year or less.

One approach has been to move holy days to Sunday. In some cases this makes a lot of sense. For example, Epiphany–one of the “holy days” identified in canon 1246–used to be celebrated on January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas, irrespective of the day of the week. Now it’s always on Sunday, which doesn’t seem out of place. The only unfortunate thing is that when Christmas and thus Mary, Mother of God fall on Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family gets “bumped” off of the Sunday after Christmas, which is too bad.

Similarly, another holy day–Corpus Christi–is a non-issue now that it regularly falls on Sunday rather than on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. It seems to me that this move has helped to renew the faithful’s appreciation of the sublime gift of the Eucharist and has bolstered traditional practices such as Benediction, Eucharistic processions, and holy hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

However, the more recent push to move Ascension Thursday to Sunday rubs me the wrong way on an emotional, visceral level, even though the bishops who have obtained permission to do this were within their rights and had legitimate reasons for their action.

In my opinion, though, such an approach messes with the integrity of the liturgical year and can reflect a defeatist attitude toward the Church’s ability to draw people into the sacred liturgy outside of Sundays. I’d much rather have it remain on Thursday, even if the strict “obligation” to attend Mass were lifted, rather than moved to Sunday.

That leaves on the list of holy days provided in canon 1246 the following feasts: Christmas; Mary, Mother of God; Immaculate Conception; Assumption; St. Joseph; Sts. Peter and Paul; and All Saints. We can further remove from consideration St. Joseph and Sts. Peter and Paul, as these have not been holy days of obligation in the United States–at least not during my lifetime.

Christmas poses no problem, as everyone knows that churches tend to be packed on Christmas, and regular parishioners typically ”lose” their preferred places to sit as “once a year” Catholics join them (and thank God they do!) for this wondrous occasion. Thus there is no issue that I’m aware of in terms of Catholics attending Mass on Christmas.

However, such is not the case for the remaining holy days, including Mary, Mother of God.  Are we going to move them to Sundays, too? I hope not. Is the Church going to remove the ”obligation” to attend Mass on those days? I don’t know. It is true that when the holy day falls near Sunday the bishops already remove the obligation, because Catholics can’t be expected to go to church on consecutive days (okay, mea culpa, I’m getting a little sarcastic here, but you see my point).

Back in seminary, when we would have a day off or holiday, the Liturgy of the Hours would be “on your own.” This meant that we would not be meeting at a set time in the chapel for morning prayer or evening prayer in common. “On your own” on its face sounds like the seminarians would all pray the Liturgy of the Hours privately. However, in practice, “on your own” came to mean “not required” and therefore “not done” by the vast majority. Surely the seminarians who didn’t pray the Liturgy of the Hours privately were not sinning, as they were under no vow or obligation to do this. But I think this phenomenon shows that even among religiously inclined people, if one takes away an obligation, one can expect a significant decline in participation.

Applying this commonsense principle to holy days of obligation, it seems to me that if the solemnities of Mary, Mother of God (January 1st), the Assumption (August 15th), All Saints (November 1st), and the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) were not days of obligation, but rather non-obligatory solemnities like the Annunciation or St. Joseph’s day in which the faithful are “on their own” for Mass, I would expect that Mass attendance on those days would in a couple years more closely approximate other weekday Masses than Sunday and Christmas Masses.

At the same time, the current situation in which so many of the faithful are seemingly oblivious to even the most basic precepts of our Catholic faith makes one want to require as little as possible, to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks. In today’s culture, it’s swimming upstream to faithfully observe the Lord’s Day, which includes the Sunday Mass obligation. Why require more than that? Why, for example, treat a weekday like a Sunday just because it’s the Assumption and not St. Joseph’s day?

As a practicing Catholic, I’ll do my best to keep whatever the precepts happen to be and see to it that my family does as well. If someone were to ask my opinion, however (and if you’ve read this much, I assume my opinion matters to you), I think we should maintain the obligatory nature of holy days. Yet I know that if the only or at least primary basis for getting Catholics to comply is to tell them it’s a “rule” or “precept” (though it is) and that failure to attend Mass on those days is a serious sin (though it is), we’re going to continue to lose ground. 

I think the renewal I’m hinting at here is an integral part of the new evangelization, which must necessarily have a liturgical component. The faithful should be inspired not only by obligation, but even more by a renewed ardor and charity–by reasons of the heart and not just by reasons of Church law.

Maybe praying and working toward this end would be a fitting resolution for this coming year.  

6 responses

  1. Attendance was sparse at my parish as well, although the wife charitably suggested the early hour (8:30 am) had something to do with it.

    While pastors omit the word “obligation” in announcing Mass times for the solemnity, what strikes me is that the general good of the liturgical year is not taught. Instead, each feast is as a car on a train, with the faithful viewing it as if at a crossing, one after the other, without a view of the entire train, or, the entire length of the track through the land and people the train serves.

    Perhaps the seasons would be a good start. How many Catholics feel it’s still Christmas in a way they feel it’s still winter?

  2. I have never heard a good reason for the movement of Holy Days to Sunday. The justification used here in the U.S. and also last year in Britain seems lacking.

    All you have to do is look at Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday which is not a Holy Day of obligation to defeat any arguments used. Besides if someone truly can’t make to to Mass because of for example work obligation or any other valid reasons they are automatically dispensed. Plus the idea of a Holy Day as an imposition and a nuisance instead of as a a joy of celebration is deeply hurtful to the liturgy. That if a Holy Day is on a Monday we transfer it since it would be too much for people to attend Mass twice in a roll.

    The priest at the parish I went to on the Solemnity of Mary bemoaned the fact that the Masses were not well attended even though it was mentioned on Sunday that it was a Holy Day of Obligation. One problem is the myth that after Vatican II missing Mass was not gravely sinful anymore. Perhaps if this same priest had mentioned this fact on Sunday there might have been a higher attendance on Tuesday.

    I know one priest in San Francisco did this and reminded people that also getting drunk was mortally sinful was deluged with people after Mass complaining about teaching that missing Mass was gravely sinful as was drunkenness. These two teaching might seem obvious to most of us, but they aren’t to most Catholics and so must be taught consistently.

  3. At the heart of this is Pope Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism” observation and just how many Catholics are ensnared in it.

    I’m reminded of the Sean Hannity / Fr. Tom Eutenuer tiff last year. Mr. Hannity was apologizing profusely to his audience for eating a chicken sandwich on a Friday during Lent. Fr. Euteneur pointed out in an article that Mr. Hannity was apologizing for a sin he did not commit. It was an honest mistake. What he should apologize for are the public statements he’d made in opposition to Church teaching on contraception. Mr. Hannity’s extreme pique at this perceived personal attack led him to invite Fr. Euteneuer on his television program to “debate” this issue. The ensuing unpleasantness was largely ignored or misunderstood by the secular media and by many Catholics, themselves.

    Catholics who fulfill their “obligation” are those who feel the need to “obey” the rules. If others don’t feel the need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, well that’s perfectly OK and the “real” sin is in judging them. Catholics United for the Faith stands in direct, but respectful opposition to this thinking and that is why CUF is so important at this time in history.

  4. Tom, you make a very important point: For many people today, the only real sin is in being “judgmental” or “intolerant” of others. When it comes to my own decisions and choices, I generally have wide latitude to do what I want so long as I don’t unduly infringe upon others’ decisions and choices.

    Yet, the liturgical year, like winter, is an objective reality to be joyfully embraced as an integral part of our journey home to God, and not as a Catholic oddity to be accepted or rejected depending upon one’s preference, convenience, or one’s need to follow or not follow the “rules.”

  5. The symbolic value of continuing to have the same number of Masses for Holy Days of Obligation as for Sunday, scheduling hours and hours of Confession even if few people come, allowing for many devotions and holy hours, etc. strikes me as an honor to God even if uninformed, unformed, and deformed Catholics stay away for reasons maybe known only to God.

    “He who stands and waits still serves.”

    Maybe one day for one person, that last five minutes of time alloted for Confession or that extra Mass or that last devotion will be the enduring reality available to the dying soul who only wishes he had not come so late.

    God bless those who resist the temptation to defeatist Catholicism!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *