|November 18, 2013 • VOL. 51, NO. 20 • Oakland, CA|
Holy days in perspective: obligation or opportunity?
Holy days are usually regarded in terms of obligation or imposition.
To understand holy days and their meaning presumes an understanding and appreciation of the nature of the liturgical year and its representation of our salvation history. It is difficult to enjoy something of which we know little.
Our American Catholic history tells us why in the US six holy days of obligation have special significance. Why do we observe 6 of 10 once prescribed by Church law? Why do other countries observe different feasts?
Before we received the current Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, holy days of obligation were regulated by the 1918 Code of Canon Law. The same 10 holy days for observance were required by both the 1918 and 1983 codes. Exceptions were made by the Holy See in special arrangements with various countries. When the 1918 Code became effective, the Church in the USA was permitted to continue observing the six holy days designated by 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 holy day 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 holy days with all their resources as they do on Sundays. A deeper understanding by pastors and faithful of the nature and meaning of each holy day 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 US holy day leads to a deeper realization of how holy days help the Church to celebrate special events. In turn this can develop a more festive celebration when we gather for Sunday Eucharist.
The history of holy days of obligation in the US 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. The six holy days we now observe are a distillation of the liturgical calendars followed by the English, French and Spanish colonists. These were made official by the US bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884.
The first diocese in the new US 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 were observing the same holy days celebrated in Great Britain.
This diversity of origins resulted in almost every diocese in the US following its own calendar of holy days until 1884, even though the Archbishop of Baltimore had repeatedly attempted some measures of uniformity. In 1791 10 holy days of obligation were specified for the USA. In 1884 the Third Plenary Council met in Baltimore and all bishops approved the uniform calendar of six holy days now observed: Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec. 8); Christmas (Dec. 25); Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1); Ascension of the Lord (40 days after Easter); Assumption of Mary (Aug. 15); All Saints (Nov. 1). The decision of the bishops was approved by the Holy See in 1885.
In a pluralistic and secular society this history of our past and present will influence how we observe holy days of obligation. Hopefully we will see them as opportunities to draw closer to the mysteries of faith. American Catholic pastoral creativity and ingenuity are equal to the challenge.
(Marianist Brother John Samaha is a retired religious educator who worked for many years in the catechetical department of the Oakland Diocese. He now resides in Cupertino.)
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