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Holy days in perspective:
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placeholder November 18, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers
Holy days in perspective: obligation or opportunity?

Brother John M. Samaha, SM

Holy days are usually regarded in terms of obligation or imposition.

But wouldn't it be wiser to consider them 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 that bishop of Constantinople in the words of our earliest forebears in the faith: How can I know the meaning and history of the holy days and other feasts "unless someone explains it to me" (Acts 8:31).

Do we know why we celebrate in our country the six holy days we have rather than other feasts? Do we understand that holy days vary from one country to another?

 

Upcoming holy days
Immaculate Conception
Because Dec. 8 falls on the second Sunday in Advent this year, the Advent celebration takes precedence and the feast of the Immaculate Conception is transferred to Dec. 9.

Although the feast day is transferred, the obligation to attend the Mass is not. Therefore, the feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 9 is not a Holy Day of Obligation.

Solemnity of Mary
Jan. 1, the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, is a holy day of obligation.

Rev. George Mockel,
Vicar General

 
A holy day of obligation 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 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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