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Whither Holy Days? Print E-mail
By David Bonagura, Jr.   
Thursday, 10 February 2011

In the last few months, three out of four holy days of obligation – All Saints’ Day (November 1), Christmas Day (December 25), and the Solemnity of Mary (January 1) – have fallen on either Monday or Saturday. All are worthy and venerable feasts, yet the obligation to attend Mass on the first and third solemnities was lifted. Why?

Twenty years ago the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB) narrowly voted to maintain the U. S. custom of celebrating six of the universal Church’s ten holy days of obligation – in the midst of pressure to cut the number of obligatory days to two. But according the Washington Times on November 14, 1991, afterwards the bishops voted that, “three of the holy days [All Saints’ Day, the Solemnity of Mary, and the Assumption] can be overlooked when they fall on a Saturday or Monday to avoid two consecutive obligation days.”

Since then, Catholic holy days of obligation have been subject to the variances of the calendar, and this has created no little confusion. Before these most recent holy days, two people asked me whether the feasts “still counted.” Mass attendance on days of obligation is substantially lower than the already abysmal percentage of Catholics who fulfill their Sunday obligation. This was the reason some bishops voted to lift the obligations outright twenty years ago, and the numbers have only grown worse since. Yet no one is calling for a repeal of the third commandment because it’s nearly forgotten in some quarters. The decision to lift the obligations of Saturdays and Mondays was motivated by another factor: not wanting to burden Catholics with the duty to attend Mass two days in a row.

Considering what God has done for us, attending Mass two days in a row can hardly be considered a burden. But there is another factor underlying this decision, a philosophical disposition that the Church has absorbed from contemporary culture: the abhorrence of rules and authoritative direction from outside the individual self. Individuals, we are told, are free to choose whatever they desire, and this absolute right requires freedom from imposition by external authorities, be they churches, creeds, schools, or nations. And, following Rousseau and John Dewey, we need not worry what individuals choose because human beings are naturally good and will likely choose well.


       The Adoration of the Holy Trinity by All the Saints (Albrecht Dürer, 1511)

These ideas swept the nation by storm in the 1960s and 1970s, and the American Church on the whole embraced them. The rejection of rules and authority was most evident in the implementation of the Novus Ordo Mass as a gathering of believers with little regard for rubrics and directives. In the realm of obligation, the Friday abstinence requirement was replaced: it was thought that weekly penance would be more meaningful if people chose their own. In Catholic universities, the authority of the Church was also replaced, and with it went the obligatory core curriculum with its nourishing diet of philosophy and theology.

In this toxic tide, many Catholics walked away from the Church. To bring them back, some assumed that lifting or tacitly ignoring some of the obligations that come with being Catholic would make the Church more attractive. The opposite resulted: today amidst many hopeful signs of awakening, a disproportionate number of American Catholics thinks that being Catholic amounts merely to doing a few good deeds and being “spiritual,” and the latter need not include attending Mass on Sunday or any other day.

Re-evangelizing Catholics of this mindset remains a colossal and difficult task, and it may well hinge on building up those Catholics who at least are already disposed to ask if our holy days still count. Their faith must be strengthened, and clear, consistent messages about what it means to be Catholic – including a renewed theology of obligation – can only foster Catholic identity and its ultimate cause of faith. Properly understood the moral and religious obligations of Catholics are not duties imposed from without, but gifts given freely from above that follow from the initial gift of faith received in baptism. Our Catholic obligations are not opposed to the Gospel or to the call to charity; they are the result of them. They may not always be easy to carry out – in fact, each of us has our own struggles that correspond to our current vocation – but Jesus never said His was the easy way. His is the way of the Cross, and so it also must be for us.

Foremost among our obligations is to render worship and glory to God at Mass on Sundays and holy days. Attending a weekday Mass is no small feat for some; but in the awareness of an obligation to God and the Church, and in the effort to fulfill it, we exercise our faith in a real and pious way.

November’s election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president of the USCCB, in George Weigel’s analysis, marks a decisive turn away from a theology apprehensive of religious obligation. Twenty years later, it is time for a new group of bishops to restore the obligatory status of the six holy days. Such a move would not boost Mass attendance, but it would certainly make a strong statement about the importance of divine worship in a country ripe for re-evangelization.

 
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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written by fatherdannychamps, February 10, 2011
Thanks for the great and needed article. As a child I don't really recall hearing, or at least knowing that going to Mass was primarily to worship Almighty God- either He exists or not...and if He does, well then He deserves our worship...that sort of thing. No doubt the state of the LIturgy had a lot to do with this...it wasn't really awe-inspiring as something like a Solemn High Mass can be in the EF.

It seems that as we approach or as Christianity approaches us, there are two options- only one of them valid- either we change that beautiful reality we call the Christian Faith to suit our own needs and views, OR we let that beautiful reality change and transform us- pulling us out of ourselves and opening us to Christ and the redemption He won for us. This to me is the key distinction- we see it in the battles raging today with people like Anne Rice in their tyraids against the Church...
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written by Bill, February 10, 2011
Your points are well made, but the field has been plowed for fifty years. The young man to Christ: "what must I do do to achieve eternal life?" That question has been obviated as everyone today is saved. Just attend a N.O. funeral. Our Lady to the children at Fatima:"You have seen Hell where poor souls go who have no one to pray for them."
It is obvious there are at least two "catholicisms" and the fate of those who choose the easy road is horrific.
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written by Titus, February 10, 2011
restore the obligatory status of the six holy days

Would it kill us to have all ten? Chair of St. Peter is coming up in a few weeks: talk about a feast day American Catholics could benefit from celebrating and hearing a homily about.
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written by Catherine, February 10, 2011
I second Titus's call for the celebration of all ten. And then maybe we could see the restoration of the Ascension and Corpus Christi to their proper Thursdays.

Thank you, Mr. Bonagura for a great article.
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written by debby, February 10, 2011
call me crazy, but i think considering the times we live in, maybe our Holy Mother Church could bestow twice as many "obligations" to embrace us! Let's see, wouldn't the Feast of the Patron/Patroness of each country be a good Holy Day? What about Ash Wednesday actually being an OBLIGATION - i was Catholic for about 10 years before discovering it wasn't a "Holy Day!" and i love Titus' Feast Day! Christ the King, Easter and Divine Mercy are already always Sundays.....surely there must be more invitations to Come and Be with Him. what if Catholics limited themselves to 6 movies a year? I betcha lots of people have on occasion gone out to dinner or the movies 2 days in a row! just a thought from a lover of the Holy Mass.
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written by Alan, February 10, 2011
". . . not wanting to burden Catholics with the duty to attend Mass two days in a row."

A big part of the reason for mitigating the obligations on Saturday and Monday was to offer relief to our overburdened priests. For me, a layman, it was not a big deal to attend another Mass on a Monday. But my pastor would have to pick up an additional vigil Mass on Sunday night, probably midday and evening on Monday, too, as well as the usual Monday morning Mass. Ask any priest: when Christmas falls near the weekend, it's brutal. And to repeat it all again one week later for Jan 1 is almost too much for them. The priests more than anyone else heaved a huge sigh of relief 20 years ago.

Another issue is the whole idea of Holy Days of Obligation in the first place. "Why," U.S. residents might ask, "do Canadians have only two Holy Days of Obligation when we have six? Why do Hawaiians have fewer than other states?" I mean, is the Church universal or not?
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written by fatherdannychamps, February 10, 2011
@Alan

I do appreciate your concerns for priests as a priest myself, and I must admit I was not around as a priest 20 years ago when all the tired priests breathed their great sigh of relief, but this year Christmas did fall on a weekend, and although it was more tiring than others, I certainly would not call it "brutal" in any way. I was actually happily surprised- we did not announce at the parish that 'yes Sunday is still the Lord's day...' and still had most of our regular parishioners show up to worship the Almighty. They still know its Sunday and they certainly were not going to miss Christmas, a Holy Day. Perhaps we can tweak our Mass schedules a bit to make things less hectic, but to simply not make them obligatory does not seem to be the answer in a culture where, God being proclaimed "dead," people need the Church to encourage them to make Him the most important reality in their lives.

Further, it is sad that Hawaii has few Holy Days- even if there is a shortage of priests, people can still gather to read God's Word and to pray for vocations. Also, when I was in seminary there was only 1- yes that's 1- seminarian for ALL of Hawaii- I hope things have gotten better since about 6 years ago, but it seems something is wrong if a Diocese only has 1 seminarian. A lot is obviously involved in that dynamic, but as our Holy Father keeps showing us- there is only 1 answer- 1 place to start- cultivating a friendship with Jesus Christ and worshiping God in Spirit and Truth.

Thanks and God Bless.
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written by Louise, February 10, 2011
I have a bone to pick with our Lord as soon as we meet face to face (I'm an optimist). Why did He take away the Octave of Easter and turn it into Divine Mercy Sunday? There are lots of other Sundays in the year without taking that Sunday, the one Sunday that I thought was uniquely Catholic. I LOVED the Octave of Easter and now I feel cheated out of it. I grumble about it every year when it rolls around.

And how about Epiphany? My goodness, if there is a Holy Day to celebrate on its proper day, it is Epiphany. Didn't the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season feel all scrunched up to you? It did to me. Sort of, as they say, "Helter, skelter."

I want Epiphany back and I want the Octave of Easter back.

One more thought: When I was a very Protestant little girl and knew nothing about saints' days and Holy Days, I can remember walking to school on the First of November of every year of grammar school--particularly the early years--and thinking that there was something different in the air that day. It felt "clean", somehow, whether the sun was shining or the rain or mist was falling. There was just something in the air that made me feel happy all over. Just to share.
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written by Grump, February 10, 2011
The trouble with atheism is that you don't get any holidays. Darn.
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written by fatherdannychamps, February 10, 2011
To Louise- There is a very helpful article at the New Theological Movement on the loss of Octaves and the like called "What happened to Epiphanytide?, or The hypocrisy of the Liturgical Renewal"
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written by Lee Gilbert, February 10, 2011
Just in general, it seems to me the bishops are making a terrific mistake in asking for fewer sacrifices of us rather than more, and the Holy Days are an example.

Once at a Leadership camp for fifth graders, a father giving a talk on leadership asked the boys, "What qualities make a good leader?" The responses were as you would imagine. "Courage," said one. "Honesty," said another. And so it went. Finally one young man raised his hand and said, "Doesn't ask too much of his followers." And at this the fathers in the room burst into laughter. That was an "aha!" moment for me.

In fact, good leaders ask quite a lot of their followers, and the very best are not shy about asking for the supreme sacrifice. Think of Patton, of Lincoln...of Jesus Christ.

That is why this trend toward softness and ease in the Church seems exactly the wrong direction. It is the very opposite of inspiring. For example, on Palm Sunday: "We will now have the reading of the Passion. Please sit down."
Are you kidding me? I am 68, and if I were 100 I hope I would still have the strong desire to stand during the reading of the Passion, even if it went on all day.

When I think of the Lent that my parents kept, and even that was a mitigation of years gone by. No one asks anything of us now, except perhaps, "Please sit down."
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written by Louise, February 10, 2011
Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals and Holy Father: Don't you hear in these comments the bleating of the lambs? "Listen to the lams, all acrying," as the lovely old anthem went. Your lambs are crying out to you for the sound of your authentic voice They are ready, willing and eager to give what you are afraid to ask from them. I hear this cry in almost every discussion on TCT. Paul spoke of the sound of an uncertain trumpet: no one will prepare for battle if the trumpet call is uncertain, indistinct. Stop complaining about what you don't have or what you don't see in the pews. We are here! but you are looking past us or over our heads. Why don't you see us? What are you afraid of?
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written by Louise, February 10, 2011
Dear Fr. Danny,

That is an excellent (albeit depressing) article. My husband and I have been saying Morning Prayer for about a year and a half, and it has meant a great deal to us. I can see now that it is the result of the "consecration of time".

I was determined this year to trust our Lord that He would get us to Mass on Sunday, come blizzard or high water. I just dislike so much the idea of the Saturday vigil as a substitute for Sunday Mass. It just doesn't cut it for me. So far, we haven't missed a Sunday, although on one Sunday, it took four passes down and up the driveway with the snowblower to make room to get the car down, and off we went. For this blessing, we thanked God with all our hearts.

Thank you again, Fr. Danny.


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written by Bill McCormick, February 11, 2011
While certainly ideologies of autonomy and authenticity have a great deal to do with so many falling away from Church authority and the rules that govern our faith life, isn't there a logically prior problem of the separation of man's freedom from nature? Isn't our moral fundamental dilemma the failure to see any connection between our lives and creation at large, which then forces us to pretend that we didn't kill God by inventing a self whose "autonomy" and "values" can replace Him as center of the universe? I think this dynamic owes as much to Occam and Descartes as to Kant and Rousseau.

Who is going to give witness to a Christian culture for which going to mass, like everything we do, is an action enveloped in a life-long activity of worship to God?
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written by Paul Bergeron, February 13, 2011
Lowering expectations leads to lower results. If the clergy and laity truly believed in the power of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there would be more holy days, not fewer.
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written by Bob Nicholas, February 15, 2011
I believe in the power of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and every day is a holy day to me. Good discussion.

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