Whither Holy Days?

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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.