The Next Three January 1’s

January 1, 2022 was a Saturday.  January 1, 2023 is a Sunday.  January 1, 2024 is a Monday.

Only one of those January 1’s will be a holy day of obligation – 2023 – and that’s only because it falls on Sunday.

The mishmash is a result of the “Complementary Norm” adopted by the United States Catholic Conference back in 1991 which abrogated the obligation for the holy days of January 1, August 15, and November 1 if they fell on a Saturday or a Monday.

The logic behind the decision seems to be that, if a feast abuts a Sunday, one would have the obligation to attend two Masses.  Apparently, the bishops find that excessive, though it’s not clear for whom: the laity or the diminished numbers of clergy in many American dioceses?

Furthermore, with the post-1969 “vigilization” of Sundays and holy days (Mass being offered the evening before the day itself), there would be liturgical confusion, e.g., is 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday, January 1, 2022 still the Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God or anticipating the Solemnity of the Epiphany (which itself has been transferred from January 6 to a Sunday)?

It’s also been said that the “no-Saturday-or-Monday-obligation” may have been part of a USCCB compromise. Some bishops in the 1980s were pushing to eliminate four of the six holy days of obligation in the United States (Ascension, Assumption, All Saints, Mary Mother of God) because of the alleged “hardship” of attending Mass on a workday and declining attendance.

Ascension Thursday generally got transferred to Sunday (destroying the historical relationship to the 40th day of Easter and the pattern of the first “novena”). The episcopal compromise in that case has, however, made the feast’s date a geographical accident: it’s still Ascension Thursday in Sharon, Pennsylvania, but Ascension Sunday in Youngstown, Ohio.  Each ecclesiastical province was left free to decide on the transfer of the Solemnity to Sunday.

January 1 has itself become a liturgical mishmash in the post-1969 Roman Calendar.  We have recovered the ancient feast of the day: the Solemnity of the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  The pre-1969 celebration of the Circumcision of the Lord, another feast correlated with an historical date (the octave of the Lord’s Nativity, Lk 2:21) was suppressed.  Pope Paul VI added the “World Day of Peace,” with its own Votive Mass, as an alternate January 1 celebration.  What the Church does not take notice of is the beginning of the civil new year.

I’ve previously called on the bishops of the United States to rescind their abrogation of the holy day on January 1 though. This issue will come up over the next three years and Catholics should work to reverse this ill-guided “accommodation.”

Whatever logic guided the decisions about the Assumption and All Saints Day, at the very least one could argue that the pastoral accommodation had some warrant because those feasts will almost certainly be workdays.  But January 1 is almost certainly not a workday for the vast majority of Americans.  It’s a day at home, perhaps of football or curing a hangover, but – except for critical professions – not a workday.

*

While I am not arguing that the universal Church should incorporate the element of the civil new year into its celebration of January 1 (given cultural differences, e.g., in East Asia), it is appropriate for American bishops to consider that element when deciding whether January 1 be a holy day of obligation.

We live in an increasingly secular society.  God is not so much the “enemy” (unless you actually start living like a Catholic in public) as much as irrelevant.  Stripping away the religious dimension of January 1 only advances that secularization.

While Americans have been accused of “bowling alone,” they generally try to gather as some kind of group on January 1.  For many Americans, that means “New Year’s Eve” parties or group gatherings, e.g., in New York’s Times Square “ball drop” or “First Night” celebrations in towns across the country.  Americans’ desire for some collective assembly this year is likely to be reinforced by nearly two years of assorted COVID lockdowns and social distancing.

How is the Church qua Church responding to that thirst?

Once upon a time, before liturgical locusts decimated our rich treasury of popular devotions, there were services to mark the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  The pope still does that on December 31 when he visits the Church of the Gesù.  Are there still some Catholics that might want to mark that time in prayer or with a Holy Hour?

I have also, elsewhere, suggested the merger of prayer and party.  Why can’t parishes organize their own New Year’s Eve celebrations, which could combine the communal festive component (and raise a few dollars for the parish) and a communal prayer component?  Did anybody ever think of marking the arrival of the new year and then joining in a “post-midnight” Mass?

The preceding would probably represent new ground for most parishes.  So, let’s go back to some old ground: shouldn’t we at least mark this watershed moment in life, the change of the calendar, by gathering at Mass?

Defenders of the status quo will no doubt contend anybody who wants to attend Mass on January 1 can.  That’s not necessarily true.  Many parishes have limited Saturday Masses: my area parishes have one.  Besides, we’ve already seen the smashing success of the “voluntarily choose your own penance in lieu of communal abstinence” approach to Fridays.

Catholics should observe January 1 and mark a new year in church, under the patronage of Mary, the Mother of God.  Is there any better patroness for us to start a new year with?  Or has that nexus become a casualty of U.S. Catholicism’s lingering Marian anemia?

Three January 1’s now bring us repeatedly back to these questions. It’s time for some sort of reckoning.

 

*Image: The Coronation of the Virgin by Diego Velasquez, 1635-36 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

You may also enjoy:

Peter M.J. Stravinskas’ Immaculate Heart of Mary

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s The Primacy of Jesus and the Church’s Liturgical Year

John M. Grondelski

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.  All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

RECENT COLUMNS

Archives