Holy days of obligation have taken a beating in modern times. They are special days on which Catholics, in addition to the weekend Lord’s Day, are obligated by Church law to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In addition, on Sundays and holy days of obligation we are also supposed to abstain from unnecessary and burdensome work. It’s one of the precepts of the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the precepts of the Church are meant to guarantee the minimum expected of Catholics. The first precept calls for faithful participation in Mass on all Sundays (or their vigil) plus certain “holy days.” The second requires, as a minimum, that Catholics receive the sacrament of reconciliation at least once a year. The third requires, as a minimum, the reception of Holy Communion at least once during the 50-day Easter season. The fifth precept calls for fasting and abstinence from meat on assigned days. The sixth precept requires, as a minimum, that a person, to the extent of his ability, provides for the material needs of the Church.
In other words, it isn’t enough to simply have been baptized or to have received the sacrament of confirmation. More is expected. Many people who claim to be Catholics do not meet these criteria, of course. On the other hand, praise God, millions not only meet the minimum criteria, but exceed them many times over, living not only the precepts but the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as well.
The origin of holy days is found in the fact that Easter and Pentecost have always been considered special days by the Catholic Church. Over time, in addition to Sundays, other days were set aside for special attention. By the fourth century, Epiphany and Christmas were declared holy days of obligation. Then came feasts of the apostles, then some martyrs, and in the sixth and seventh century feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eventually the number of “holy days of obligation” exploded. At one time, when added to Sundays, this meant that in some places upwards of 100 days were “work-free, go-to-Mass days.” Even to this time the Canon Law of the Catholic Church (1247) instructs that in addition to Mass: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.”
When it comes to both holy days and Sundays, I suspect some, if not many, would be surprised to learn that abstention from unnecessary and burdensome work is an expectation. Given the fact that (except for Sundays) the Church’s calendar of “holidays” conflicts with the secular calendar, it is understood that one need not be scrupulous about unnecessary and burdensome business, but it’s still the ideal.
Sometime around the 15th century, a long-needed reduction in the number of holy days began. Today the “official” number of holy days has been reduced to 10: Jan. 1, the feast of Mary, the Mother of God; Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany; the feast of St. Joseph on March 19; the Ascension, 40 days after Easter; Corpus Christi, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday; the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29; the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven on Aug. 15; All Saints on Nov. 1; Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 ; and Christmas on Dec. 25. You read correctly — 10 are listed in the universal calendar of the Catholic Church.