From the Bishops Good grief!


(Now and Forever)

I am a “Peanuts” fan. “Peanuts” is a cartoon creation of Charles Schulz.

Charlie Brown, one of several “Peanuts” characters, is noted for an astute observation that sometimes Friday the 13th (a bad luck day) comes on a Tuesday, and sometimes on a Wednesday, and even from time to time on a Monday or Thursday. As a matter of fact, the 13th of the month falls on a Friday just once this year, in August, which leads me to the point of this rumination. The solemnity of the Ascension doesn’t fall on Thursday any more. Good grief. How could that be?

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.

However, not all these days are observed in the United States. The conference of bishops in each country can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See. That’s what has happened here.

Due to the demands of employment and commerce, it is difficult for most people to fulfill the intent of holy days of obligation. Moreover, not all of these holy days have equal importance in the various cultures of today’s Catholics. Facing this reality, in the United States, Epiphany and Corpus Christi long ago were transferred to Sunday. The solemnity of St. Joseph and the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul continue to be celebrated on their proper days, but the obligations have been suppressed. Whenever Jan. 1, Aug. 15 or Nov. 1 falls on a Saturday or Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is suppressed. And, in most dioceses here in the United States, the solemnity of the Ascension has been transferred to Sunday.

The practice of the Holy See is that there must be at least two holy days in every country, the Vatican being the sole place (I believe) where all 10 are observed on their traditional date. Christmas and the Immaculate Conception would be the obvious choices were this to be implemented in this country. For those feasts not retained as holy days of obligation, the Vatican has given episcopal conferences two options: either to transfer the feast to a Sunday or retain the feast on its proper day, but abolish the double obligation of participation in Mass and abstaining from unnecessary and burdensome work. Some of us (bishops) believe reality argues that the number of days of obligation should be reduced to two, but not all. So, at present we have what we have.

All of this explains why, except for the state of Nebraska and a few dioceses along the East Coast, the feast of the Ascension is no longer celebrated on Thursday (40 days after Easter), but on a Sunday. Meanwhile, in our secularized culture, the concept that one is expected to abstain from unnecessary and burdensome work on Sundays and holy days of obligation has, for many, become a distant memory, a casualty of secularization.

Here’s the bottom line. As Catholics, we are called to approach the Lord’s Day (Sunday) and the few holy days of obligation which survive as special to God. In addition to participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we should keep in mind that on those days our focus should be on the call to holiness issued to each one of us when we are baptized and receive the sacrament of confirmation.

Whether or not the holy days of obligation will eventually be reduced to a minimum of two will have to be seen. That’s not my call. My call is to remind people that as a minimum, Catholics are expected to participate in Mass on the Lord’s Day (Sundays) and on holy days of obligation, and to the extent possible, that we make these family days, not work as usual. My call also is to remind people that there are precepts of the Church that explicate criteria a person is expected to meet to be classified as a practicing Catholic.

Good grief, as Charlie Brown would say.

More in From the Bishops

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.