Attendance at Mass is obligatory every Sunday, but those are not the only days Catholics are required to go to church. Exactly what days, however, is nebulous, depending on where one lives and how the calendar falls.
Holy days of obligation are celebrations of the Church’s high feasts and solemnities, said Father Andrew Hart, JCL, adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Little Rock Tribunal and theological consultant to Arkansas Catholic.
“The designation ‘holy day of obligation,’ tells us two things,” Father Hart said. “First, it tells us that this particular day is especially important, or ‘holy,’ either because it commemorates a particular event in our salvation history or because it highlights a particular belief or mystery central to our faith. Second, it tells us that, in light of the day’s importance, we have the obligation on this day to worship and give thanks to God by attending holy Mass.
“The fundamental holy day of obligation is Sunday; every Sunday, we gather in worship for a kind of ‘mini Easter,’ to commemorate the Lord’s Resurrection. The other holy days of obligation are not on Sundays, but they are days on the same level of spiritual importance.”
Father Stephen Elser, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Pocahontas, St. John the Baptist Church in Engelberg and St. Joseph the Worker Church in Corning, said, “Holy days remind us of the most important moments in the life of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church in general. It is on these days that we particularly give thanks to God for the role that his son Jesus Christ; Mary, our Blessed Mother, and the Church play in salvation history.”
Father Jason Tyler, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, said, “They're considered important enough that the Church asks all her members to recognize their significance by participating in Mass that day. These days ‘interrupt’ a normal week and allow us to live the part of God's salvific work being celebrated in them.”
Catholics are supposed to attend Mass either on the evening before the holy day (vigil Mass) or anytime on the holy day, but that’s not always the case.
“In general, numbers are lower on holy days as opposed to Sunday Masses,” Father Elser said. “I would like to see our attendance for holy days be as close as possible to our attendance for Sundays. And of course, we would love to see our numbers for Sunday Masses increase as well.”
Like weekend Masses, missing Mass on a holy day of obligation can be a sin.
“As we are taught in faith formation, a mortal sin consists of three elements: grave matter, full knowledge and free will,” Father Elser said. “It is considered to be serious to miss a holy day of obligation.”
However, the Church takes into account a person's individual situation if they miss Mass.
“Is this person putting forth every effort to make it to Mass on a holy day? Is this person seriously prevented from making it to a holy day — for example, would he or she be fired from work for being late or absent? Does the person have every opportunity to make it to a holy day Mass but chooses not to go? These are the questions that should be asked when considering whether or not a sin is being committed,” he said.
If a person faces extenuating circumstances where they can’t attend a holy day Mass, Father Elser tells people to do something to honor the Lord.
“Perhaps they could prayerfully read the readings for the Mass, pray a rosary or watch a live or recorded Mass online,” he said.
If someone is unable to attend because of illness or some other factor beyond their control, it's not a sin and there's no need to confess it.
“If someone knows ahead of time that he or she won't be able to make it because of his/her work schedule, it's always possible to ask the pastor of the parish for a dispensation from the obligation,” Father Tyler said.
“It does happen that a person may honestly forget that it is a holy day of obligation and doesn’t attend Mass, although they would have done so if they had remembered,” Father Hart said. “That’s not a serious sin, but that person should mention it as a possible venial sin of omission the next time they go to confession…. If someone misses Mass of their own volition on a Sunday or any day of obligation, they should make a sacramental confession as soon as possible. Until that time, they should make an honest act of contrition and refrain from receiving Holy Communion.”
Over its history, the Church has altered its list of obligatory days, according to Matthew Please, a Third Order Dominican from Chicago, certified catechist and writer for "A Catholic Life." Pope Gregory IX established 45 holy days in 1234. Pope Urban VIII reduced the number to 35 in 1642. Pope Clement XI added one in 1708, bringing the total to 36. In 1911, Pope Pius X reduced the number to eight. With the introduction of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Vatican changed the number to 10. According to Canon Law 1246, those dates include (in the order of the liturgical calendar):
But the Vatican allows national episcopal conferences to establish holy days of obligation within their jurisdiction.
“Church law (Canon 1246 §2) allows for the conference of bishops to suppress some holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday,” Father Hart said.
“In most of the United States, the Epiphany, Corpus Christi and the Ascension are moved to the nearest Sunday,” Father Tyler said.
That means the number of holy days differs around the world. Within North America, there are notable differences. In Canada, for instance, only two are recognized — Christmas and Mary Mother of God. In Mexico, there are four — Christmas, Mary Mother of God, Body and Blood of Christ and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In 1991, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States of America (NCCB), the precursor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, formally recognized six:
However, even that can change. Three of the six holy days — the Ascension, Immaculate Conception and Christmas — are always obligatory; however, All Saints Day, Mary Mother of God and the Assumption are not holy days of obligation if they fall on a Saturday or Monday, to avoid the burden of two consecutive obligatory days. Additionally, the U.S. bishops conference allowed ecclesiastical provinces to transfer Ascension from the Thursday of the sixth week of Easter to the seventh Sunday of Easter.
When planning Masses on holy days, Father Elser said he works with his parish pastoral councils to create a schedule that works best for as many parishioners as possible.
“Our holy day schedules most often mirror our weekend Mass schedule with a few additional opportunities to go to Mass in the evening (for parishioners who work),” he said. “I am also cognizant of making sure our school children attend Mass on holy days of obligation.”
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