The Bishops of England and Wales recently made a change to their liturgical calendar, effective the first Sunday of Advent, that added back to the calendar two Holy Days of Obligation—Epiphany and Ascension Thursday. While this decision obviously only effects those Catholics in England and Wales, their decision is remarkable because it is counter to a trend that has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council that has seen the reduction of Liturgical Feasts of Obligation. One can hope that this will spur other Episcopal Conferences to follow suit.
The Code of Canon Law (1246) has this to say about Holy Days of Obligation:
- Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
- However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.
In Advent of 1991, the NCCB of the United States (now known as the USCCB) issued a general decree defining the Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to all Sundays throughout the year) for Latin rite Catholics in the US as follows:
- January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
- Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
- August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
- December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
- December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Whenever (1), (3) or (4) fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated. The Feast of the Ascension, in most dioceses in the US, has been moved to the following Sunday, effectively reducing the number of feasts of obligation from ten to five.
Plummeting Mass Attendance
When faith is in decline, the power of binding and loosing enables the shepherds of the Church to make the practice of the Faith “easier.” Although this is often abused (I will avoid that rabbit hole here), the shepherds may alter Church disciplines in order to keep the sheep from falling to grave sin. Seeing regular Mass attendance drop precipitously from 55% to 41% in the years from 1965 to 1990, the Bishops thought that by reducing the obligation, it might keep at least some from committing the serious sin of missing Mass.
That this approach proved ineffective seems obvious, especially since regular Mass attendance dropped to 22% in 2016. Likely, it had the opposite effect by contributing to it. Removing some obligations is always a danger because it challenges all obligations, especially when their removal goes unexplained. Perhaps, the thinking goes, if those days really weren’t obligatory, then the ones they say are obligatory now aren’t either. After all, one can still be “spiritual” without religious obligation.
The crisis in Mass attendance was not really the problem, but merely a symptom of a larger disease that the Doctors of the Church failed to properly diagnose. While the reasons are legion, the issue was the death of Catholic culture. There may have been some compromises with the surrounding culture, but Catholics always stood out because of their religious practices. Think of the Catholic practice of no meat on Fridays throughout the year (another one that has been done away with) and how restaurants made special accommodations to win Catholic patronage. Once that practice was no longer obligatory even the meat fasts of Fridays in Lent went ignored. The point is that these practices, even when done with less than pure intentions, bind Catholics together.
The point is that there can be no culture without cult so that if you take away from the liturgical life of the Catholics, you will most assuredly do harm to the sheepfold. It is not only, or even primarily, for the natural reason that it creates, for lack of a better term, Catholic “identity.” It is also for the supernatural reason of Communion. The more often the believers come together and receive life from the Altar of Sacrifice, the closer they will be to Jesus. The closer they are to Jesus, the closer they will be to one another. The closer they are to one another, the greater their witness to the world. The Eucharist is like the nucleus of a primordial atom drawing each negatively charged man to Itself.
When faith is in decline you should increase the obligations, not reduce them. Fear of hell, while imperfect motivation, can still keep you from hell. Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity giving actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely. There are always those who will go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.
Catholic culture has to be built from the ground up and is something that needs to be instilled in the young. I find it very strange that Catholic schools all treat the few Holy Days of Obligation as “regular” days, instead of true holydays. Should they really celebrate Labor Day while simultaneously demanding work from students on the day when we celebrate all those “who from their Labor rest?” Going to Catholic school in the 1980s was certainly a confusing time, but one thing they always did right was give us off from school on all the Holy Days of Obligation. That has always stuck with me and left me with the awareness that these days were no ordinary days.
The Fullness of Time
This leads to one further point that could come under the heading of unintended consequences. One of the great heresies of modern times is compartmentalization, that is creating a “wall of separation” between Church and the rest of life. God can have Sunday (even if only for an hour) but the rest is mine. The Incarnation made it glaringly obvious that God is with us, not just on Sundays, but all days. The Son came in the “fullness of time” not just because everything was Providentially ready for His arrival, but also because when time and eternity meets in His Person time is filled. This is part of the reason the Church celebrates Mass not just on Sundays, but every day.
If you really believe that God is actively participating in every moment at every time, you will reject compartmentalization. The great Christian feasts mark those moments in history when God stepped into the ordinary. They not only mark them, but make them present. It brings God into the humdrum, or rather, shows that there really is no humdrum. It shows them to be real, as in really,really real and not just something relegated to the past. Take away these celebrations and you move God to the periphery. Move Ascension Thursday to Sunday and you make it nearly impossible to fully prepare for your share in Pentecost. Pentecost was not a single event, but one that unfolds throughout time and also at specific times on each Pentecost Sunday. The Apostles and Our Lady taught us how to prepare for it by nine days of prayer. Seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. It makes it all seem manufactured (work of man) and just ceremonial rather than truly liturgical (work of God).
Likewise with Epiphany—we complain about keeping Christ in Christmas, but meanwhile we don’t keep Christmas in Christmas. Want to win back Christmas from the clutches of commercialization, restore Epiphany to its rightful place in the calendar.
Please God that all the Bishops will follow those of England and Wales and reinstate all the Holy Days of Obligation!