The most solemn of the church’s Masses

By | January 26, 2011

Easter is honored as a solemnity of the church — sometimes called the “solemnity of solemnities.” Solemnities are feasts of the highest order in our liturgical celebrations; as such, the main ones are observed by the entire church. In fact, if a solemnity falls on most Sundays, it is considered so important that its celebration takes over — “impedes” is the canonical word — and its readings are used instead of the normal Sunday readings. This happened last year, for example, when the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary fell on Sunday, Aug. 15.

However, solemnities can never impede the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday through Easter), Pentecost, the Sundays of Advent, Lent or the Easter season, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week or the octave of Easter.

Solemnities are so important that some — though not all — of them have not only a specific Mass of the day of celebration, but also a vigil Mass, with a whole separate set of readings, as well. These include solemnities like Pentecost, All Saints and the Immaculate Conception.

Solemnities honor the greatest mysteries of our faith. Thus their celebrations resemble Sunday Mass and include three readings and the recitation of the Creed and the Gloria. In fact, the Gloria is said even on a solemnity that falls during Lent or Advent, when we usually do not have the Gloria.

Many solemnities are also holy days of obligation, but this varies by country.

Getting back to January. It has two solemnities (besides its Sundays): the already mentioned celebration of Mary, the Mother of God, and Epiphany. In the United States, Epiphany — traditionally celebrated on Jan. 6 — is moved to the second Sunday after Christmas, which was Jan. 2 this year.

Besides these solemnities, January also has two feast days. “Feasts” are the next ranking celebrations in the church. While any celebration can be called a feast, technically the correct terms for liturgical celebrations, according to rank, are: solemnity, feast and memorial.

These January feast days are the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 9) and the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan. 25). The celebration of the Holy Name of Jesus was once of a higher rank, but today is ranked as an optional memorial.

Memorials usually honor saints, but there are also memorials that honor some aspect of the mysteries of the Lord, like the Holy Name, or Mary. An example of an obligatory memorial is the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which always follows the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (which is a movable feast, based on the date of Easter). Memorials themselves can be ranked as obligatory or optional. Feasts of saints are often optional and can even be strictly regional in nature.

In the same way, besides the solemnities of the universal calendar — celebrated by the entire church — there can also be regional solemnities. These are celebrated with all the ceremony of a solemnity, but are localized and do not obligate the entire church. These can be the celebration related to the feast day of the patron saint of a diocese or a founder of a religious order.

It may surprise some people, but certain celebrations of high order are not solemnities: such as the feasts All Souls (Nov. 2) and the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14). Likewise, some might think Holy Thursday and Good Friday are solemnities, but they are more correctly part of the Triduum — the three-day celebration of the paschal mystery, beginning with the Lord’s Supper and ending at vespers (evening prayer) on Easter.

Below is a list of the solemnities of the universal church:

  • Mary, Mother of God
  • Epiphany
  • St. Joseph, Husband of Mary
  • The Annunciation of the Lord
  • Easter
  • The Ascension of Our Lord
  • Pentecost
  • Most Holy Trinity
  • The Body and Blood of Christ
  • The Nativity of John the Baptist
  • The Most Sacred Heart
  • Sts. Peter and Paul
  • Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • All Saints
  • Christ the King
  • The Immaculate Conception
  • The Nativity of Our Lord
  • Additionally, the days of the Octave of Easter are each celebrated as solemnities of the Lord. No other solemnity can take precedence over them.

 

Sources: Dictionary of the Liturgy; Catholic Encyclopedia: zenit.org; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; diocesan department of Evangelization and Worship.

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