When you attend church on Sunday, have you noticed that sometimes it isn’t just a regular Sunday Mass, but a special feast day? This happened in August, for example, when the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was celebrated on the 15th.
More often, this switch of focus happens on a weekday. For example, Oct. 14, the Thursday of the 28th week in Ordinary Time is followed, not by Friday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time, but by the “memorial of St. Therese of Jesus.”
If you have a Catholic calendar, you will notice that some dates are marked with “S,” “F” or “M(m).” These stand for “solemnity,” feast” or “memorial.” A capital “M” means an obligatory memorial and a lowercase “m” means it is an optional memorial and then it is up to the priest celebrating the Mass that day to choose to celebrate the memorial or not.
Every day of the year has a place on the church calendar. We are familiar with Sundays and with the seasons of the year, like Lent and Advent. Most of us are probably aware of many of the major feast days, such as Easter, Christmas and certain saint’s memorials, like St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4.
There are three major types of celebrations on the church calendar: solemnities, feasts and memorials.
Solemnities are the most important of these celebrations. They include special celebrations related to the life of Christ or the role of other people closely related to the life of Christ and to salvation history. They may or may not be holy days of obligation. These days of obligation are determined by the national conferences of bishops. For example, in Australia, there are only two holy days of obligation: Christmas and the Assumption. In the United States, there are six holy days of obligation — all of them solemnities: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the Ascension of the Lord, the Assumption, All Saints Day, the Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Other examples of solemnities that are not days of obligation include that of St. Joseph (March 19) and of SS. Peter and St. Paul (June 29).
Generally, a solemnity that falls on a Sunday is celebrated on the Sunday. However, if the same solemnity falls during Advent, Lent or Easter, its celebration is generally moved to the next day, Monday. The celebration is also transferred if it falls during Holy Week or the week following Easter.
A Mass for a solemnity will seem very much like a Sunday Mass: the Creed and the Gloria are used and there are three readings. Solemnities also begin the night before, with evening prayer and sometimes even a separate vigil Mass, such as with Pentecost.
Feasts rank next in importance. Feasts honor the Lord, Mary or certain feasts of particular importance. For example, in the Diocese of Green Bay, Dec. 3 is the memorial of St. Francis Xavier, normally a celebration of lesser importance on the universal church calendar. However, because St. Francis Xavier is the patron of our diocese, his memorial becomes a feast day for us. On a feast day, the Gloria is recited or sung at Mass, but not the Creed. And there are only two readings: the First Reading and the Gospel. If a feast day relating to the Lord, such as the Transfiguration, falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence in the celebration.
Memorials come last in priority. These feasts can be of two types: obligatory and optional. A memorial is usually related to a saint, but some also celebrate an aspect of the Lord or of Mary. Examples include the optional memorials of the Holy Name of Jesus or of St. Kateri Tekakwitha or the obligatory memorials of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Katherine Drexel. “Obligatory” means just that: the memorial must be celebrated. Often this only means an added opening prayer that notes the feast and, perhaps, a related reading. Optional memorials are left to the discretion of the priest.
This may all seem a bit confusing, but it is simpler now than it was before 1969 and the changes in the Mass and church calendar following Vatican II. As simplycatholic.com notes: “The hierarchical process, used as recently as the 20th century, rank, or order, church celebrations by calling them doubles of the first class, doubles of the second class, greater doubles, lesser doubles, simples and commemorations. In 1962, they were called first class, second class, third class and commemorations.”
The Second Vatican Council recognized the confusions that had arisen and addressed them in their document on the Mass (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dec. 4, 1963). In it, the council said, “Feast days are days which are celebrated in commemoration of the sacred mysteries and events recorded in the history of our redemption, in memory of the Virgin Mother of Christ or of his apostles, martyrs and saints, by special services and rest from work. … Throughout the church’s liturgical year, we encounter feast days which are afforded different significances such as solemnities, feasts and memorials.”
Earlier than that, before any true universal calendar was developed, local churches, abbeys, monasteries and dioceses devised their own calendars, with a staggering array of feasts and celebrations. This was dealt with by the Council of Trent (1545-63). As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “This lack of uniformity degenerated into an abuse, and was a fertile source of confusion. Hence the new Roman Breviary and Missal, which in accordance with a decree of the Council of Trent eventually saw the light in 1568 and 1570 respectively, contained a new calendar.”
If the calendar still seems a bit overwhelming, it can be, even for the experts. That is why the U.S. Catholic bishops publish an Ordo every year that lists every celebration on every day. (Ordo means “order” as in a list.) If you would like to see what today’s celebration is, you can visit the U.S. bishops’ liturgical calendar for 2021 at usccb.org/resources/2021cal.pdf.