Explainer: What’s the deal with Holy Days of Obligation?
Was your first thought, “We have to go to Mass again?” Or was it, “We get to go to Mass again!”
Christmas 2023 was a whirlwind of celebrations for pastors and parishioners. Christmas fell on a Monday. Because Sundays and Christmas are holy days of obligation, this meant attending Mass twice in two days—once for the fourth Sunday of Advent, which fell on Christmas Eve, and once for Christmas. With vigil Mass options available for both of these celebrations, faithful Catholics found an array of options: attending Mass Sunday morning and Monday evening; Sunday morning and Sunday evening; or Saturday evening and Monday morning, to name a few. Because both were holy days of obligations, knocking out two Masses with one vigil on Christmas Eve was not an option, perhaps to the chagrin of some Catholics.
Why do Catholics celebrate holy days of obligation? Should we?
What are they?
The number of holy days of obligation varies in different countries, including in the United States (more on that below), but for the global Catholic Church, there are 10:
- Jan. 1, Mary, Mother of God
- Jan. 6, Epiphany
- Spring Thursday, Ascension
- Summer Thursday, Corpus Christi
- March 19, St. Joseph
- June 29, Sts. Peter and Paul
- Aug. 15, Assumption of Mary
- Nov. 1, All Saints
- Dec. 8, Immaculate Conception
- Dec. 25, Christmas
You might be surprised that a few days are not on this list. Ash Wednesday? Not an obligatory day. Good Friday? While it is an official holiday in 12 states, it is not a day of obligation. (In fact, no Masses are celebrated on this day.) Palm Sunday and Easter? These are always on Sundays, so there is no additional obligation.
Shifting feasts to Sunday
Bishops’ conferences have permission from the Vatican to transfer days of obligation from a weekday date to a Sunday, where appropriate. Epiphany marks the “12 days of Christmas,” when the three magi visit the newborn King. It is celebrated in most countries on Jan. 6. However, U.S. bishops have shifted it to the second Sunday after Christmas.
Ascension Thursday marks 40 days after Easter. Dioceses in Nebraska, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts continue this practice, but in the rest of the country, the feast is shifted to the following Sunday. In many countries, Corpus Christi is still celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (a week after Pentecost), but the United States has also shifted this feast to Sunday. In Hawaii, the only days of obligation are Dec. 8 and Christmas, due to travel issues in these tropical islands.
National bishops’ conferences and even individual bishops can make Mass attendance on feast days obligatory or not. Each nation has a “patronal feast”—a specific saint who is the patron of that country; this feast is often a day of obligation in that country. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is the national feast of the United States and is celebrated on Dec. 8. Ireland celebrates St. Patrick with a holy day of obligation on March 17; Mexico honors Our Lady of Guadalupe with an obligatory feast. The feasts of St. Joseph and Sts. Peter and Paul are not days of obligation in the United States.
Additionally, in the United States, when a major feast, except for Christmas, falls on a Saturday or Monday, the bishops have opted to make the feast “non-obligatory.” In 2024, Jan. 1 fell on a Monday, so it was not an obligation day. Dec. 8, 2024, falls on a Sunday, but this is also a Sunday in Advent. Advent Sundays take priority over feasts in the liturgical calendar, so the Immaculate Conception feast day is shifted to Monday and is not obligatory.
In the United States, we are “obligation minimalists.” In 2024, there are only three: Assumption, All Saints and Christmas. Whereas, in a “maximal” year in other countries, there could be 11.
Still with me?
Is this some form of Catholic trigonometry? A implies B, except when C is too close to D. Or spiritual Texas Hold ’Em? The ace is high, except for the joker.
What is Christ offering us through these flexible feasts of the church?
There is a logic to all of this and not mere logic but the divine Logos—Jesus the Word made flesh. God took on a human body to dwell in time. We have bodies, and we dwell in time. Worship occurs in time. We “keep holy the sabbath” by worshiping God at Mass each Sunday. The seasons of Advent and Lent prepare us for the great celebrations of Christmas and Easter.
With holy days of obligation, the church is marking out for us special celebrations that are uniquely central to our faith. We honor all saints and pray that we may join them in heaven. These days are like stars in the constellation of the yearly calendar. Like sailors on a ship, they point us toward our destination: life with Christ. They are days of prayer, worship and rejoicing; yes, sometimes they are inconvenient. For God, the incarnation and the cross were also “inconvenient” disruptions!
The date on which we celebrate Easter varies each year and falls sometime within the weeks of spring. Lent is early this year, with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 14. Many faithful couples will celebrate their love with fish sticks and champagne that night, no doubt. The day of Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is so that Easter lines up with the Jewish feast of Passover as described in the Book of Exodus (though the Jewish and Catholic festival calendars are not always in sync); the Passion of Jesus is intimately bound up with his celebration of the Passover rituals. Easter can be in mid-March or late April, depending on the spring phases of the moon. The 40 days of Lent shift accordingly.
Our liturgical worship draws in all of God’s beautiful creation: With bread, wine, song and prayer, a full moon, and a rising sun, we gather to adore the risen Son! Similarly, the liturgy of the hours sanctifies the morning, evening and night of each day by praying the Psalms.
We’ve all heard the complaints or said them ourselves: “We’re busy. I go on Sunday, and that’s enough. Make it optional.”
Yes, some people have full or inflexible schedules. For factory workers, nurses and the infirm, it may be impossible to go to Mass. The church dispenses them. People in these situations often feel real sorrow that they cannot attend Mass on a holy day. The man on the second shift at the auto plant glances at the clock: “7 a.m., Mass just started.” A young mom tends to her sick child: “7 p.m. Shoot, I missed Mass. Mother Mary, bless my little girl.”
But sometimes, attending Mass on these days means we have to make sacrifices. You might think: “My kid had soccer.” But a child can politely tell a coach that she’ll miss practice for a mandatory Catholic Mass.
Work is important, but planning ahead can help us meet our obligations for both our work and our faith. Most parishes have Mass the evening before and on the morning and evening of the feast day. Do you shift your work schedule for a dentist appointment? Could your schedule be shifted to attend a morning Mass? We know about these feasts months in advance. When something is important, we mark it on our calendar ahead of time, whether it’s a niece’s ballet recital or a friend’s wedding. The Examen prayer of St. Ignatius can help us to reflect on our motivations and commitments: “Was I really that busy?”
In Wisconsin, fans of the Green Bay Packers watch their team every Sunday. But sometimes they play on Thursday or Monday. Packer fans track the team’s schedule, readjust their own and celebrate (or weep) accordingly. We should have at least the same level of commitment to our faith.
I recently spoke with my friends in Milwaukee, Megan and Joe. They have five young children and a big wall calendar in their home. Each month, they list the key events: play practice, volleyball, family gatherings and Catholic feast days. “Leading our children to see the liturgical calendar within the calendar year has been one of the greatest gifts for our family,” Megan told me. “It has borne much fruit in teaching our kids about the faith—they anticipate the feasts! ‘What am I going to be for Halloween and All Saints Day this year?’ or lighting the candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday in December.” She continued, “God sanctifies us through time, the liturgical calendar and liturgical living. The more you engage, the holier you become, the more you are opening yourself up to the graces God is just waiting to give to us through our engagement.”
The liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent shape the rest of the year. These weeks sanctify time with special Masses, prayers, fasts and reflections. We can see these seasons not as an inconvenience but as Emmanuel, God with us, plunging into our daily lives. We want to prepare to meet Christ in the celebrations of Christmas and Easter. The other feast days of the year orbit around the Son—highlighting different saints and special moments in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
What’s the deeper meaning?
Some people are holier than others. Jesus is the holiest person to ever walk this earth. The Eucharist is the holiest of all foods. Some places are holier than others. We call Israel the Holy Land because Jesus lived and walked there; it is the spiritual home of God’s chosen people, the Jews. The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is holier than the supermarket parking lot down the road.
Similarly, some days are holier than others. Easter, when the dead Messiah rose to new life, is the holiest. On Christmas, we celebrate the birth of God to a poor young woman, Mary.
God sanctifies us. God sanctifies time through the events in the life of Christ. We celebrate these in the liturgies throughout the year; Jesus commands us, “Do this in memory of me.” Holy days are eruptions of grace in my daily life. Whether in mid-August, early November or at the start of the new year, holy days are invitations to a deeper life in Christ.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on January 1. It is celebrated on December 8, and it has been updated in the article.