A number of years ago, some members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops proposed relaxing the obligation on Catholics to honor solemnities, referred to popularly as holy days, when they fall on a Saturday.
Or on a Monday. But not all. Or unless it is the Ascension of the Lord, in which case it slides almost seamlessly into the following Sunday. Unless you live in the Northeast.
At any rate, rather than lightening the burden on the consciences of believers (presumably the aim of the initiative), this move has served only to confuse parishioners and, not infrequently, their pastors. It has also had the effect of weakening the significance, rather than highlighting the solemnity, of such days and further sapping the sacramental imagination of American Catholics.
The phone calls start coming in to me, as pastor of a parish, a week or so before the solemnity.
“Is Aug. 15 a holy day this year?”
“Well, yes, in fact it is.”
“So I have an obligation to go to Mass?”
“No, actually, not this year, because it happens to fall on a Saturday.”
“But I thought it was a holy day.”
“It is, but it’s not a day of obligation this time.”
“Great, thanks.” (Read: “Whew, I don’t have to go to Mass.”)
Several things are at play here. First, the very term holy day has come to imply the obligation long associated with such solemnities. People hear “holy day” and simultaneously hear “obligation,” as though the terms were synonyms.
While in many cases this is not a bad thing (it only means someone catechized them about such solemnities), the dark side of this development is the inference that is immediately drawn that what makes the day important, special, significant is the obligation attached to it. What gets lost, of course, is the actual solemnity itself and what the church honors on that particular day.
The notion that the festal and sanctoral cycles of the liturgical year offer a liberation from the mundane, secular rhythms imposed by more subtle (only because it has never dawned on us how much of our life is determined by them) and thus insidious elements of our culture (Hollywood, Hallmark, Madison Avenue, the imperium of professional sports) is hardly ever raised in preaching or catechesis, much less offered as a rationale for the value of holy days to the daily life of Christians.
Further complicating matters is how parishes may choose to schedule Masses for such solemnities. When a holy day rolls around, it is not likely that offering an additional morning Mass on a Tuesday or Thursday would attract parishioners who work, much less make fulfillment of the obligation easier for them. And when any particular holy day falls within the slide-rule-determined parameters of “non-obligation,” reducing the Mass schedule or, worse, simply doing nothing to highlight the day in the life of the parish communicates that what makes the day special or holy is the obligation attached to it rather than the mystery or saving event honored that day. Since the obligation is lifted, why make a fuss?
As a result, the tail ends up wagging the dog. Holy days are important because they are obligatory; they are not obligatory (well, some of the time) because they are important. We end up with a Kantian liturgical theology in which obligation is what both sanctifies such days and what is sanctifying about them. Instead of asking, “Is today a holy day?” a better question might be, “Why is today holy?” This is a question that draws the focus away from what is required of us and toward what God already has done for us, which we are privileged to participate in by sacrament, so that we may respond with gratitude.
A few years ago, a week or so before Lent began, I fielded a call from someone who inquired, “Is Ash Wednesday a holy day this year?” I was sorely tempted to reply, “Well ordinarily it is, but when it falls on a Wednesday, as it does this year, the obligation is lifted.”