No, I don’t think the Church should remove the obligation to attend Mass on certain holy days.
But I do wish that we’d change how we think about holy days of obligation.
After a little over a decade of being Catholic I still get tripped up by some of these. Maybe you are like me and have a pretty good handle on when the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is and when the Assumption is celebrated. But what about the Feast of the Ascension? Without checking, do you know what date it is? Better yet: do you know if your diocese is one that makes it a weekday holy day or one that has moved it to a Sunday?
When a holy day of obligation catches me off guard and I have to make last-minute changes to my schedule, attending Mass can feel more like an obligation. Of course, that’s on me for not watching my calendar closely enough.
But I also think the way we talk about these holy days needs to be changed. Pick whatever holy day you have forgotten until it is upon you—be it the Ascension, the Assumption, or perhaps Mary Mother of God. Now think about how much more likely you would be to remember it and how your experience of the holy day Mass would be different if it was presented to you as an opportunity—a special time to contemplate the Ascension, or to reflect on what the Assumption means for our destinies, or to consider how it ensures that Mary has a role to play in our spiritual lives?
Here’s what I’m driving at: holy days of obligation should be about more than skipping your lunch break to make Mass, or racing through rush hour traffic to make it to your parish. A holy day of obligation should be about making the whole day holy—holy in the sense of ‘set apart.’ If your whole day is devoted to the Ascension or the Assumption, attending Mass becomes a fruit of your devotion rather than a spiritual chore pigeonholed into what is otherwise just another weekday.
By the way, if you’re in habit of going to daily Mass, the message of this article is still for you: ask yourself how you are making the holy day different than the other days in which you are present for daily Mass.
I think a good place to start is obviously through prayer, reading Scripture, and reflection. The Liturgy of the Hours and Magnificat magazine will be great aids in this area. (They also help people like me to keep better track of their liturgical calendars!)
But I think we ought to go beyond this. As Catholics we recognize how interrelated body and spirit are. It’s a conviction enshrined in our theologies of the Incarnation, the sacraments, and the Church itself. One reason Catholicism is such a powerful force in our world is that it extends cult into culture. Tyler Blanski explains this in his new book, An Immovable Feast, where he is describing how an association of college friends (self-named the Guild) broke down over debates over the Eucharist and drinking alcohol:
Festivals are a thermometer of culture; they take the religious temperature of a community and hold it up for all to see. At first glance, the Guild’s contretemps over drinking alcohol and the Eucharist might seem unrelated, but I have come to see that they are in fact connected, and they come together in festival, in the old knot between sacrifice and thanksgiving that is ritual worship (An Immovable Feast, 44).
A festival does not just reflect the strength of a religious culture—it can also reinforce it. No one forgets Christmas because that is when we have large meals with our families, decorate Christmas trees, and exchange gifts.
Is there a way, perhaps, that we could integrate the other feast days into our lives? In her 1956 book, The Year and Our Children, Mary Reed Newland goes into quite a bit of detail about how her family celebrated the Assumption of Mary—which included making tea, having her children make a banner, holding a blessing of herbs and flowers, baking a special pie, and a procession.
If you are already doing all this, that’s awesome, but everything we know about the history of the Church over the last half century tells us that many Catholics, even those practicing their faith, have lost touch with many of the old traditions. Chances are if you put this much effort into planning a day—or even an evening of activities—you are going to remember the whole point of the day.
There’s yet one further benefit to approach holy days as opportunities rather than obligations. It means that you might just show up to a weekday holy day Mass that isn’t a formal obligation.
If you’re looking out for opportunities to celebrate the mysteries of the Church, you’re unlikely to limit yourself to what you have to do.
There are tons of these feast days on the calendar that many Catholic miss out on because they don’t have to go to Mass for them. Some examples: the Sacred Heart, the Visitation, the Transfiguration, the Birth of Mary, and the Triumph of the Cross. (See here for a complete list and an explanation of the various categories of feast days.)
The Assumption of Mary, which is around the corner, on August 15, is an opportunity for all of us to put this into practice—even if it’s something simple as buying flowers or creating a special meal dedicated to the occasion. May we all work towards recognizing these holy days of obligation for what they really are: opportunities for joy, rather than burdens.