Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
May 12th, 2010


...or how I lost my war with the Holy Days of Obligation



There’s a great scene from The Simpsons that sums up my childhood view of church perfectly. Bart, Lisa and Homer all run out of church triumphantly on a Sunday after services have finished, shouting — and I paraphrase — Hurray! It’s the time of the week that is the longest time before we have to go to church again!

And that’s how I felt when I was younger. Once Mass was over on Sunday, that was it. I was done. I was no longer a prisoner of the Liturgy and Eucharist, tradition and ritual, dressing up and sitting up. For an entire week I had nothing to look forward to but no church.

And then a Holy Day of Obligation would roll around in the middle of the week, ruining everything.

As a kid, not only was I enrolled in Catholic school grades K-8, but I was cosmically enrolled into a very devout Catholic family. And it seemed back then that everywhere I turned there was a Holy Day of Obligation lurking around the corner, a chance for my parents to force me to GO TO CHURCH again for an hour on a weekday, in addition to having already attended the weekend before with my family and during the week with classmates for the school-wide Mass that all the grades had to attend.

Back then it seemed like the Holy Days of Obligation numbered somewhere in the hundreds if not thousands of days a year, where all Catholics just had to GO TO CHURCH outside of the regular weekly obligation. Suffice it to say, these holy days dealt a critical blow to my endless video game matches with Punch-Out’s Bald Bull or watching yet another syndicated rerun of The Simpsons that I had seen at least ten times before. Having to GO TO CHURCH again in the middle of the week felt forced and unnatural.

From my teens to my late 20s, practicing my faith didn’t really mean a lot. The symbolism and meanings were lost on me; the words seemed empty; the buildings themselves just buildings.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually became interested in attending again.

Seeing the benefits

For an entire week I had nothing to look forward to but no church.

And then a Holy Day of Obligation would roll around in the middle of the week, ruining everything.

I had always maintained my faith, through prayer and some kind of contemplation, but now something was drawing me back into the actual act of going into a church and participating — as a free man this time, no longer forced but longing. Away from my home and family, the act of entering a church and partaking in the Liturgy made me feel connected not only to my family but, in a spiritual sense, to the world around me.

I started attending with more frequency, and then regularity, not because God wanted me to GO TO CHURCH, but because it actually felt good for the first time in my life. I was beginning to truly get something out of it. Walking into the quiet peace before services began, kneeling and praying and having the chance to take breather from the rest of the world, having the opportunity to pray with a community as well as by myself — these were just some of the benefits I began to see going to Mass could offer.

And then there were those distinctive parts of the Catholic faith I began rediscovering during this period, that I viewed as tools of assistance in my spirituality — the prayers, the sacraments, holy water, confession — and yes, the Holy Days of Obligation.

I began thinking about them for the first time since my childhood, when they had been such a hindrance. They intrigued me. What exactly is a Holy Day of Obligation? Through a little research I discovered that they are feasts in the Church in addition to Sundays, when, is says in Canon 1247, “the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover,” it continues, “they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

Basically, one way to look at them is as extra Sabbath days that fall during the week.

The six Holy Days of Obligation

A few years ago when I first began to attend weekly Mass again I decided to make it a point to attend all the extra Holy Days thinking it would be an extra Mass or two a month. To my surprise I discovered there were only 6 (six!) extra days a year, besides Sundays, that were actually Holy Days of Obligation — not the hundreds that it used to seem like to me — and one of them was a day practicing and non-practicing Catholics alike would be going to church anyway — Christmas. Which made me wonder why it ever seemed like such a big deal in the first place.

I can only imagine what my childhood self would have felt if I had lived prior to 1911 when there were 36 Holy Days of Obligation per year! That year pope Pius X narrowed the list down to 11 and since then the American bishops have narrowed it further so that there are six extra Holy Days of Obligation on the current United States Catholic calendar:

Mary, Mother of God — January 1
Ascension — 40 days after Easter
Assumption of Mary — August 15
All Saints Day — November 1
Immaculate Conception — December 8
Nativity of our Lord – December 25

They commemorate special feasts that are integral to the life of the Church — three of the days pertain to Mary (her birth, her motherhood to Jesus, her departing this earth); two are about Jesus (His birth, His departure from earth); and one day is about all those other holy women and men we ask to pray for us, the saints.

My adult self realizes now that six days a year isn’t really all that big a deal — about six extra hours to gather inside a church as part of a community to receive the word of God and Communion.

My adult self realizes now that six days a year isn’t really all that big a deal — about six extra hours to gather inside a church as part of a community to receive the word of God and Communion. If you add to it the 52 hours a year Catholics are asked to attend on Sundays, it’s still just a small fraction of time: 58 hours annually out of 8,760 hours (1/146th of a year). That’s next to nothing in my book. If playing video games and watching Simpsons reruns were a religion — which for me as a kid they might as well have been — the countless hours I’ve devoted in my life to them would have made me the biggest religious freak you’d ever known.

I’ll be in church this Ascension Thursday — I defeated Bald Bull long ago and I’ve already watched every Simpsons episode I want to see. Everything else in my life can wait for that extra hour this week, where I get to focus on my faith, have the chance to collect myself, pray for friends and family, and truly celebrate with others the meaning of these unique parts of the Catholic faith. This year, I consider it my privilege to be able to… go to church.

Ascension Thursday falls on May 13th this year in those dioceses that recognize it. You can find more information about the Holy Days of Obligation under Canon 1246 on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

The Author : Joe Williams
Joe is the Production Editor for Busted Halo, working as producer and editor for all things video. After graduating from T.C.U. with a degree in production and religion, Joe spent time teaching on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, exploring the film and music scene of Chicago, volunteering with the U.S. Peace Corps in South Africa, and surviving the world of corporate event production around the globe.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • adrienne

    nice job! good article.

  • Bill

    Technically, there are 58 holy days of obligation each year in the U.S. Catholic Church–52 Sundays and six other solemnities.

  • Laura Weirich

    Our church has two masses for children. One is a teen mass where it is as you describe with music and things set up for teens. The other is a children’s mass where it is basically run by children. This always amazes visitors. Father even commented that Mass is even said by the biggest child of all, himself.

    The children’s mass is where I take my son. He’s an infant so he doesn’t get much out of it yet. A children’s choir sings every Sunday (as opposed to once a month in some parishes). The children have all the “jobs” during Mass. They even have children hold the plates with the hosts for the adults. They also have the children come to the front of the church for the homily. Usually Father asks them questions related to the Gospel. We don’t have a cry room. And we don’t send the children out for Children’s liturgy to return later. They stay for the whole of Mass and it is utterly put on and geared toward them. I think that is why my church is the best. They try to make all the Masses said enjoyable. Father says that everyone must participate. He doesn’t believe in things being solemn. People clap during the songs. As a result, we have a very large congregation.

  • Joe

    Jack, that’s a great question. I think parents and parishes can always do more to entice and interest children/youth into going to Mass, more than just dragging them there. A start would be those parishes that offer Masses intended for youth, where the music, sermon and entire Mass is directed for a younger audience. Parents can also try to read ahead what the Sunday readings will be and discuss the stories with their kids as a kind of preparation before going to church, then talk with their kids in a relevant sort of way about what meaning those stories have in the eyes of a young boy or girl.

    Remember, as we go to Mass as adults we are often looking for a deeper meaning in our lives and some kind of spiritual advice for how we can better live those lives. Children, youth, teens are not always in such a mindset. For them, that single hour a week where they are dragged away from their video games, TV, friends, playtime, and lives can seem like an eternity. If they have something to connect with during the Liturgy, they may actually end up enjoying the hour and getting something out of the Mass.

    Offering something tangible may be a good way as well. If kids have something to look forward to after Mass is over, they may be more apt to sit through services paying attention, as well as eager to go in the first place. Going to a fun breakfast or lunch after church is one option. Or heading to the park or some other activity is a good way too. Think of this as less of a bribe and more of a celebration. Each Sunday during services we are called to remember Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection and new life. Each Sunday is a little “Easter” in miniature and should be celebrated as such. Getting through Mass, receiving meaning and going to have a little fun through food or some other reward is kind of all part of the meaning of Sundays, and a way families can enjoy Mass together.

    Please, any other voices out there with ideas? I’d be eager to hear from parents or parishes that have had success in making Mass on Sundays enjoyable for kids. Thanks.

  • Jack Liu

    This is a great article, Joe! Thanks. On a related note, this article really got me thinking: Is there any way parents and parishes can make going to masses enjoyable and engaging to kids, so they don’t have to suffer so much on Sundays and holy days of obligation?

  • Christine Venzon

    I’ve also come to appreciate the special events the Church singles out as worthy of being holy days of obligation. I’m even disappointed when feasts like the Ascension are shifted to Sundays. It feels like a compromise, as though a weekday Mass is too great a burden.

    Now if I could only feel the same way about going to confession

  • Moe

    When my son first started Kindergarten at a Catholic school, he had a hard time adjusting to the rigors of each day, especially wearing a uniform – Oxford cloth shirt, tie, belted khakis. He really looked forward to gym days, Tuesday and Thursday, when students were allowed to wear their gym clothes: shorts and a T-shirt.

    One Thursday morning,just two months into the school year, I handed him his regular uniform to put on, and he objected loudly, “Today’s a gym day, and I don’t have to wear that!” I looked at him sympathetically and replied, “But sweetheart, today is All Saint’s Day, it’s a Holy Day of Obligation, and you have to wear your uniform and go to Mass.” He looked at me with indignation and announced, “But I’m not a saint, I’m an American!”

    I can vouch for both.

  • Therese

    This is a stellar piece! It always amazes me… the farther I am from home the more “at home” I feel at Mass. Thanks for sharing, Joe!

  • GCD

    This is beautiful – and what I tell my CCD kids every year – no matter what you do in life, no matter where you go, you can always come back to church – where you will be welcomed and feel at home…..

  • Brandon

    In Canada we only have two Holy Days of Obligation! Christmas and the Feast of Mary. Some of the other holy days have been moved to Sundays (Epiphany, Ascension, Corpus Christi).

  • JMS

    What a beautiful essay!

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