GO TO CHURCH!

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

go-to-church-flash

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.


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