My understanding of the sensus fidei is guided not by what the secular academy would think is fashionable, but by what the old ladies at church think. Every parishioner knows who I’m talking about: quiet, elderly women who light candles and pray the rosary and otherwise inhabit the parish church as a kind of cloister. And in South Philly, where I grew up, such holy women also come with a bit of, shall we say, personality.
I laugh at the thought of explaining to one of the Italian women of my youth that no, actually, dear, the Solemnity of the Epiphany is not the sixth of January, but is actually the Sunday between the second and eighth of January. The combination of piety and hard-nosed common sense would move her to politely nod and go on living her life as she always had. She can count. She knows that Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas, not the ninth-to-the-fourteenth day depending on the calendar.
The Code of Canon Law states clearly the universal law of the Church: that Sunday is the pre-eminent holy day of obligation but that several other days must be observed as such: “the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, Saint Joseph, Saint Peter and Saint Paul the Apostles, and All Saints.” Yet the second section of that canon offers possibilities for deviating from this universal norm: “With the prior approval of the Apostolic See, however, the conference of bishops can suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday.”
Here in the United States, our bishops’ conference and the ecclesiastical provinces have gifted us with quite the panoply of practices. Ascension Thursday is a holy day of obligation in the Northeast and in Nebraska. But in the rest of the country, it is not even on Thursday, a body blow to all the liturgists who tell us how important the Sundays of the Easter season are.
It seems the Hawaiians are just working too hard on those mai tais to take some days off throughout the year, because Catholics there only have two holy days of obligation: Immaculate Conception and Christmas. St. Joseph and Sts. Peter and Paul get to keep their proper dates, but attendance at Mass is not obligatory.
And don’t get me started on the rules that govern obligatory holy days when they fall on a Saturday or Monday.
Of course, many Catholics’ first recourse in frustrating ecclesiastical matters is to blame “the bishops.” In this case, the current members of the USCCB bear very little culpability for the holy day confusion: the Complementary Norms that function as the United States’ particular law on this matter were voted on in 1991. The decision to transfer Epiphany to a Sunday was made twenty years before that. All those men are retired or have gone to their eternal reward. That means the bishops of today shouldn’t feel so bad about changing this particular law swiftly.
But even then, we cannot place all of the blame on the hierarchical decision makers. All of us, clergy and laity, have allowed this to become the comfortable norm. It is not as if large swaths of people come to Mass on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul anyway. Some priests have been known not to celebrate Mass at all if a holy day of obligation falls on a Monday and Monday usually doesn’t have a daily Mass. And let’s face it, the reason the bishops of the early 1990s took this route surely was a concession to the reality of American life, characterized as it is by obsession with work and by companies that give time off in a limited and begrudging manner. Here in this (previously) Protestant country, the thought must have been: God-fearing people go to church on Sundays. So let’s blend in and move Epiphany to its closest Sunday. How hard can that be?
Tell that to the many Mexican immigrants—unquestionably a hard-working bunch—who pack churches for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They come not under obligation (in this country), but out of devotion and love. In short, they have decided that love for the Virgin of Tepeyac is more important than a day of work. In this, they are quite right. While the importance of Sunday in the life of the Church is ancient and unquestionable, faithful Christians have also recognized the need to celebrate the various feasts of the year on certain venerable days. Liturgically, this preserves the pre-eminence of Sunday as a feast day in itself. Practically, it gives people a break to rest, pray, and celebrate.
In short, we as Catholics must desire this. We must want to take a day off here and there. The concession that led to this jigsaw puzzle of holy days is not just to the reality of being in a Protestant country per se; really, it is to the interminable business cycle and our sense of obligation to display our strong work ethic. We should note that capitalism knows no boundaries. The laws of the market will not stop at the walls we build around it.
Therefore, let me offer a modest proposal: Let’s celebrate all the obligatory holy days of the universal church on the day the Church intends them to be celebrated. Juridically, this would require the bishops of the United States to repeal the decisions that limited the number of obligatory holy days and that moved Corpus Christi, Epiphany, and (in some places) Ascension to Sunday.
But the juridical solution is the least important part. Have a Mass schedule that actually allows people to attend at a decent hour. Catholic organizations—all of them—should give their staff the day off on these days. Those who work in secular professions should take a day off too, using a personal day if necessary. And we should celebrate: with Mass and Vespers, with processions and blessings, with special foods and communal gatherings. In this way, we can shake off some of the dust of our conformity to a vapid and relentless economic system and show the world what true feasting is about. That is, only if we do one more thing: add Our Lady of Guadalupe, the star of the New Evangelization, as a particular holy day for the people of the United States. In this, I believe I have the old ladies in the pew with me.
Rev. Eric J. Banecker is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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