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What are holy days of obligation?

Holy days of obligation are days designated by the Church to show reverence for an important aspect of salvation history. Catholics are expected to commemorate the holy days just as we do Sundays: by participating in the Mass and by abstaining as far as possible from labors and business concerns that impede the worship or the relaxation proper to the Lord's day. These obligations hold even if the holy day falls on a weekday.
In the United States, six holy days are observed:

Christmas Day, December 25.
We celebrate the Incarnation: God becoming human in the child Jesus and His poor beginnings in Bethlehem.

The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, January 1. We recall the special role played by the mother of Jesus in salvation history.

The Ascension of the Lord, 40 days after Easter.
Ascension Thursday reminds us that Jesus did not just disappear, but ascended into heaven. Seated at the right hand of the Father, He is still involved in the affairs of this world.

The Assumption of Mary, August 15. We remember that Mary, after completing her life on Earth, was taken up into heaven, body and soul -- a promise that we, too, shall one day follow Jesus and rise from the dead.

All Saints Day, November 1.
We are reminded that many have gone before us, demonstrating that God is real and holiness is possible. We also recall that the saints, through their prayers, are still involved with Christ in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary, December 8.
We reflect upon the wonders of God's works through Mary, and how she was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception, that she might one day be the mother of God's Son, Jesus Christ.

Are these six days the only ones observed in the Church? No. The general law of the Church prescribes four additional days of obligation: Epiphany, January 6; Feast of St. Joseph, March 19; Corpus Christi; Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29. In the United States, these feasts are celebrated on Sundays.

Another question commonly asked has to do with the matter of obligation. If a holy day falls on a weekday, for example, is it really possible for a working person to go to Mass and to abstain from work that interferes with the holy day. And if he cannot do so, will he fall into the darkness of mortal sin?
In answering these questions, we need to remember first that if a holy day of obligation falls on a weekday and one is obliged to work, it will not be possible to abstain from work. Second, most churches offer early morning and late evening Masses on holy days of obligation to accommodate those who work. Vigil Masses also are offered in most parishes. Third, it is therefore a serious matter to refuse to observe a holy day of obligation. Refusing to join one's Catholic family in worship on those days is considered as serious an offense against God as missing Mass on Sunday. If one fails through his or her own fault to fulfill a holy day observance, this matter should be brought up in confession.

The Church presents us with holy days of obligation to help round out our spiritual lives and to draw us closer to God and one another. These days should be viewed as opportunities to grow in grace, rather than as difficult tasks to be carried out.

To obtain a printed copy of the Evangeline Scripts write to:
Evangelization Office
Diocese of Lake Charles
P.O. Box 3223
Lake Charles, La. 70602

Copyright 1991 Diocese of Lake Charles, La.
With Ecclesiastical Approbation
+ Jude Speyrer, S.T.L., D.D.
June 1991
Used with permission