Celebrating holy days as they were meant to be

We have now begun the four-and-a-half month span – between the solemnities of the Assumption (Aug. 15) and Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1) – into which all the holy days of obligation (in most U.S. dioceses) are now compressed.

Canon law sets the number at 10, but it allows episcopal conferences to adjust the number. The Vatican can overrule them, and sometimes it does. Thirty years ago, the Japanese bishops proposed eliminating all holy days that didn’t fall on Sunday, except Christmas. That was too much.

The U.S. bishops have gotten away with more modest reductions, but they have nonetheless suppressed four of the code’s holy days, and most dioceses transfer the Ascension to the following Sunday. To make things even easier, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has dispensed with the obligation to attend Mass on the Assumption, All Saints’ Day and the solemnity of Mary, mother of God, if the feast falls on a Saturday or a Monday.  

Of course we can attend Mass every day if we wish, so it’s not as though we are deprived of the sacrament. But some of the more old-fashioned Catholics of my acquaintance say we are getting soft.

They imagine that the compression of holy days is a recent phenomenon. It’s not. It began in 1911. Before then, there were 36 holy days requiring Mass attendance that didn’t fall on Sundays.

It was St. Pius X who made the first big cut. He reduced the total to eight (two others were added after his death). He had his reasons, and they did not include a lack of evangelical fervor – it was he who encouraged frequent, even daily, reception of Communion, and lowered the age for children to receive.

But by Pope Pius X’s time, fewer cultures took holy days off to celebrate with the church. Farmers always had a hard time refraining from servile work. For the rest of the labor force, the Industrial Revolution transformed holy days from sabbatical rest days into something more stressful. Workers had to squeeze in morning Mass before work, often at jobs that expected a 12-hour day. Imagine having to do that three times a month.

I wonder, though, whether we don’t now expect too little of ourselves. Wage and hour laws have ended the long factory days people worked in Pius X’s time. Pope Pius XII ended the midnight fast before holy Communion, opening the door to evening and vigil Masses. (Today the eucharistic discipline is a modest one hour.)

And anyone who really wanted to get serious about holy days could use one of those personal paid days off that we all accrue without using them.

The thing we lose with a diminished attention to holy days is not the opportunity to pray. It is the fact that we don’t all consecrate the day and celebrate together. If we really want a culture committed to the praise and worship of God, we need collective action.

Think about how Americans observe secular holidays. Halloween is more important to today’s young parents than All Saints’ Day. We spend hours dressing children up, decorating the house and going door to door for candy. For a certain age group, it’s the high point of the fall.  

Or consider the rituals, slogans and demonstrations that attend the celebration of Earth Day in spring. We encourage schoolchildren to make sustainable choices and reduce their carbon footprints.  

I love psyching the kids up for Halloween. And Earth Day calls attention to what Pope Francis has deemed a work of mercy. But wouldn’t it be good if we all devoted that kind of thought and effort to the God who created the earth and raises the dead?

Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is

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