Holy days of obligation are feast days on which Catholics are required to attend Mass and to avoid (to the extent that they are able) servile work. The observance of Holy Days of Obligation is part of the Sunday Duty, the first of the Precepts of the Church, and are listed in Canon 1246 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Holy Days of Obligation are days other than Sundays on which Catholics are required to participate in the Mass, the primary form of worship. Any feast celebrated on a Sunday, such as Easter, falls under normal Sunday Duty and thus isn’t included in a list of Holy Days of Obligation.
There are currently 10 Holy Days of Obligation in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and five in the Eastern Catholic Churches; in the United States, only six Holy Days of Obligation are observed.
Solemnity of Mary
The role that the Blessed Virgin played in the plan of salvation
Christ’s revelations to man
Solemnity of St. Joseph
The life of the foster father of Jesus Christ
40 days after Easter
When the risen Christ ascended into heaven
Thursday after Trinity Sunday
The institution of the Sacrament of Holy Communion
Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
The two greatest apostles, whose martyrdom established the preeminence of the Church at Rome
The Blessed Virgin Mary’s death and her assumption into heaven
All Saints Day
The martyrdom of Christian saints
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
The conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne
The birth of Christ
What Is an Obligation?
A lot of people misunderstand what it means to say that Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. This isn’t an arbitrary rule, but part of general moral life—the need to do good and avoid evil. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Para. 2041) describes the obligations listed in the Precepts of the Church as “the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” These are things that, as Christians, Catholics should want to do anyway; the Church uses the Precepts of the Church (of which the listing of Holy Days of Obligation is one) simply as a way to remind adherents of the need to grow in holiness.
What the Church Prescribes
The Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church lists (in Canon 1246) the 10 universal Holy Days of Obligation, though it notes that each country’s bishops’ conference can, with the permission of the Vatican, modify that list:
Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.
Norms for the United States
The bishops of the United States petitioned the Holy See in 1991 to remove three of the universal Holy Days of Obligation—Corpus Christi (the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ), Saint Joseph, Saints Peter and Paul—and to transfer the celebration of Epiphany to the nearest Sunday. Thus, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) lists the following Holy Days of Obligation in the United States:
January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Moreover, “Whenever January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, or August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, or November 1, the solemnity of All Saints, falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.”
In addition, the USCCB received permission in 1999 for each ecclesiastical province in the United States to decide whether Ascension would be celebrated on its traditional day (Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday) or transferred to the following Sunday (43 days after Easter).
Holy Days of Obligation in the Eastern Catholic Churches
The Eastern Catholic Churches are governed by their own Code of Canons of Oriental Churches, which lists the following Holy Days of Obligation in Canon 880:
“Holy days of obligation common to all the Eastern Churches, beyond Sundays, are the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Dormition of the Holy Mary Mother of God and the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul except for the particular law of a Church sui iuris approved by the Apostolic See which suppresses holy days of obligation or transfers them to a Sunday.”
What are the Holy Days of Obligation?
According to the Code of Canon Law, Sunday, the day we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, is always observed as the foremost holy day of obligation for the universal Church. (The obligation involved is simply the duty to attend Mass on that day.) The Code also lists ten other holy days of obligation: Christmas; the Epiphany; the Ascension of our Lord; the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ); the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; Mary’s Immaculate Conception; her Assumption; the Solemnity of St. Joseph; the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul; and All Saints Day. The Code notes that the conference of bishops can reduce the number of holy days of obligation or transfer them to Sunday with the approval of the Holy Father. (Confer the Code of Canon Law, #1246.)
In the United States, the Epiphany is transferred to the Sunday after January 1, and Corpus Christi is transferred to the second Sunday after Pentecost. At their November, 1991 meeting, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States decided to retain as holy days of obligation the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1), Ascension Thursday (40 days after Easter), the Assumption of Mary (August 15), All Saints Day (November 1), the Immaculate Conception (December 8), and Christmas (December 25). However, whenever the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; the Assumption; or All Saints Day falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is dispensed, meaning that the day is still a “holy day” but a person is not required to attend Mass. For example, if Christmas falls on a Saturday, the obligation remains to attend Mass; on the other hand, if the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1) also falls on a Saturday, it remains a holy day but without the obligation to attend Mass. The Vatican confirmed this decision on July 4, 1992, and it became effective on January 1, 1993.
Nevertheless, we should not forget the importance of these holy days, whether or not there is the “legal” obligation to attend Mass. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council stated, “Thus recalling the mysteries of the redemption, [the Church] opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace” (#102). Therefore, the importance of attending Mass on Sunday or any other holy day is not simply because of an obligation, but why it is an obligation. Our lives are so busy, and we face so many distractions. We could lose sight of God or become numb to His presence. Maybe we do have to sacrifice to attend Mass by rearranging our schedule or suffering some inconvenience to the normal course of life. So what? Our cherishing the mysteries of our salvation should take precedence over the exigencies of living in this world. Remember at the Last Supper, Jesus reminded the apostles that while they live in the world, they are not of this world (John 17:13-19). The holy days help us to remember the same. Therefore, we must pause to ponder, celebrate, and live the mystery of salvation by marking each Sunday, these special holy events, and the lives of those who are exemplars of faith with the offering of the Holy Mass.