Friday is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Rather than writing about the meaning of the feast itself, I’d like you to think with me about the whole idea of “holy days of obligation” (which this Holy Day is).
A “day of obligation” means that, absent a good reason, Catholics are obliged to assist at Mass that day and to abstain from unnecessary “servile work.” It’s just like a Sunday in that regard. What’s the point? Is it just another nonsensical burden that goes with being a good Catholic? Is it something from the past that makes no sense in today’s world? Let’s take a look.
The idea of “holy days of obligation” does originate in a world very different from ours, a world of agricultural labor in the days before time-clocks or legal holidays. The Church calendar was the rule people lived by, and as early as the fourth century days of special commemoration – often of Mary – were days of gathering to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. (“Daily Mass” didn’t exist as a custom yet.) Through the centuries the number of these days grew – and by the medieval period were greeted as “days off” for the populace (before the emergence of weekends or legal holidays), especially for the agricultural laborers known as serfs. (Hence the prohibition on doing “servile” work on a holy day.) In addition to being celebrations of the salvation brought by Christ, they were a way for the Church to lighten the burdens on the poor by providing days on which people could not be forced to work. Labor stopped after Noon on Saturday for the Vigil of Sunday; Sunday itself was a day of rest. And the feasts of the universal church, of the region, of the local town, perhaps of the patron saint of one’s guild, and other traditional days (and their Vigils) brought the total times of rest in the year to about 80 complete days and 70 partial days.
The end of Christian governance of the wider culture, the shift to the secular calendar, and the movement of masses of people to cities during the industrial age together heightened the tensions between the Christian vision of a humane balance between work and festival and contemporary life. Industrial barons exploited people for all the labor they could (a six- or six-and-and-a-half day workweek of 70 to 80 hours was the norm, and often exceeded). Movements to ensure the rights of workers arose in both church (the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum in 1891 was a landmark) and civil culture so that times of work and leisure were no longer governed by the church calendar of feasts; and the number of holy days was reduced accordingly. (In 1911 there were still 36; that year Pope Pius X reduced the number to 8). Changes in that list can be made by national bishops’ conferences, and in the U.S. we now have the six familiar ones because of our history.
So what should we make of holy days of obligation today? First, remember that they arose from the earliest centuries of the Church to be opportunities to recognize and celebrate the great events of our salvation, and so people gathered for the Eucharist on those days. We miss something that the church calendar wants to teach us if we make days like All Saints’ or Immaculate Conception “just another day.” The Catholic community gathering for Mass on what is “just another day” for the culture around us also makes a statement: We are aware of being distinctive, called by God to be a “light to the nations.” We cannot afford to be invisible.
On Holy Days of Obligation our parish adds a Vigil Mass at 5:30pm the evening before, and another Mass at 7:30 on the evening of the Holy Day itself, in addition to the usual 8am and 9am Masses. If it is possible for you to come to Mass, you should do so. Otherwise, make the day special in some way; honor the twin imperatives of our tradition: Holy Days remind us to thank God for what He has done for us, and to balance work with festivity. Don’t be only a worker on Mary’s day. Until next week, peace.