Holy Days of Obligation. It’s a phrase that many modern Catholics find repugnant. I know plenty of devout Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday, but rarely observe those Holy Days of Obligation (with the exception of Christmas). Many consider the chosen dates to be arbitrary, and therefore see no reason why they should be inconvenienced with the requirement to attend Mass. Just two weeks ago, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the eight Holy Days of Obligation in America (2-3 of which have already been transferred to Sundays). When I attended Mass at the church where I work, there were probably three times as many people as usually attend daily Mass, and maybe half the amount that regularly attend Mass on Sundays. I suspect that perhaps a quarter of my students attended Mass, and that might be generous.
Many people consider Holy Days of Obligation to be an inconvenience. And to a certain extent, I can sympathize. Getting to Mass for the Immaculate Conception was inconvenient for both my husband and me. Andrew was up even earlier than usual to get to Mass before work. I had no choice but to attend the 7PM Mass after work, meaning that my weekly supermarket trip was delayed for nearly an hour and I didn’t get home until 9:30. Both Andrew and I were left more tired than usual, a reality for which John showed us no mercy. I can’t say that it was the most restful day, but we did what we needed to do to get to Mass. We made all sorts of sacrifices because we see Holy Days of Obligation as having value.
And that’s where I cannot sympathize with those who are inconvenienced by Holy Days, and therefore choose to forego them. Sometimes the things that are most inconvenient have the most value. Sometimes having John in our lives can be very inconvenient. Andrew and I cannot have date nights whenever we want anymore. We can’t even run to the store whenever we want anymore. Most things in our lives take a lot more planning now. We can’t just get up and go. We can’t just make our own schedules- now we have to take John’s schedule into account before we make any decisions. We have turned down countless opportunities to spend time with friends, and have been late to so many more events. Making plans is a lot more difficult now, and taking John’s schedule into account can be inconvenient at times, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it.
In the end, a lot of decisions are made based on our priorities. Our priorities will determine what kind of people we are, what kind of choices we will make. Andrew and I have turned down dinner invitations and been late to parties (or early) because John’s well-being is a priority to us. If John needs a nap, we will show up late. If bedtime is looming near, we will leave early. If John is taking his first good nap of the week and it interferes with our regular Mass, we will attend a later one, or go to a different church. Because John will take priority over any single party or dinner date, even over a specific Mass or church. It might be inconvenient, but it’s utterly worth it.
And yet, there are some things that have priority over John. Like God. If I have to choose between waking John up from his nap and missing my last opportunity for Mass, I will wake him up every time. Even if it’s inconvenient. Even if it means a grumpy baby. Even if it means being a bit more sleep-deprived. Because God is a priority in my life, and I will choose to follow Him even when it’s inconvenient.
There are plenty of people who have their priorities out of whack, who grow slack in their convictions when they are faced with any inconvenience. And Holy Days of Obligation can often be inconvenient. Most of us do not get the day off from work, and therefore are left with very few options for Mass. Many of us will not find it easy to rearrange our schedules to accommodate an hour for Mass and travel time when we are not used to it. And I’m sure the vast majority of us will not be able to treat a feast day as though it were a Sunday, leisurely and prayerfully. We do not live in a culture that is very accepting of days dedicated to prayer, leisure, and family. Our culture is often hostile to both God and family, and our productivity is our most valuable asset.
We do not live in a culture that makes it easy to keep holy the Sabbath. I’ve had students confess that they missed class because their parents were at work, out shopping, or even worse, watching football. In the list of priorities, God often seems to be dead last. But even those families who do attend Mass on Sundays, as well as on Holy Days of Obligation, often do not make this commitment overly appealing. Children lament the fact that they have to sit in church for an hour. Teens moan about the early rising. Adults complain about the bad music, the boring homilies, the frustrating fellow parishioners. But they continue to attend out of a sense of obligation. While their perseverance and dedication are to be admired, attending out of obligation is not ideal. It is a step in the right direction, but ultimately, it would be preferable if people attended because they wanted to be there, not because they had to be.
For many of us, the Sabbath is limited to the one hour that we attend Mass, and if we are of the proper age, it might stretch to include an hour or two of religious education. Families will wake up early, attend Mass and CCD classes, and then go on with their day. They will attend barbecues, go shopping, finish homework, complete chores. They will treat the rest of Sunday as if it was any other day of the week. In many minds, Sunday Mass, and for those rare few, Holy Days of Obligation, are just items to be punched on their tickets, tasks to be crossed off their to-do list. They attend out of a sense of obligation, but often obligation is just not enough. People need something more.
Sundays were meant to be more. Holy Days of Obligation were meant to be more. When I was growing up, there were a few years where our Catholic grammar school was closed on Holy Days of Obligation. I would attend the noon Mass with my mother and siblings, and we would normally do something fun afterward- lunch, or ice cream, or a trip to the park. Eventually, the administrators at our school realized that most students were not attending Mass on Holy Days, and so they changed the policy- students were to attend school on Holy Days of Obligation, and we would have a school Mass.
When I was in the convent, Holy Days of Obligation, and feast days in general, were a big deal. Even when school was in session, we could always be sure of something out of the ordinary later in the day. Sometimes we ordered Chinese food. Other times we went to visit one of the other houses for dinner. When the high school wasn’t in session for a Holy Day, our own classes would be cancelled, and we had some extra free time at home or else took a day trip to visit another community. And at the end of the day, there was always cake.
Holy Days of Obligation were treated as true feast days. The whole day had a sort of glow to it as we anticipated time spent with family and friends, special meals, delicious desserts. It was a tradition that I really loved, one that I wanted to keep up even after I left the convent. I haven’t always been very faithful to that, but I hope that one day it will be a tradition that I will impart to my children, leaving them with memories of Mass as a family, afternoons spent at the neighborhood park, trips to get ice cream after dinner. I want to make Holy Days of Obligation, as well as Sundays, special for my family; hopefully then, they will feel less like an obligation, and more like a feast, a holy day.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!