Holydays of Obligation, Part I

Q: Last year we were on vacation overseas on the feast of the Assumption, which is a holyday of obligation. We went to Mass and hardly anybody was there. It seemed like it was an ordinary weekday Mass to everybody there but us. Is it possible that it wasn’t a holyday of obligation there? Or do you think maybe people in that country were just ignoring the obligation?  –Thomas

A: The obligation to attend Mass is addressed in canon 1246.1. First of all, the Sunday obligation is stressed, as Sunday is the day on which traditionally the Easter mystery is celebrated. But the canon also lists those dates which, in addition to all Sundays, are holydays of obligation. Catholic Americans may find parts of the list surprising:

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (December 25)
The Epiphany (January 6)
The Ascension (40 days after Easter Sunday)
Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday)
Mary the Mother of God (January 1)
The Immaculate Conception (December 8)
The Assumption (August 15)
Saint Joseph (March 19)
The Apostles Saints Peter and Paul (June 29)
All Saints (November 1)

On this list there are clearly some holydays of obligation that we Catholics in the U.S. have never heard of. What’s going on?

The answer is found in canon 1246.2. With permission from Rome, the Bishops’ Conference may transfer some holydays of obligation to a Sunday, or suppress them altogether. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) declared that the feasts of Epiphany and Corpus Christi were to be transferred to Sundays. This is why the date of Epiphany varies from year to year, while in much of the world it is always celebrated on January 6, regardless of what day of the week that happens to be. Similarly, many countries will hold public Corpus Christi processions on the traditional Thursday date, while we celebrate the feast on the following Sunday.

In the United States, the feasts of Saint Joseph and of Saints Peter and Paul are not holydays of obligation at all, because our bishops have seen fit to suppress them. This is entirely in accord with canon 1246.2. In contrast, the Immaculate Conception has always been maintained as a holyday of obligation in the U.S. This feast has particular importance in our country, since the U.S. was historically dedicated to Our Lady under that title. As it does not have such historical/cultural importance in other countries (Canada is an example), their bishops have in some cases chosen to suppress the obligation on this feast.

American bishops have also determined that in years when the solemnities of Mary, the Mother of God, the Assumption, and All Saints happen to fall on a Saturday or a Monday, they are not held to be holy days of obligation. Again, this is entirely their prerogative, as per canon 1246.2. In contrast, it may be of interest to our readers to note that in England and Wales, when the Epiphany, the Assumption, Saints Peter and Paul, and All Saints fall on a Saturday or Monday, the solemnity is observed on the Sunday instead. Thus, depending on the country in which you happen to be on a holy day, you may very well find that the Catholic Church there is celebrating the day differently. While Thomas has not mentioned the country to which he traveled last year, this is presumably the reason for the apparent discrepancy: the bishops of that country had declared that the Assumption is either to be celebrated on a Sunday, or suppressed altogether as a holy day of obligation.

So what is a Catholic American required to do, when visiting a country where their holydays of obligation do not accord with our own? Are we obliged to attend Mass if the natives are not?

The answer is found in canon 12.3, one of the very first canons of the code and one which establishes a general principle. It states that laws enacted for a particular territory bind those for whom they were enacted and who have a domicile or quasi-domicile in that territory and are actually residing in it.

This terminology is a bit intimidating, so let’s unpack it. Laws enacted for a particular territory bind those for whom they were enacted—so those laws which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has passed regarding holydays of obligation are binding on Catholics in the United States. So far, so good.

But what does “domicile” or “quasi-domicile” mean? The definition of the first term is found in canon 102.1: one’s domicile is acquired by residence in a territory that is either connected to the intention of remaining there permanently, or in fact protracted for a full five years. In other words, if you move to the United States with the intention of living here indefinitely, the U.S. then becomes your place of domicile, and you are bound to observe the U.S. Bishops’ laws regarding holydays of obligation. Similarly, if you come to the United States with the intention of remaining only a short time (on a vacation, for example) but for whatever reason you end up staying for at least five years, the U.S. is your domicile for the purposes of canon law.

Canon 102.2 provides the definition of “quasi-domicile,” which is acquired by residence in a territory, connected to the intention of remaining there for three months, or in fact protracted for three months. In normal English, this means that if you come to the United States with the plan to live here for three months or more—on a job assignment, say, or a long-term family visit—the United States becomes your quasi-domicile. And if you intend to visit the U.S. for only a brief period of time, but circumstances lead you to remain for at least three months, you acquire a quasi-domicile here. In this case, so long as you reside in the U.S., you are bound to follow the laws made by U.S. Bishops for the Catholics of this country.

Armed with this general rule in canon 12.3 and these definitions, we can now determine what we are obliged to do when we visit another country on vacation, as Thomas did. As American residents, there is no question that our domicile is here in the U.S. If we travel to another country temporarily, staying less than three months, we are still bound to observe the laws of the U.S. Bishops, and are not bound to follow those of the Bishops in the country we are visiting. So if, for example, you visit Italy for a week or so, and happen to be there on the Feast of Saint Joseph—a holyday of obligation which also happens to serve as Italy’s Father’s Day in the civil sphere—you technically are not obliged to attend Mass on that day, even though all the Catholic Italians around you must do so!

On the flip side is the situation that Thomas described. If you visit another country on a vacation of less than three months, you are obliged to attend Mass on the holydays established by the U.S. Catholic Bishops—no matter what the Church does in the country you are visiting. So Thomas was quite right to go to Mass on the Feast of the Assumption last year, even if the Catholic natives did not have to do so. If you stay longer than three months, though, you no longer have to follow the U.S. rules; but you are then obliged to follow those of the country in which you are now living.

The bottom line is this: while we Catholics share a common faith, common worship, and of course a common code of law, there are some matters which may legitimately vary from place to place. Holydays of obligation fall into this category. One can apply the canons of the code to determine whether one must go to Mass on a particular holyday or not. But it is also important to realize that attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a tremendous privilege for any Catholic, on any occasion. A safe rule of thumb, by which you may always know that you are giving glory to God, is to attend Mass on a doubtful holyday of obligation, in no matter which country you happen to be.

Part II can be read here

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