When Christmas Falls on a Monday: Holydays of Obligation, Part III

Q:  If a solemnity is a precept [i.e., a holyday of obligation] in my country and it falls on a Saturday or a Monday, is going to just one Mass enough to fulfill the precept?

For example, if a festivity is a precept in my country and it falls on a Saturday, if I go to Mass on Saturday, after 4 pm, do I need to go to Mass again the next day, on Sunday, to fulfill the precept of the Church? Or if the festivity falls on a Monday, does going to Mass on Sunday, after 4 pm, exempt me from going to Mass the following day, on Monday?

I have read defenders of different positions on the subject … [and] most of the authors have doctorates in Canon Law or Moral Theology.  This question … is far from being a question any canonist could answer…. –Fábio

A: This question was asked a while ago, but since Christmas Day happens to fall on a Monday this year, it may be worth taking a look at it now.  The answer should be obvious to most Catholics; but there are a surprising number who either don’t know, or at least claim not to know what the Church’s rules are in this sort of situation.  Unfortunately, Fábio apparently fell into the latter category, as he persisted in arguing in multiple emails that this is a grey area with several legitimate interpretations.  It’s not.

As we saw in “How Can You Get a Permanent Dispensation From Attending Sunday Mass?” the Church holds that Sunday is the “primordial holyday of obligation” (c. 1246.1), and thus the faithful are obligated to participate in the Mass on Sundays (c. 1247).  Mass on Saturday evening—the vigil of Sunday—of course, fulfills our obligation: as canon 1248.1 declares,

A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.

So a Catholic fulfills his obligation to attend Sunday Mass either by attending Mass on Sunday itself, or on the vigil of that day.  Back in 1953, Pope Pius XII helpfully defined “vigil” for us as “not before 4 PM” (Latin text here, on p. 23), which is why we can satisfy our Sunday obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening at 4:00 or later.  See “Which Mass Fulfills My Sunday Obligation?” for more on this.

None of this should be surprising.  But Christmas Day is also a holyday of obligation as per the abovementioned canon 1246.1—and like a normal Sunday, it is possible to fulfill your Christmas obligation by attending Mass either (a) on Christmas Day itself, or (b) on the vigil of Christmas at 4 PM or later (c. 1248.1 again).  And this year, the vigil of Christmas happens to fall … on a Sunday.  So what if you attend Mass on Sunday evening?  Do you fulfill both obligations simultaneously?  The potential confusion (or alleged confusion) about what we Catholics are actually obliged to do in this scenario should be evident.

In reality, there should be nothing terribly complicated about sorting this out!  There are two back-to-back obligations, and all that we need to do is consider each obligation separately in turn.  So let’s do that now.

This year, the Fourth Sunday of Advent is December 24.  Our obligation to participate in the Mass is satisfied by attending Mass either (a) on Saturday, December 23 at 4 PM or later; or (b) some time on Sunday, December 24.

As for Christmas Day, we fulfill our obligation by attending Mass either (a) on the vigil, December 24 (which is Sunday), at 4 PM or later; or (b) some time on Monday, December 25.

Since we Catholics are required to attend Mass for each of these days, we must attend two Masses.  Period.

What may complicate matters in the  minds of some Catholics is the fact that you fulfill your  obligation by attending any Catholic Mass during the timeframes provided above.  It could be a funeral Mass, or a wedding Mass, or an anniversary Mass, or some special votive Mass, or any number of other possibilities.  As we saw in “Which Mass Fulfills My Sunday Obligation?” (which was already mentioned above), you can fulfill your obligation to attend Mass on Sunday without specifically attending a Mass at which the Sunday readings/Gospel are read.  The same is also true of other holydays of obligation—including Christmas.

So, if a Catholic wishes to attend Sunday Mass on Sunday evening, fine!  That will fulfill his Sunday obligation, even if that Mass is the Mass for Christmas Eve.  He then must attend another Mass on Christmas Day itself, to satisfy his obligation for that holyday.

Many, many responsible parish priests have already taken great care to explain to the faithful of their parishes how to figure out which two Masses will satisfy this double-obligation.  Here’s an American parish which provided a helpful checklist, instructing parishioners to choose one scheduled Mass from each column (see page 5), so as to ensure that they attend one Mass for each obligation.  And here is another parish in a different part of the U.S., where the pastor clearly explains (on page 6) the double-obligation as was just stated above.

Returning to Fábio’s original question, you really have to wonder who these people are who claim that the law in this regard is unclear, with their alleged “doctorates in Canon Law or Moral Theology.”  It must be emphasized that there is nothing ambiguous about the Church’s law here at all.  Simply declaring that there are differing opinions about a cut-and-dried canonical matter does not automatically make them all legitimate interpretations of the law.

That said, however, it’s important to bear in mind that in exceptional circumstances—for example, in mission territory with few priests, who must travel around celebrating Masses in different places every week—Catholics certainly can’t be faulted if there’s a genuine inability to get to Mass twice in two days.  Depending on the local situation, it is theoretically possible for a diocesan bishop to dispense the faithful of his diocese from attending Mass on either a Sunday or another holyday of obligation like Christmas; but this sort of decision will be prompted by a real inability or at least a difficulty in fulfilling the obligation—not by any perceived “inconvenience” resulting from attending Mass two days in a row.

Speaking of which, it is indeed sad that so many Catholics regard their attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a burden!  As these African Catholics point out, attending Mass is a privilege, not just an obligation.  With good reason the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11; see also CCC 1324), because there truly is no higher, greater way to worship God than to offer Him His own Son, Who died for us on the cross and Whose Sacrifice is re-presented at every Mass.  As the Catechism rightly declares, Holy Mass is “the liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished” (CCC 1332), and thus we Catholics should, if anything, be striving to do everything humanly possible to be present at Mass as often as we can.

As we have seen so many times before in this space, canon law follows theology.  That’s why in this case, it clearly articulates that we are not to cut corners when it comes to fulfilling our obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and on other holydays of obligation.  If people with “doctorates in Canon Law or Moral Theology” try to tell you otherwise … simply show them what the Catechism teaches and what the Code of Canon Law requires.

This is Part III of an occasional series on the topic of Holydays of Obligation.  Previous articles on the same subject can be read here:

Holydays of Obligation, Part I
Holydays of Obligation, Part II

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