Holy Days of Obligation: Celebrating the Major Events in Christ’s Life

Fr. Mike Liledahl

Holy Days of Obligation: Celebrating the Major Events in Christ’s Life

Quick! How many Holy Days of Obligation do Catholics have? If you are in the know you might have a couple questions to ask such as which country am I in and what day of the week do certain dates fall on this year? And these are questions that need to be answered in order to give the correct answer to this question. But, most people when asked will list maybe 5 or 6 Holy Days of Obligation. But the answer is that there are almost 60 Holy Days of Obligation each and every year! Let’s take some time to look at what Holy Days of Obligation are, when they are, and why some places have more and some less.

A Holy Day of Obligation is a day in which the Church obliges one to attend Mass. It’s one of the few things in the Church that is pretty straightforward with the title. Some of the big Feasts and Solemnities fall into this category, such as Christmas and All Souls and the great Marian celebrations of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. But these four, plus other big feasts don’t quite add up to almost 60 days of obligation. That’s because many of us when thinking of Holy Days of Obligation forget to include each and every Sunday as a Holy Day of Obligation! But every Sunday is also a Holy Day of Obligation, we are obliged by the church to go to Mass on that day.

This is why Easter is usually not listed when people make a list of Holy Days of Obligation, because Easter is always on a Sunday and is thus already an Obligation. But the other days that are usually given on a list of Holy Days of Obligation are feasts that usually are tied to particular dates on the calendar and so depending on the year can fall on different days of the week. For example, December 8th is always the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, but because the 8th of December can fall on any of the days of the week it is designated a Holy Day of Obligation apart from the usual Sunday requirement.

If that isn’t confusing enough, we can move onto regional differences. The Vatican has given the authority to national bishops conferences, basically the collective body of each country’s bishops, to determine for their own countries which feasts will be considered obligatory. Thus, if you are in the United States it may be a Holy Day of Obligation but it may not be in Canada or in Mexico. Adding a little bit to the confusion, oftentimes in the United States if the feast or solemnity falls on a Saturday or Monday the bishops will not make it a Holy Day of Obligation as it is on the day right before or after Sunday, always a Holy Day of Obligation. So thus it is possible that a feast could be a Holy Day of Obligation one year and the next year it might not be. 

I know this is all confusing, and so a good way to look at it isn't to get bogged down in the details of whether or not it is an obligation where you may be, but just to go to Mass. That’s always the easiest solution as our participation at Mass is the highest form of worship we can offer the Father. Holy Days of Obligation are intended to keep us mindful as we go through our lives of the major feasts celebrating the major events and moments in the life of Jesus Christ and his Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

If you need some help in figuring out if a Solemnity or Feast is a Holy Day of Obligation there are plenty of websites to look at, but the easiest thing to do would be to call your local parish and ask, because they will also be able to tell you their Mass times so that you can be sure to fulfill your obligation on the Holy Day!