It’s Time to Celebrate! Feasts, Solemnities, and Memorials
It seems that the picture many people have of Christians is one of Lent. That is full of sorrow and penance. However, one of the things I love about being Catholic is that we really know how to celebrate. I mean Lent may last for 40 days and that is a really long time, but Easter is 50 days. That means a full 20% more celebration!
As a family, we try to enter into the life of the church and fast when the church fasts and feast when the church feasts! We also attempt to celebrate in proportion to the way the church celebrates.
One of my favorite resources to navigate the waters of liturgical living is “The Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life” by Kendra Tierney. She also blogs at Catholic All Year.
So with this in mind, let’s take a look at three types of celebrations within the Church: Feasts, Solemnities, and Memorials.
A solemnity is the highest celebration and marks the most important days of the liturgical year. “On these days, we remember the most important people and events in our faith history: we celebrate solemnities for the major Marian feast days, some major events in the life of Jesus, plus the Trinity, Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and . . . St. Joseph!” explains Kendra Tierney.
On solemnities, Mass is celebrated just as on a Sunday, with three readings specific to the occasion. Solemnities begin the night prior (hence the ability to celebrate a vigil Mass). Some solemnities are holy days of obligation, which varies from country to country and is decided by the bishop’s conference. In the United States, that is the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).
“There are feasts that are raised to the rank of solemnities for Catholics, but not universally. The feast of the patron of a religious order, parish, city, or country is raised to a solemnity for members or that order or parish or residents of that place,” explained Kendra. “For instance, the feast of St. Dominic is a solemnity for the Dominican Order, the feast of St. George is a solemnity in England, the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux is a solemnity for members of St. Therese parishes, and the feast of Our Lady, Queen of Angels, is a solemnity for people who live in Los Angeles.” (The Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life by Kendra Tierney, pg. 18).
A solemnity trumps Friday, so if a solemnity falls on a Friday, one does not need to do a Friday sacrifice (Canon 1251).
Catholic Dictionary explains: “The highest liturgical rank of a feast in the ecclesiastical calendar. Besides the movable feasts such as Easter and Pentecost, fourteen solemnities are celebrated in the universal Church, namely: Motherhood of God (January 1), Epiphany (January 6), St. Joseph (March 19), Annunciation (March 25), Trinity Sunday (first after Pentecost), Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday), Sacred Heart (Friday after the second Sunday after Pentecost), St. John the Baptist (June 24), Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (August 15), All Saints (November 1), Christ the King (Last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year), Immaculate Conception (December 8), and Christmas (December 25). (Etym. Latin sollemnis, stated, established, appointed.)”
In our house, a solemnity means party! We attempt to do something, even if it is small, to help our children remember the importance of the day. Many times, this simply means having dessert or a simple craft project when we typically wouldn’t.
Feasts “celebrate saints to whom we should ALL have at least a bit of a devotion: the archangels, most of the apostles, some of the doctors of the church,” states Kendra. Feasts are ranked behind solemnities, so if a feast falls on a Sunday, then the Sunday solemnity trumps the feast and the feast is not celebrated. However, Feasts of the Lord (such as the Transfiguration) are celebrated when they fall on a Sunday. The Gloria is prayed, and two specific readings are used. Notable feasts include all the Apostles’ feast days (except St. Peter and St. Paul on June 29, which is a solemnity), Baptism of the Lord on January 11, the Transfiguration on August 6, and the Nativity of Mary on September 8.
Catholic Dictionary explains feasts are “Days set apart by the Church for giving special honor to God, the Savior, angels, saints, and sacred mysteries and events. Some are fixed festivals, such as Christmas and the Immaculate Conception; others are movable, occurring earlier or later in different years. Festivals are now divided, since the Second Vatican Council, into solemnity (solemnitas), feast (festum), and memorial (memoria) in descending order of dignity. Memorials are further classified as prescribed or optional. Below these are ferial, or week, days with no special ritual rank. And in a class by themselves are the Sundays of the year, and the various liturgical seasons, such as Advent and Lent. All of these represent what is called "sacred times," whose religious purpose is to keep the faithful mindful throughout the year of the cardinal mysteries and persons of Christianity.”
A memorial is third in rank. We can choose to remember the life of a specific saint if we have a devotion. There are specific opening prayers for Mass. Specific readings for Mass are available, but they may not be utilized as not to disrupt the cycle of daily readings. Memorials during Lent and December 17-24 are celebrated as commemorations. This means the opening prayer for the memorial is used, but everything else comes from the regular texts of the day. It should be noted they do not interrupt your Lenten penances unless a special dispensation is given by your local bishop.
Catholic Dictionary defines memorial as: “Religious commemorations, especially the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Unlike other memorials, however, the Mass is no ordinary commemoration. It does recall the mysteries of Christ's life and particularly his Crucifixion. The Mass, however, "is no more empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers Himself a most acceptable victim to the eternal Father, as He died upon the cross" (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 68). (Etym. Latin memorialis, belonging to memory, from memoria, memory.)”
Additionally, the classification of a particular celebration can change depending on location. Personal devotion can also change one’s celebration of the day. For instance, in our household, we celebrate patron saints (St. Augustine, St. Francis Xavier, St. Gianna, St. Faustina, St. Gabriel the Archangel, and St. Joseph) all with the fanfare of a solemnity, despite the liturgical calendar ranking. This includes a special dessert and we attempt to attend Mass that day.
We hope this makes the various liturgical celebrations easier to understand! For an easy graphic, check out this guide from FOCUS. For ideas on how to celebrate various solemnities, feasts, and memorials, check out Catholic All Year and Catholic Icing.