Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: This year the feast of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated on Monday, Dec. 9, in my parish. The feast was transferred to the 9th because 8th fell on a Sunday in Advent, when no other feasts can be celebrated. Though the feast on Dec. 8 is a holy day of obligation, the celebration on the transferred day is not a day of obligation, as the requirement is met by attending Mass on Sunday, Dec. 8. If a person attends Mass on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 7, he fulfills his Sunday obligation. But does he fulfill his obligation of attending Mass on Dec. 8, the feast of Mary Immaculate Conception, which in this case falls on Sunday? — R.C., Calangute, India
A: I must first comment on one of our reader’s premises. It is not quite always accurate to say that the obligation ceases when a holy day is transferred. The precept is connected to the content of the feast, not to the particular date on which it happens to be celebrated.
Thus in some countries where the celebration of the Immaculate Conception was transferred to Monday, Dec. 9, the obligation to attend Mass might have remained.
In those cases Mass must be attended twice. This may be done between the evening of Saturday, Dec. 7, through all of Dec. 9.
We must distinguish between the minimal canonical requirement for fulfilling the precept, which entails assisting at any Catholic Mass on the evening of the feast day, even if the formula of the Mass were not of the feast, and the spiritual benefit of honoring the feasts as fully as possible.
Therefore, for the greatest spiritual profit, and as an expression of communion with the whole Church, a Catholic (if the obligation requires) should attend the Advent Sunday Mass and the Mass of the Immaculate Conception.
Canonically, however, a Catholic would fulfill both obligations if Mass was attended on Saturday and Sunday evenings, even if both Masses happened to use the same prayers and readings. It would also be possible to fulfill the obligations attending two Masses on the Sunday, morning and evening.
What is not possible is to fulfill both obligations attending one single Mass, attempting to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.
In some countries, such as the United States, bishops dispense the faithful from the obligation of assisting at Mass when holy days of obligation fall or are transferred to a Saturday or a Monday. This may be done through a general law promulgated by the bishops’ conference with the approval of the Holy See. This is the case of the United States although, in that country, the Immaculate Conception remains a holy day of obligation when Dec. 8 falls on Saturday or a Monday but not when it falls on a Sunday and the celebration is transferred to Monday, Dec. 9, as happened this year.
Such a dispensation may also be the fruit of a punctual pastoral decision based on the local bishops’ judgment with respect to the faithful’s possibilities of attending Mass two days in a row, one of which is a normal working day.
Perhaps this episcopal dispensation occurred in our reader’s diocese and led him to believe that the obligation automatically ceased when this change came about.
Exceptions to the transfer rule are sometimes made in countries where the date of a feast is deeply imbedded in national culture. For example, in Italy, Spain and some other countries historically tied to Spain, the Immaculate Conception is always celebrated on Dec. 8, even if it falls on a Sunday. This is in part because of the deep historical relationship that Spain has had in the development of the devotion and doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and also because in both Italy and Spain the feast happily coincides with a national civil bank holiday.
An analogous case is that of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico which is a holy day of obligation, but not a civil holiday, in Mexico. The Holy See usually grants a particular dispensation allowing it to be celebrated on a Sunday. Unlike the case of the Immaculate Conception in Spain and Italy, this exception is neither permanent nor automatic. The bishops’ conference must request the dispensation each time that the coincidence arises.
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Follow-up: All Souls’ Commemoration
A reader from the Byzantine tradition offered an informative addition to our Dec. 3 column on All Souls’ Day:
“In your recent article on the All Souls’ Commemoration and its development you mentioned evidence of the seventh-century Spanish practice of celebrating it near Pentecost. Given the Syriac-Greek influence on the Mozarabic and Gallican rites, I wouldn’t be surprised if they followed a tradition similar to the Byzantine one.
“In the Byzantine churches our commemoration of the deceased is intimately tied into our celebration of Easter. We remember them on five Saturdays: the second Saturday before the Great Fast; the second, third, and fourth Saturday of the Fast; and finally on the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday. We also celebrate All the Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. In this way we remember the entire Church as we call to mind the great mystery of our salvation.”
As our reader points out, the Byzantine tradition is slightly different in having several such celebrations rather than a single commemoration, but there can be little doubt that this custom did influence the Hispanic liturgy during this period.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.