Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I observed during the recent Second Sunday of Advent that some places celebrated the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception instead of the Sunday of Advent. When I checked the Table of Liturgical Days that regulates the precedence of liturgical days to be celebrated, I noticed that the Sunday of Advent is higher on the table than the Marian solemnities. My question is, under what conditions can a Marian solemnity displace a Sunday of Advent? — I.N., Ndola, Zambia
A: The general rule is, as our reader mentioned, that a Sunday of Advent, Lent and Easter are of the second-highest rank in the table of precedence. They share this ranking with Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, and Pentecost, Ash Wednesday the weekdays of Holy Week from Monday to Thursday and weekdays within the Easter Octave.
This means that, under normal circumstances, any solemnity, Marian or otherwise, that falls on one of those days is moved to the nearest liturgically free day. In most cases, this means that if the solemnity falls on a Sunday of Advent, Lent or Easter, it is celebrated on the following Monday.
On some occasions, it is postponed much further as, for example, whenever the Annunciation (March 25) falls during Holy Week it is not celebrated until after the Easter octave. This happened last in 2018 when March 25 coincided with Palm Sunday and was hence transferred to Monday, April 9. Much rarer is the transferal of both St. Joseph (19 March) and the Annunciation. This occurred in 2008 in which St. Joseph was anticipated to March 15, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and the Annunciation postponed until March 31. A similar coincidence will not happen again until 2035.
If the transferred solemnity is also a holy day of obligation, the obligation is also transferred and it is necessary to go to Mass twice, once for Sunday and once for the holy day. In some countries, either the bishops’ conference or the local bishop dispenses the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass on the transferred solemnity.
There can be good reasons, however, for the bishops to desire to maintain a specific feast on a certain date in spite of its being impeded by a celebration of higher rank. Thus, for example, The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in Italy (December 8) is a holy day of obligation and is also a civil national holiday. In such cases, when the bishops foresee that such a feast is going to coincide with a Sunday, they can request an exception from the Holy See for that year. Although the Holy See usually grants such requests, it does not appear willing to grant a permanent exception to the rules. Therefore the bishops must repeat their request each time such a coincidence occurs.
For example, in the case of Italy this year, the president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualterio Bassetti, wrote to the Congregation for Divine Worship on August 5, 2018, requesting permission to celebrate the Immaculate Conception on Sunday, December 8, 2019, instead of the Second Sunday of Advent which had precedence. The prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Robert Sarah, replied on October 8 of the same year (Prot. N. 367/18) granting the request as an indult or exception to the norms for this particular occasion (“pro hac vice”) for Masses with the people.
In his letter, Cardinal Sarah mentioned that the principal motivation for granting the derogation from the norms was the special nature of this solemnity in Italy as a holy day of obligation but also specified that, although the celebration of the Mass of the Immaculate Conception was permitted, in order to conserve the celebration of Advent the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours would be that of the Second Sunday of Advent.
A similar case of the Holy See granting such an indult occurs in Mexico when Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) coincides with a Sunday of Advent. In this case, the date is intimately tied to the historical event of the apparition of Our Lady’s image and has become practically inseparable from the feast day. In this case, the process is similar in which the bishops make a request at least a year before the coincidence occurs and the indult is granted.
There may be other cases around the world that I am unaware of.
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Follow-up: Placement of the Paschal Candle
A reader from Virginia requested some clarification on a recent article.
He wrote: “You cite the 1998 circular from CDW entitled Paschalis Sollemnitatis and mention a U.S. bishops’ document. Which USCCB document are you quoting? Could you comment on its legal standing? In the newest Missale Romanum the last rubric for Pentecost Sunday states that it is ‘desirable’ to place the paschal candle near the baptismal font. The term ‘desirable’ does not seem to me to convey obligation. It vexes me to move the paschal candle hither and yon, depending on the occurrence of a baptism or a funeral, which happens several times monthly and weekly, respectively. The nobility of the paschal candle, not to mention the size and weight of our paschal candle stand, leads me to desire to leave it near the ambo. With a new vestibule about to be completed for our parish church, I would like to find a solution.”
The document of the U.S. bishops, which effectively was not properly cited, was “Built of Living Stones.” This document is classed as “guidelines” and thus is not high level from the legal point of view. It was, however, approved by the full conference of bishops and thus reflects their thought on questions of a church building. It is thus an authoritative document without being strictly legally binding, except where it repeats actual laws.
While the missal effectively renders the placement of the paschal candle at the baptistry as desirable and not therefore obligatory, I think it is quite clear that outside of Easter it should not be left in the sanctuary area, and hence near the ambo is not a possibility. Otherwise, with respect to this sign, there would be no visible difference between Eastertide and the rest of the liturgical year.
If for a good reason it cannot be left in the baptismal font, it can be placed in any convenient and worthy place outside the sanctuary, not excluding the sacristy.
Although it might be vexing at times, there is no alternative to having to move it for baptisms and funerals outside of the Easter season. If it is too heavy, one might consider a wheeled platform that would facilitate mobility while conserving decorum. I observed such a solution for an exceptionally large candle some years ago in Rome.
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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.