Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum University.
Q: Every June 29 the Church celebrates the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, even if this date falls on a Sunday. If I am not mistaken, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome also holds this distinction — that it “trumps” the ordinary Sunday celebration if it happens to fall on that day. Yet other solemnities and feasts that seem to have more doctrinal and spiritual importance than those, specifically those of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are moved to the Saturday before or the Monday after if they fall on a Sunday. Given the importance of Sunday in our faith, how is it determined which celebrations are able to “trump” a Sunday and others are not? — A.H., New York
A: This question demonstrates the fact that what might appear as obvious to those of us who daily grapple with liturgical matters is not necessarily so obvious to the faithful. This is a very good question from an attentive Catholic and reminds us that occasionally it is good to explain these concepts which can easily cause confusion.
The liturgical calendar developed over many centuries and has been organized in several different ways. For several reasons the liturgical celebration of the proper prayers of a Sunday, especially outside of the major seasons, has been constantly in danger of being substituted by the celebration of popular saints and devotions. On several occasions the Church has had to intervene to restore the Sunday celebration to the central role it should have in the piety of the faithful.
The most recent attempts are the present rules promulgated after the Second Vatican Council. These rules established a new hierarchy of feasts and celebrations and a new table of liturgical days which indicates the precedence of one feast over another. The principal divisions of these celebrations are in solemnities, feasts, obligatory memorials and optional memorials.
There was also an effort to reinforce the Sunday celebration, which henceforth could only be supplanted by major celebrations.
The Sundays of the major liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter are higher on the table than solemnities, and thus solemnities which fall on these Sundays are usually transferred.
Since the Immaculate Conception falls during Advent, it is thus transferred except in some countries such as Spain and Italy, in which it is also a public holiday and is always celebrated on Dec. 8.
The same thing sometimes happens to St. Joseph and the Annunciation, which always fall during Lent or Easter. Indeed next year, in which the Annunciation would fall on Good Friday, it will be moved until after the Easter octave and will be celebrated Monday, April 4.
Some countries receive a special exception to the general rule from the Holy See on an ad hoc basis. For example, permission is practically always given to the Mexican bishops to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, even if it coincides with a Sunday of Advent. This permission is not extended beyond the national frontiers.
For the Sundays of Christmas and ordinary time, the rules are less strict. Even in this case, however, only solemnities and feasts of the Lord supplant the Sunday. All other feasts and memorials are omitted if they coincide with the Lord’s Day.
This is why the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul replaces the Sunday; the same holds for any other such solemnity, even if it is not usually a holy day of obligation (such as the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24).
The special category of the feasts of the Lord also substitute the Sunday. These differ from solemnities insofar as they are celebrated as feasts (that is, with Gloria but with only two readings and no Creed) unless they coincide with a Sunday or are usually celebrated on a Sunday anyway. They are the following:
— The Baptism of the Lord, celebrated on the Sunday after Jan. 6 (or, where the solemnity of the Epiphany is transferred to the Sunday that occurs on Jan. 7 or 8, on the following Monday);
— The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, celebrated on the Sunday within the octave of Christmas, or, if there is no Sunday, on Dec. 30;
— The Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on Feb. 2;
— The Transfiguration of the Lord, celebrated on Aug. 6;
— The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on Sept. 14 (in some countries, especially in Latin America, it is celebrated on May 3 for historical and pastoral reasons);
— The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, celebrated on Nov. 9. (This is a feast of the Lord because the basilica was originally dedicated under the title of the Most Holy Savior and this remains part of its official title: “Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran.” The dedications to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist were added in the 10th and 12th centuries, respectively.)
No other feasts or memorials supplant the Sunday. For a grave reason, a bishop may order or permit a special Mass to be celebrated on a Sunday of ordinary time, such as a Mass for peace during a major crisis.
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