Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Something I find very confusing is the occasions when a feast day is assigned to the day of Saturday. For example, when August 6 falls on a Saturday, what Mass is to be celebrated that evening — the Mass of Sunday, or the feast of the Transfiguration? The U.S. bishops recently promulgated guidance on this topic: http://www.usccb.org/about/divine-worship/newsletter/upload/newsletter-2016-05-and-06.pdf. However, it is based on decades-old remarks in Notitiae, which in any event appear to me to be contradictory or at least to lack assurance. Moreover, it appears to me to be inconsistent with the canon law’s definition of a day (CIC 202, § 1). A day seemingly means a day, and if the feast of the Transfiguration is assigned to August 6 and outranks a Sunday in Ordinary Time, then it seems to me the Mass for the Transfiguration should be celebrated on the evening of Saturday, August 6, even if it would satisfy the Sunday obligation. — A.P., Lansing, Michigan
A: In the first place I do not believe that the fact that an official Vatican response is decades old makes any difference to its value unless circumstances have been so altered in the meantime as to make it inapplicable. After all, the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar hail from 1969 and have received only slight modifications over this period.
The aforesaid norms have one or two points that should help us to clarify our response to our reader’s query. First is the definition of a day as applied to a feast (as distinct from a holy day of obligation):
“13. Feasts are celebrated within the limits of the natural day and accordingly do not have Evening Prayer I. Exceptions are feasts of the Lord that fall on a Sunday in Ordinary Time and in the season of Christmas and that replace the Sunday office.”
Second, we have the list of precedence for the celebration of liturgical days:
“5. Feasts of the Lord listed in the General Calendar.
“6. Sundays of the season of Christmas and Sundays in Ordinary Time.”
The feasts of the Lord referred to above under No. 5, and which are celebrated if they coincide with a Sunday of Ordinary Time, are: the Baptism of the Lord (Sunday after Epiphany or Monday after Epiphany if this solemnity falls on January 7 or 8); Presentation of the Lord (February 2); Transfiguration (August 6); Triumph of the Cross (September 14); Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (November 9, considered a feast of the Lord as the official title is first of all to the Most Holy Savior); and Holy Family (Sunday after Christmas or December 30 if Christmas falls on a Sunday).
The documents of the U.S. bishops found in our reader’s link are also useful. This presentation of the difficulty also suggests several possible solutions.
It points out that the difficulty of the occurrence of two consecutive feast days has received two different solutions:
“After much initial discussion, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship addressed the question in 1974 and issued guidelines in a Note, ‘On the Mass of a Sunday or holy day anticipated on the preceding evening’ (Notitiæ 10 , 222-223). The Note emphasizes the importance of the rankings in the Table of Liturgical Days in the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar in choosing the proper celebration:
“In the case of a Sunday following a holy day or vice versa, the best way to achieve completeness in the observance of the entire liturgical day is to apply to the celebration of an evening Mass what is laid down in the case of Evening Prayer, namely: ‘Should … Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the current day’s Office and First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the following day be assigned for celebration on the same day, then Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the celebration with the higher rank in the Table of Liturgical Days takes precedence; in cases of equal rank, Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the current day takes precedence. (no. 2)'”
However, 10 years later, in a lesser-known document, the congregation offered a new solution no longer based on the table of liturgical precedence.
“The Congregation … issued revised criteria based instead on the principle whereby precedence is given to the ‘feast of precept’ (usually translated as a holy day of obligation), that is, favoring the celebration of the day carrying an obligation for the faithful to attend Mass. This rationale, no doubt, was to serve the pastoral needs of the faithful, some of whom attend Saturday evening Masses expecting to experience the Sunday liturgy and thus fulfill their obligation. The newer guidelines (‘De Calendario Liturgico Exarando pro Anno 1984-1985,’ Notitiæ 20 , 603-605) are only available in Latin, and so its provisions are less known to those without access to the Congregation’s journal or a vernacular translation.”
The guidelines issued by the congregation, and now generally applied in most countries, are summarized by the bishops’ newsletter as:
“1. In the celebration of Mass, precedence is always to be given (‘præcedentia semper danda est’) to the feast of precept, regardless of the ranks of the two consecutive feasts; and
“2. At celebrations of Evening Prayer on a holy day of obligation in which the people participate, the older guidelines would still apply, except that the texts of Evening Prayer I of the following day may be replaced by Evening Prayer II of the current day.”
Since there might be a wide range of pastoral circumstances and customs of the faithful, the document also mentions that the diocesan bishop has ample faculties to determine what to do in the case of concurrence of different feast days. And this is why there may be some slight discrepancies from one diocese to another. Most dioceses now publish an annual liturgical ordo which guides the faithful in this respect.
Therefore, barring a different decision from a bishop, what to do if the Transfiguration (which ranks higher on the table than an ordinary Sunday) falls on a Saturday?
Since the Sunday is a holy day of obligation, then this fact means that the 1984 document is applied for the celebration of Mass, and the Mass of Sunday is celebrated on a Saturday evening.
For the Liturgy of the Hours, however, the table of precedence would apply so that vespers on Saturday evening still uses the texts of the feast of the Transfiguration due to its higher rank.
Although not strictly obligatory, in such a case it would be probably preferable to pray evening prayer of the Transfiguration before celebrating the Sunday Mass.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.