It’s the new year, and that means cracking open a new calendar. If you’re Catholic, you may have received a calendar from your Church. But upon opening it, you’ll not only find the holidays that you’re used to celebrating, but all sorts of celebrations in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. Days of the week may be marked “memorial”, “optional memorial,” or “solemnity”. What do those terms mean? What is the difference between an “optional memorial” and a “feast day”? Why are some days “ordinary” and others aren’t?
Except for commonly known celebrations (like Easter and Christmas), most of us Catholics group all liturgical celebrations together and call them ‘feast days’. And while feast days are an important part of the liturgical calendar for the Catholic Church, feast days are only one of three different categories of celebrations throughout the year.
These celebrations aren’t random days that the Church sets aside to honor saints, devotions, and holy days, though. Instead, the Church has a regular schedule divided into three categories: solemnities, feast days, and memorials. Here’s a quick explanation of those terms and what they mean for lay Catholics.
Solemnities hold the highest degree of Catholic celebrations. They celebrate the most important mysteries of the Catholic faith. Some commonly known Solemnities include Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, and Christ the King. Some days that honor Mary are also Solemnities, like the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, and the Annunciation. Saints that played an important role in salvation history also are celebrated with a Solemnity (think Saint Joseph, Saint John the Baptist, and Saints Peter and Paul).
Some Solemnities are always celebrated on the same calendar date – for instance, Christmas will always be celebrated on December 25. Others will change from year to year based on other celebrations. For example, Pentecost is celebrated fifty days after Easter.
What does that mean for those of us who sit in the pews? Mass on a Solemnity will remind you a lot of a Sunday Mass. The Gloria is sung, three readings will be read, petitions will be offered, and in most cases, a specific preface will be prayed. Although Solemnities are beautiful parts of the Catholic liturgy, most of them are not holy days of obligation.
Second in line of importance in the liturgical calendar are feast days. These are special days set apart on the liturgical calendar to celebrate the lives of the saints and other events in the life of Christ. Some of the most well known feast days are the feasts of the apostles, the feast of the Holy Angels, the Visitation, the Presentation, and the Baptism of the Lord.
What does this mean if you find yourself in the pews on a feast day? The priest may include a reflection on the life of the saint in his homily. Also, the Gloria is a requirement of these days, but the Creed won’t be said.
Memorials are of third importance in the liturgical calendar. They are classified as either obligatory or optional. Memorials are a celebration of the lives of saints. Some saint memorials are obligatory – which means the memorial must be observed. For instance, the memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, celebrated on January 28, is an obligatory memorial.
Other memorials are optional. An example of an optional memorial is that of Saint Pope John Paul the Great, celebrated on October 22.The new Roman calendar has ninety-five optional memorials.
For a full list of saints feasts and memorials this year, check out this list from Carol D’Annunzio at Simple Catholic Living.
How did the Church decide which memorials were obligatory and which were optional? The Church only observes obligatory memorials for saints who are of “universal significance” in the liturgical calendar.
What does this mean for us as Catholics? Unlike Solemnities and feast days, the Gloria does not have to be sung during Mass. But if you’re pumped about attending a daily Mass and your patron saint just happens to have an optional memorial, don’t get your hopes up to high. Chances are, the priest could choose to not celebrate the optional memorial. But if you’re excited for an obligatory memorial, you’ll be sure to hear about the saint whose memorial is being celebrated that day
Wait. . . what?
If reading through this list of solemnities, feast days, and obligatory and optional memorials has left you scratching your head, you’re not alone.
If you’re more of a visual learner, you’ll love this info-graphic that was designed by Jonathan Teixeira from the FOCUS blog!
The confusion that can sometimes ensue over celebrations in the liturgy is why the Bishops’s Committee on the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops publishes the Ordo every year. In it, you’ll find an outline for the celebrations throughout the liturgical year. Pick one up at your local Catholic bookstore, or online here.