Holy days are important feast days in the life of the Catholic community on which, in addition to Sundays, Catholics (who are above the age of reason and who are not sick) are obligated to participate in Mass according to the precepts of the Church. They celebrate an important mystery of the Catholic faith. The number of these holy days can vary from country to country. In the United States, there are six holy days of obligation.
January 1 - Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
This feast, closely connected to the feast of Christmas and celebrated on the octave of Christmas, is the most important and oldest of the major feasts of Mary. Mary's Divine Maternity became a universal feast in 1931. Liturgical reform initiated by Vatican II placed it on January 1 in 1969. Prior to this, the feast celebrated on January 1 was the circumcision of Jesus. Mary is indeed the mother of God and our mother is well. As we begin a new year, it is fitting that we honor and venerate Mary as an essential part of the Catholic Church and of our own lives.
The Ascension of Our Lord - Observed on the seventh Sunday of Easter or on the Thursday after the sixth Sunday of Easter
This feast is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday and commemorates the elevation of Jesus into heaven by his own power in the presence of his disciples. It is narrated in Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, and in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
In March 2000, the Catholic bishops of the Wisconsin province transferred the Feast of the Ascension to the seventh Sunday of Easter, one week before Pentecost Sunday. The Vatican, at the request of the bishops of the United States, granted permission for the date change, giving ecclesiastical provinces in the United States the authority to make the transfer. Observing the Ascension on the seventh Sunday of Easter allows for heightened celebration and an increased opportunity to educate people about the meaning of the feast. Some dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Boston, continue to celebrate this feast day on the original Thursday.
August 15 - The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This is the principal feast of Mary. It has a double purpose: first, the happy departure of Mary from this life and second, the assumption of her body into heaven. Departure from this world and entrance into the next is the same movement in two different expressions. Little is known for certain about the day, year and manner of Mary's death. The dates assigned for it vary between three and fifteen years after Jesus' Ascension. Since Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin, she was spared bodily decay and was taken up body and soul into heaven once her earthly life was over. Thus the Lord has exalted her as Queen over all things.
Mary's Assumption takes nothing away from Christ. On the contrary, it demonstrates the power of his Resurrection. Since Mary was the mother of Christ and the first to believe in him, she was raised by Him to the glorified life of heaven. It is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection" (no. 966).
Mary is not only the first disciple and mother of Jesus; she is also a symbol of the Church and a model for all Christians. By reflecting on the graces God gave the Blessed Virgin, we understand more about his gifts to us. The Assumption of Mary is the realization of the hope that all believers share. Her acceptance into the glory of Heaven is a sign of the promise made by Jesus to all Christians that one day they too will be received into paradise.
November 1 - All Saints' Day
This feast honors all the saints, known and unknown. This feast was first celebrated on May 13, 610, when Pope Boniface IV proclaimed the day Feast of All Holy Martyrs in Rome. The intent was to honor all martyrs who were not included in local records. In 835, Pope Gregory IV changed the date and name to November 1 and Feast of All Saints. There are many saints who are not popularly known or who are not celebrated during the course of the liturgical year. This feast day provides an opportunity to remember and celebrate their lives.
December 8 - The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the belief that God preserved Mary from any inclination to sin, the inheritance of original sin passed on to all humankind from Adam and Eve. Even though Mary was conceived in the normal way by her parents, she was preserved from original sin and redeemed by God’s grace from the moment of her conception. Mary is indeed “full of grace.” The official teaching of the Church says: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all original sin.” What Christ does for everyone who calls upon his name and is baptized (Acts 2:38; 4:12; Romans 10:13) he did for his mother when she was conceived. “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 493]
The feast of the Conception of Mary appeared in the Roman calendar in 1476. After the dogmatic definition by Pope Pius IX in 1854, it became the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
December 25 - Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord
This feast, one of the two major feasts of the liturgical year, celebrates the birth of Jesus. We celebrate the Incarnation, when God became flesh and entered the world. We have a God who loves us and saves us!
When the following holy days fall on a Saturday or Monday, there is no obligation to attend Mass:
Although the obligation to attend Mass when these three holy days fall on a Saturday or Monday is abolished, parishes are to continue to observe these holy days by scheduling one or more Masses at a convenient time so that people who wish to participate are able to do so. This was decided at the November 1991 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The action was confirmed by the Congregation for Bishops on July 4, 1992.