Q. I’m confused about Holy Days of Obligation and Vigil Masses. How do I know that I fulfilled my obligation? How do I know which Mass “counts”?
A. This is understandable since it is, quite simply, confusing.
First of all, on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation the faithful find themselves at the intersection of Canon Law and Liturgical Law, and knowing where one ends and the other begins isn’t easy. Second, the Liturgical Law which governs the calendar is not simple because it regulates something with many variables and caveats. However, the purpose of the canonical element is simple: to make sure the faithful are getting to Mass. Moreover, the purpose of the liturgical element is likewise simple: to ensure the faithful are able to celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s life, and that the principle mystery, the Paschal Mystery, is not obscured.
The fulfillment of the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and other Holy Days of obligation is a canonical judgment and is determined simply by what day and time a person goes to Mass. To fulfill one’s Sunday obligation, one must attend Mass either on Sunday itself or the evening before (Code of Canon Law 1248). The canonical day is from midnight to midnight, and canonical consensus indicates that the “evening” begins at 4 p.m. (Canon 202). To fulfill one’s Sunday obligation, one must attend Mass between 4 p.m. on Saturday and midnight on Sunday. The same is the case for Holy Days of Obligation: one must attend Mass on that day, or at 4 p.m. or later on the preceding day.
It is frequently said that so long as the readings are for the Sunday or Holy Day, the Mass “counts” to fulfill the obligation. But that isn’t entirely true. The readings to be used are determined by Liturgical Law. Generally, the readings for the Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation will be read at a Mass that fulfills one’s obligation. However, this is not always the case, so it is a poor determination of whether or not one’s obligation has been fulfilled. For instance, on a Sunday in Ordinary Time (or 4 p.m. or later on a Saturday afternoon in Ordinary Time), a wedding Mass with the readings and prayers for the ritual Mass for marriage may be used. In this case the readings would not be for the Sunday, but one’s Sunday obligation would still be fulfilled. So, the fulfillment of one’s obligation is not determined by what readings were read, but rather, on what day and at what time one attends Mass.
Another point of confusion can arise when Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation fall on consecutive days, which will be the case this year, since Christmas falls on Monday. The 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas, which is a Holy Day of Obligation, are back-to-back. A person with a mind for efficiency might be tempted to try a two-for-one. Couldn’t the Christmas Vigil Mass, since it would be on Sunday evening, count for both the Sunday and Christmas obligations? The canonical answer is “no, it would not fulfill the law.” There are two obligations, and they need to be fulfilled with two Masses. The liturgical answer goes a little further: “no, but why would you even want to do that?”
We need to remember that the Christian life is so much more than mere legalism. The Church asks us to attend Mass on these days because it is vital for our life in Christ.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons once said that “the Glory of God is man fully alive.” We receive supernatural life through the Mass. The same sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, whereby which he perfectly glorified the Father and gave life and holiness to man, is made present. He allows us to join him in giving glory to the Father, and we in return receive life, life in abundance.
By Father Matthew Kraemer, secretary to Bishop John Folda, master of ceremonies, vice chancellor, and director of liturgy for the Diocese of Fargo; for the November 2017 “New Earth.”
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