Every Sunday is essentially a holy day. That is, Catholics set aside the first day of the week to “abstain from those labors and business concerns” which are an impediment to worship, joy, works of mercy, and proper relaxation of mind and body. Each Sunday becomes for us a “little Easter,” commemorating the Lord’s Resurrection. Certain other days on the liturgical calendar have come to share the obligatory pull of the Sunday observance. But how was it decided which events qualify for this attention?
As early as the second century, Christian communities celebrated the feasts of local martyrs as standard observances. By the fourth century, the Western church added Christmas to this list, and the Eastern church included Epiphany. Both feasts went universal within a century. Special feasts caught the religious imagination, and the liturgical calendar exploded with commemorations of other events in the life of Jesus, as well as that of his mother, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. As holy days multiplied locally, popes and bishops tried to untangle and clarify the level of importance of each. In 1642, Pope Urban VIII all but banned the forming of new mandatory feasts. What was left was the work of dialing back the number of feasts that claimed this non-negotiable character.
When the 1917 Code of Canon Law was issued, ten holy days of obligation were officially recognized. These included the feasts of Christmas (Dec. 25), Epiphany (Jan. 6), Ascension (Thursday, Sixth Week of Easter), Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday), Holy Mary Mother of God (Jan. 1), Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), Assumption (Aug. 15), St. Joseph (Mar. 19), Sts. Peter and Paul (Jun. 29), and All Saints (Nov. 1). Local bishops’ conferences have the authority to transfer or remove these obligations, which they may do circumstantially—as when a particular feast falls on a Monday—or permanently.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has permanently reassigned Epiphany and Corpus Christi to Sunday observances. All but nine U.S. dioceses have done the same to Ascension. The USCCB has removed the obligation from the feasts of St. Joseph, and Sts. Peter and Paul. Which leaves only five holy days not on Sundays that most U.S. Catholics are asked to remember and observe: Christmas, Solemnity of Mary, Immaculate Conception, Assumption, and All Saints.
Scripture: Genesis 2:1-3; Mark 16:1-2; Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1; Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:24-25; 12:28
Code of Canon Law: See canons 1246-1248
Books: The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity, by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson (Liturgical Press, 2011)
Holy Days in the United States: History, Theology, Celebration,Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (USCC, 1984)