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Holy Days of Obligation

The Holy Days of Obligation are our most important feast days. They are the principal liturgical feasts that honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

Rejoice! Catholics know that these are the most important days of the year. And of course the best way to celebrate them is to celebrate Holy Mass with all the angels and saints.

But why are they obligations?

The term “Catholic holy days of obligation” contains the word obligation. That's unfortunate.

Too many Catholics look on these wonderful feasts with a dreary sense of obligation. They are so much more than that. We celebrate the most important feasts of our liturgical year on these days. We call them obligations because the Precepts of the Catholic Church tell us that celebrating these feast days is a part of the minimum level of commitment to the Catholic faith.

The first precept addresses Holy Days of obligation and can be found in item #2042 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.” And then the fourth precept tells us to “keep holy the holy days of obligation.”

The Code of Canon Law refers to Sunday as the “foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” Other holy days of obligation honor events and mysteries surrounding Jesus, Mary and other saints.

To observe a holy day, a Catholic is expected to attend a Mass either on the holy day or during its vigil on the evening before. In addition, it's believed that Catholics should refrain from work or other activities that can detract from the celebration of the day. The Church calls on its members to focus on worship and rest during holy days of obligation.

Those who are devout in their love for the Lord will find that we celebrate many saints' feast day on nearly every day of the year!

  • January 1 is the holy day that commemorates Mary, Mother of God.

  • 6th Thursday after Easter (varies according to dioceses) This holy day marks Christ's ascension 40 days after His resurrection. Catholics consider it the last act of redemption that He began on Good Friday. It commemorates his bodily ascension into Heaven while the Apostles watched.

  • August 15 commemorates the assumption of Mary's body into Heaven without any decomposition of her remains. The feast is quite old. The Assumption of Mary is actually part of Catholic dogma.

  • November 1 began as an early Christian custom to observe each saint's martyrdom. However, by the last days of the Roman Empire, there were so many martyrs that dioceses decided to observe a common day.

  • December 8 honors the immaculate conception of Mary. A common mistake is the belief that the "immaculate conception" refers to Christ, not his mother. Catholic doctrine states that Mary was created and born in a sinless condition as was appropriate for the mother of Christ.

  • December 25 celebrates the birth of Jesus. Christmas is a shorter form of Christ's mass.

As a side note: Whenever January 1, August 15 or November 1, falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is waived in most U.S. dioceses.

Days Commonly Confused with Holy Days of Obligation

The Catholic Church calendar includes relatively few holy days of obligation. However, it is common for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to erroneously believe that some important days on the liturgical calendar are also days of obligation.

While important days for Catholics, the following are not holy days of obligation:

  • The Feast of the Annunciation
  • Ash Wednesday
  • Holy Thursday
  • Good Friday
  • The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
  • The Transfiguration of the Lord

Observing holy days of obligation is an essential part of Catholicism. By setting aside specific days to attend Mass and meditate on the mysteries of the Catholic faith, the Church seeks to draw its members closer to God.