Holy Days of Obligation in the Catholic Church

The most important feasts in the Catholic calendar

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Holy days of obligation are feast days on which Catholics are required to attend Mass and to avoid (to the extent that they are able) servile work. The observance of Holy Days of Obligation is part of the Sunday Duty, the first of the Precepts of the Church.

There are currently ten Holy Days of Obligation in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and five in the Eastern Catholic Churches; in the United States, only six Holy Days of Obligation are observed.

What Is an Obligation?

A lot of people misunderstand what it means to say that we are obligated to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. This isn't an arbitrary rule, but part of our general moral life—the need to do good and avoid evil. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Para. 2041) describes the obligations listed in the Precepts of the Church as "the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor." These are things that, as Christians, we should want to do anyway; the Church uses the Precepts of the Church (of which the listing of Holy Days of Obligation is one) simply as a way to remind us of our need to grow in holiness.

What the Church Prescribes

The Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church lists (in Canon 1246) the ten universal Holy Days of Obligation, though it notes that each country's bishops' conference can, with the permission of the Vatican, modify that list: 

  1. Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  2. However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

Norms for the United States

The bishops of the United States petitioned the Holy See in 1991 to remove three of the universal Holy Days of Obligation—Corpus Christi (the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ), Saint Joseph, Saints Peter and Paul—and to transfer the celebration of Epiphany to the nearest Sunday (see When Is Epiphany? for more details). Thus, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists the following Holy Days of Obligation in the United States:

January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Moreover, "Whenever January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, or August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, or November 1, the solemnity of All Saints, falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated."

In addition, the USCCB received permission in 1999 for each ecclesiastical province in the United States to decide whether Ascension would be celebrated on its traditional day (Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday) or transferred to the following Sunday (43 days after Easter).

(See When Is Ascension? for more details.)

Holy Days of Obligation in the Eastern Catholic Churches

The Eastern Catholic Churches are governed by their own Code of Canons of Oriental Churches, which lists the following Holy Days of Obligation in Canon 880:

Holy days of obligation common to all the Eastern Churches, beyond Sundays, are the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Dormition of the Holy Mary Mother of God and the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul except for the particular law of a Church sui iuris approved by the Apostolic See which suppresses a holy days of obligation or transfers them to a Sunday.

More on Holy Days of Obligation

For more on Holy Days of Obligation, including the dates when each Holy Day of Obligation will be celebrated in this and future years, see the following:

FAQs About Holy Days of Obligation

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Richert, Scott P. "Holy Days of Obligation in the Catholic Church." ThoughtCo, Feb. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/holy-days-of-obligation-541520. Richert, Scott P. (2017, February 6). Holy Days of Obligation in the Catholic Church. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/holy-days-of-obligation-541520 Richert, Scott P. "Holy Days of Obligation in the Catholic Church." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/holy-days-of-obligation-541520 (accessed November 21, 2017).