|ROME, 8 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: We as Catholics commonly use the word "feast" to cover everything
from church feasts of various saints and the Blessed Mother, to Corpus
Christi, etc. We also understand that there are three kinds of
feasts/celebrations: memorial, feast, solemnity. Could you kindly
elaborate on these three categories? Also, why is Corpus Christi not a
holy day of obligation?
R.D., Enderamulla, Sri Lanka
A: Effectively we use the word "feast" to cover all levels of
celebration, even though the word also has a precise technical meaning
in the hierarchy of celebrations. There is no great difficulty in this,
as the context usually clarifies whether we are speaking technically or
The three basic classes are those mentioned by our reader, although
memorials are often divided up into obligatory and optional. There are
some other means of classifying the celebrations which give different
numbers and categories. For example, if one classifies on the basis of
which Masses may be celebrated on a given day, one comes up with seven
groupings of celebrations.
The difference between the three basic categories resides in their
importance, which in turn is reflected in the presence or absence of
different liturgical elements.
Solemnities are the highest degree and are usually reserved for the
most important mysteries of faith. These include Easter, Pentecost and
the Immaculate Conception; the principal titles of Our Lord, such as
King and Sacred Heart; and celebrations that honor some saints of
particular importance in salvation history, such as Sts. Peter and Paul,
and St. John the Baptist on his day of birth.
Solemnities have the same basic elements as a Sunday: three readings,
prayer of the faithful, the Creed and the Gloria which is recited even
when the solemnity occurs during Advent or Lent. It also has proper
prayer formulas exclusive to the day: entrance antiphon, opening prayer,
prayer over the gifts, Communion antiphon, and prayer after Communion.
In most cases it also has a particular preface.
Some solemnities are also holy days of obligation, but these vary
from country to country.
A solemnity is celebrated if it falls on a Sunday of ordinary time or
Christmastide. But it is usually transferred to the following Monday if
it falls on a Sunday of Advent, Lent or Easter, or during Holy Week or
the Easter octave.
A feast honors a mystery or title of the Lord, of Our Lady, or of
saints of particular importance (such as the apostles and Evangelists)
and some of historical importance such as the deacon St. Lawrence.
The feast usually has some proper prayers but has only two readings
plus the Gloria. Feasts of the Lord, such as the Transfiguration and
Exaltation of the Holy Cross, unlike other feasts, are celebrated when
they fall on a Sunday. On such occasions they have three readings, the
Gloria and the Creed.
A memorial is usually of saints but may also celebrate some aspect of
the Lord or of Mary. Examples include the optional memorial of the Holy
Name of Jesus or the obligatory memorial of the Immaculate Heart of
From the point of view of the liturgical elements there is no
difference between the optional and obligatory memorial. The memorial
has at least a proper opening prayer and may have proper readings
suitable for the saint being celebrated. The readings of the day may be
used, and the lectionary recommends against an excessive use of specific
readings for the saints so as not to interrupt too much the continuous
cycle of daily readings.
On the other hand, the specific readings should always be used for
certain saints, above all those specifically mentioned in the readings
themselves, such as Martha, Mary Magdalene and Barnabas.
During Lent and Advent from Dec. 17 to 24 memorials may be celebrated
only as commemorations. That is, only the opening prayer of the saint is
used and all the rest comes from the day.
Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, is something of a special class that, without
being a solemnity, still has precedence over a Sunday.
It is also important to note that the same celebration may have a
different classification in various geographical areas, as some
celebrations and saints are venerated more in one place than in another.
For example, St. Benedict, an obligatory memorial in the universal
calendar, is a feast in Europe since he is one of its patrons. But he
rates a solemnity in the diocese and abbey of Montecassino where he is
Finally, the decision on whether a solemnity such as the Body and
Blood of the Lord is a holy day of obligation falls primarily upon the
bishops' conference, which decides based on the pastoral reality of each
country. Some have maintained the traditional Thursday celebration and
kept it as a holy day; others might have maintained the day but without
the obligation. Many have preferred to transfer the celebration to the
following Sunday so as to ensure its celebration with the greatest
number of faithful.
The Vatican, for example, continues the traditional Thursday
celebration and thus the Holy Father's procession with the Blessed
Sacrament is held on that day. The Diocese of Rome, however, along with
the rest of Italy, celebrates it on the following Sunday.
* * *
Follow-up: Solemnities, Feasts, Memorials [10-21-2008]
Our Oct. 8 column on solemnities, memorials and feasts brings to mind a
question from a priest based in Oregon. He asked: "[Jan. 3] is listed in
the Ordo as an 'optional memorial' of the Holy Name of Jesus and it says
that this feast was recently introduced into the Sacramentary. I should
like to have offered that Mass, but have no approved texts for it. Is
there some source where I could have found such a text (e.g., a
Website)? There are similar celebrations throughout the year, some of
them even mandatory memorials for which no texts are readily available."
The difficulty of some new celebrations with no corresponding proper
texts is a temporary one that should be resolved within a few years.
The cause of this difficulty is that Pope John Paul II, on the occasion
of the publication of the new Latin missal, took the initiative to add
some new celebrations or restore some older ones that had been dropped
from the old calendar. Among these restored celebrations were the Holy
Name of Jesus and St. Catherine of Alexandria. Even after the
publication of the missal, he added one or two more saints to the
universal calendar such as St. Pio of Pietrelcina.
The problem arises because, although they already form part of the
calendar, the proper texts of some of them have yet to receive an
officially approved rendering into English. There is a certain degree of
logic to this situation. Since the translation of the entire missal is
currently under review, it makes sense to do everything as part of a
single project even though it means that these feasts will not have
proper texts for another couple of years.
Some bishops' conferences have taken a different approach. For example,
the Italian bishops have produced an elegant but economic supplement
containing a translation of all the new texts with the same typeset as
the altar missal. It is thus possible to celebrate these memorials in
Italian even though the definitive Italian translation of the missal is
still in the pipeline. I donít know if any English-speaking conference
has done something similar.
An Italian-language Website called maranatha.it contains most of these
texts online. This site also has large portions of other sacramental
rites and blessings and little by little is including the Latin texts of
the missals of John XXIII and Paul VI. I am unaware of an
English-speaking site that has the translations of these new liturgical
texts, and it is likely that their publication would infringe on
Therefore, what to do? For some feasts such as the Holy Name of Jesus
there appears to be little to do but wait for the definitive translation
of the missal.
The new saints can be celebrated using texts from the common of the
saints: Martyrs, Pastors, Virgins, etc., as best fits the saint in