Q: Why do Holy Days of Obligation differ from year to year, diocese to diocese, and around the world? (Los Angeles, Calif.)
A: Holy days of obligation — days when Catholics are obligated to attend Mass — are discussed in canon 1246 in the Code of Canon Law. This canon first describes Sundays as the “primordial holy day of obligation” for the entire church throughout the world, as Sundays are the day which traditionally — from the time of the Apostles — the church makes a special point to recall Christ’s resurrection. Canon 1246 adds that besides Sundays, other universal holy days of obligations include: “the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, [Christmas] the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Body and Blood of Christ, [Corpus Christi] Holy Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, Saint Joseph, Saint Peter and Saint Paul the Apostles, and All Saints.”
However, section 2 of this same canon goes on to tell us that with the prior approval of the Holy See in Rome, local bishops’ conferences can: “suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday.” In other words, a bishops’ conference can make some holy days of obligation non-obligatory for the faithful in their territory, and/or move the celebration of that feast to a Sunday, when the faithful will already be attending Mass.
This is generally done for pastoral reasons. For instance, a country with a large, spread-out rural population might find it genuinely burdensome to travel to the nearest church twice in one week.
For similar pastoral reasons, a bishops’ conference can also add holy days of obligation specific to its own area. For example, Ireland includes St. Patrick’s Day as a holy day of obligation because of the great importance this saint has to the Irish people — even though the life and witness of St. Patrick might be less immediately relevant to, say, the people of Italy.
But of course, just because a particular feast day is not an obligation, it does not mean that the faithful can’t attend Mass that day anyway! It can be a beautiful practice to go to Mass on a feast that isn’t strictly obligatory simply to enter more deeply into the spirituality of our liturgical year.
Q: How do vegetarians or vegans, who do not eat meat, participate in this Lenten discipline of the church? (Indianapolis, Ind.)
A: Strictly speaking with respect to the Lenten discipline of abstinence on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, vegetarians already fulfill the requirement of the law simply by not eating meat. The church does not demand that those who abstain from meat on a regular basis tack on an additional penance to compensate for their routine, habitual vegetarianism.
However, it could be spiritually fruitful for a vegetarian to consider freely giving up something else they perceive as a sacrifice personally equivalent to a carnivore’s Lenten abstinence. This would have to be something the individual vegetarian discerns with their confessor or spiritual director.
Like every other Catholic, a vegetarian between the ages of 18-59 would also still be required to practice the Lenten discipline of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Incidentally, it might be good to recall that while most Catholics are now only obligated to abstain from meat during Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent, the church actually still requires us to practice some sort of penance on every Friday throughout the year (barring those times when a major solemnity falls on a Friday). While abstinence from meat is the traditional Friday penance, another suitable penance can be substituted according to a good-faith discernment of individual members of the faithful.
Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.