Having just celebrated in our parish the Solemnity of St. Patrick, and with the Solemnity of St. Joseph (usually March 19) transferred to Monday, it seemed like a topic to explore would be some of the curiosities of the Liturgical Calendar itself.Much like the historical development and use of veils, I don’t expect this to be a real page-turner, but it may shed some light on some of the peculiarities that we take full advantage of throughout the year.
Since the reform of the General Roman Calendar in 1969, a great deal has changed. (In point of fact, I could write a whole book on the changes and adjustments to the Calendar at other times in the 20th century, but for our purposes here I have chosen to limit the discussion to the calendar of the New Order of Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969.) Whenever we use the phrase “General Roman Calendar” we refer to the annual arrangement of liturgical seasons and the observances of Saints’ “feast days” in any given year. The General Roman Calendar provides the basic guideline for which Mass (whether that of a proper Saint, a votive Mass, a ferial day, etc.) is said on each day of the year.
To start, we look at the overall structure of the calendar. It is divided according to liturgical seasons (Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time I, Lent [and the Paschal Triduum], Easter, and Ordinary Time II). These seasons begin and end based upon the placement of Christmas and Easter within the calendar year, the former always occurring on December 25, and the latter based on the ancient Jewish lunar calendar which calculates Passover as the Sabbath following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (Easter Sunday occurring the day after the Passover Sabbath). These two great Solemnities of Our Lord form the two hinges upon which the entire season calendar is based. This is why the First Sunday of Advent shifts from the third to the fourth weekend of November, and why Lent can begin as early as the beginning of February and as late as the second week of March!
In addition to the particular seasons that the Church observes, there are “feasts” that we celebrate on specific days of the calendar year, usually pertaining to Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph and the other Saints inscribed on the Roman Calendar. These feasts (and I use the term in the generic sense—I’ll explain why in a moment) are ranked into three basic categories: Solemnities, Feasts (see?), and Memorials, the latter category being divided into obligatory and optional. All of this is laid out in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal’s Table of Precedence for Days of the Year.
Eventually we will dive into the distinctions that are made with each of these ranks of feasts (again, used in the generic sense). But, since it pertains directly to this weekend, I want to say a word about the highest rank, Solemnities. Solemnities are the highest-ranking days of observance in the liturgical year, and there exists within that category a ranking in order to ensure that when two would-be solemnities occur on the same day (e.g., a Sunday of Lent and a Solemnity of a Saint), one knows which day is to be observed.
Solemnities are, like all feasts, of intrinsic value to the Church because they require us to pause, take a break from our labors, and enter more deeply into the mysteries of the life of Christ, recognizing the contribution of the particular event or person to the building up of the Kingdom of God. For example, March 19 is always the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. On this day, we cease all Lenten fasting and rejoice in the life of St. Joseph, the “silent partner” of the Holy Family, who cared for Our Lord and His Mother, loving the former as his own son, and the latter as St. Paul instructed in his Letter to the Corinthians: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.”
Yet, this year, the Solemnity of St. Joseph is transferred to Monday, March 20, because the Sundays of Lent, according to the Table of Precedence, “outrank” the Solemnity of St. Joseph and displace it. This is because the Sundays of Lent and Advent, Christmas and Easter, and Solemnities of Our Lord always and everywhere take precedence over every other liturgical observance, because they pertain directly to the mysteries of the Life of Christ and have an intrinsic value to the worship of God in the Sacred Liturgy that is unparalleled.
This past Friday saw our observance of another Solemnity, that of St. Patrick. You see, while St. Patrick’s Day in the General Roman Calendar is merely a Memorial, the Titular Patron of a Place or a Parish Church is given the rank of a Solemnity. So, for us in St. Patrick’s parish, by universal liturgical law, we were exempt from all Lenten fasting in order to celebrate our particular parish Solemnity. And so this entire weekend (Saturday excepted) is, for us, a time of feasting and celebration.
I hope to be able to go back and to look at some of the other idiosyncrasies regarding the Roman Calendar, but this was probably enough to start us off with. Stay tuned for more, as we look at a topic that directly affects our worship of God, bringing to it order, and allowing us to make the very most of all that Holy Mother Church offers us in her Liturgy.