Reading the Fine Print for the Liturgical Calendar

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Jun 28, 2018

Was anyone else a little surprised by the celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist this past Sunday? After I mentioned how there will be six months of monotonous green Sundays, the very next Sunday was a solemnity. After Mass, members of my family had questions about this occurrence. Is this normal? How often does this happen that a solemnity is celebrated on Sunday? Do solemnities always take precedence to Sundays in the Liturgical Year?

The answers are not a simple yes or no, but take some explanation. The Liturgical Year is not complicated, but there are some complexities to navigate when deciphering how the feasts and seasons are laid out for the General Calendar every year. Sunday’s celebration of the solemnity and two other special liturgical celebrations this June made me think more about those “exceptions” to the rules in the Church’s Liturgical Calendar and unpack the rules governing the Calendar.

Overview of the Liturgical Year and Calendar

First, a quick overview of the Liturgical Year. What is the Liturgical Year? The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a succinct definition:

[It is] the celebration throughout the year of the mysteries of the Lord’s birth, life, death, and Resurrection in such a way that the entire year becomes a “year of the Lord’s grace.” Thus the cycle of the liturgical year and the great feasts constitute the basic rhythm of the Christian’s life of prayer. (1168)

The Liturgical Year or Church Year is composed of two cycles that occur simultaneously. The cycle that takes precedence is the Temporal Cycle or the “Proper of Time,” which celebrates the mystery of the Redemption. This encompasses all the liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time (Ordinary Time is actually the absence of a season, but I will leave that alone today.) The Temporal Cycle also includes certain feast days related to Redemptive role of Christ, such as the Annunciation, Christmas, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost. Concurrently, but less prominently, the Sanctoral Cycle progresses. This cycle contains feasts of our Lord and our Lady which either have fixed dates or are not celebrated in the Temporal Cycle (such as the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and the feasts of the saints.

The Church provides the General Calendar (or Liturgical Calendar) to keep track of both of these cycles and all the dates of the celebrations of the feasts and seasons of the Liturgical Year. The General Calendar is the same for all Catholics throughout the world. In addition, there are “Proper” or particular calendars for each diocese, parish, religious order and nation. (In this post I’m focusing on the General Calendar that was revised in 1969 of the Ordinary Form.)

When visualizing the Liturgical Calendar, it is not flat like a pancake, with every day the same; rather, it presents itself as a lovely pattern of mountain peaks, valleys, plains and foothills. Not every day has equal footing. Not every day has a feast. There are also feria or ferial days which are “weekday[s] on which no special ecclesiastical feast is to be celebrated”. It would be anticlimactic to celebrate a feast everyday. Too many individual feast days means the big picture of Christ’s life, mysteries and teachings are not given proper emphasis. That is why the Liturgical Calendar has been revised so many times over the centuries. In Her wisdom the Church has restored the prominence of the plan of Redemption and trimmed back the excessive number of feasts which had begun to eclipse the great mysteries of our Lord’s life and death.

I try to find common connections or links to family life when I look at the Liturgical Calendar. At home, when it is time for a new year’s wall calendar or planner, the first things usually recorded are important family dates (birthdays, wedding and death anniversaries, sacrament anniversaries, etc.). Dates for parents’, grandparents’ and extended family and friends’ birthdays and anniversaries are also recorded. However, not all the dates will be remembered the same way. Immediate family birthdays and anniversaries are particularly special celebrations, but other dates aren’t celebrated in the same way. We have a natural sense of priorities.

These priorities reflected in a family calendar are a similar pattern in the Liturgical Calendar. The Church has laid down an order of precedence of special days (rankings) so that we can understand how to follow the Liturgical Year. Not all seasons and feast days are the same, nor are they celebrated in the Church’s liturgy the same way.

The Order of Precedence

Liturgical Calendar 2012-13 by Michele QuigleyInitially looking at the General Calendar, without understanding the order of precedence, the calendar can look very busy and full. The different cycles, seasons and feasts need to be organized for it to make sense. First, the Temporal Cycle is made up of the liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time.

Catholics usually refer to all the saint days as “feasts” or “feast days,” but the feasts of the Temporal and Sanctoral Cycles are actually broken down into an order of precedence. This is the basic overview of the order in the Liturgical or General Calendar. I’ve included a description of what one will observe in the liturgy for each of the rankings. Even if there was no wall calendar or missal nearby to check, there are clues at Mass and the Divine Office that help distinguish the order of precedence.

  1. Solemnities: A Solemnity is the highest feast of the Church, and the celebration begins the prior evening with First Vespers or Evening Prayer I. Outside of the Easter Vigil and Christmas Vigil, some other solemnities have their own Vigil Mass (Pentecost, Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and Assumption) which is used the evening before the solemnity. Mass vestments are always white except for Pentecost and Saints Peter and Paul (and some celebratory vestments can be gold). The Mass formula is similar to a Sunday, which includes three particular readings, the recitation of the Gloria and the Creed, and special propers and prayers. There are only eighteen solemnities in the year, many of them set on a Sunday (Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, etc.). All Holydays of Obligation are solemnities, but conversely not all solemnities are Holydays of Obligation. This is a day of rest and a day of true celebration. There is no fasting or abstaining on these days, even if they fall on a Friday.
  2. Sundays: Sunday is the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day and the primordial feast day. Every Sunday is a little Easter or a little Triduum. Vatican II reiterates “The Lord’s Day is the original feast day…a day of joy and of freedom from work…Sunday…is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.” (SC, no. 106). Because of its importance, the celebration of the Sunday liturgy gives way only to certain solemnities and feasts of our Lord. Sundays during the seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter have precedence over all solemnities. Vestments reflect the liturgical season (white, violet, rose, or green). Like a solemnity, each Sunday begins the prior evening. The Mass structure has three readings, the Gloria and the Creed are prayed, and there are special propers and prayers. The focus of Sunday being a day of true celebration and day of rest is also the same as a solemnity.
  3. Feasts: Since the celebration of Mary Magdalene on July 22 was elevated to a feast, there are now twenty-seven feasts during the Liturgical Year. Feasts are celebrated within a natural day, with no First Vespers unless certain feasts of our Lord fall on Sunday (such as the Transfiguration or the Exaltation of the Cross or Holy Family). The Mass usually has two readings, unless celebrated on Sunday, and then there would be three readings. The Mass has special propers and prayers and the Gloria is prayed. Vestments worn are usually white except for red on feasts for Apostles and martyrs.
  4. (Obligatory) Memorials or Optional Memorials: These are the rest of the saint days in the fixed Sanctoral calendar. This category includes some celebrations of our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The names Obligatory and Optional are as the name describes. Obligatory Memorials, usually referred to as “Memorials” must be celebrated. Optional means the priest has a choice to celebrate or not. Because of the ranking, some Memorials and Optional Memorials are not celebrated depending on what liturgical season or what day they fall. Sundays always override Memorials, and some liturgical seasons (Lent, Easter and second half of Advent) will automatically make a Memorial an Optional Memorial. Liturgically there is no difference between an Obligatory or Optional Memorial. A Memorial has a proper Collect and may have special readings suitable for the saint of the day. The readings of the day may be used, but if there are specific readings chosen for a certain saint, they should always be used.

General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar

Although it seems like a straightforward task to lay out the Liturgical Calendar, it is not. It changes every year. I know through my friend who has been making a Catholic planner for thirteen years that it is not an easy feat to make a new Liturgical calendar annually, insuring that all the feasts are on the correct days. There are many factors that change: leap years, shifting days of the week, Easter and Advent beginning on different dates every year. These factors move dates and create some dates that require reevaluation every year.

The main liturgical document that guides the Liturgical Calendar is the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar (GNLYC). Following the Table of the Order of Precedence at the end of the document can usually solve most feast conflicts. Using a Roman Missal, Third Edition or a daily missal can also give some guidance.

Solemnity vs. Sunday

So what about this celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on a Sunday? The rule is that a solemnity takes priority or “trumps” Sundays during certain seasons of the year, either Christmas or Ordinary Time. If a solemnity fell on an Advent, Lent or Easter Sunday it would have to be transferred, usually to the next day. There are eighteen solemnities for the year, with only eight celebrated on a fixed date and not a Sunday. This makes only eight possible “eligible” solemnities. Which solemnities transfer? The table below applies these principles of precedence for each of these eight solemnities:

Date Solemnity Name Liturgical Season Transferred
or Sunday?
Jan 1 Mary, Mother of God Christmas Sunday
Mar 19 St. Joseph* Lent Transferred
Mar 25 Annunciation* Lent Transferred
June 24 Nativity of John the Baptist Ordinary Time Sunday
June 29 Saint Peter and Paul Ordinary Time Sunday
Aug 15 Assumption Ordinary Time Sunday
Nov 1 All Saints Ordinary Time Sunday
Dec 8 Immaculate Conception Advent Transferred

*There is a possibility of another kind of transference for St. Joseph and the Annunciation if the solemnity falls during Holy Week or the Octave of Easter. St. Joseph could be moved earlier or later, and the Annunciation would be moved to the Monday after the Octave of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday.

The table analysis reveals there are only five possible solemnities that can be celebrated on Sunday if they fall on Sunday. I was testing out dates to see how often Sundays occur for these dates on this calculator website, and it is very infrequent. There are many calendar years that none of these five dates fall on Sunday. That explains why so many of us were taken off guard for a Sunday solemnity because it is not a usual occurrence.

Doing this research helps answer the questions posted above about the solemnities on Sunday:

Q. Is it normal that solemnities are celebrated on a Sunday?
A. Yes, completely normal when applying the basic order of precedence.

Q. How often can a solemnity be celebrated on a Sunday during the Liturgical Year?
A. It is possible only five times a year for these solemnities: Mary, Mother of God/January 1; Nativity of John the Baptist/June 24; Saints Peter and Paul/June 29; Assumption of Mary/August 15; and All Saints/November 1.

Q. Do solemnities always take precedence to Sundays?
A. No, not always. During the Advent, Lent or Easter seasons, Sundays take precedence. The solemnities of St. Joseph/March 19, Annunciation/March 24 and the Immaculate Conception/December 8 will always be transferred if they fall on a Sunday because of the liturgical season.

Proper Calendars: Another Kind of Exception

Another area that isn’t discussed often is Proper Calendars. Each parish, diocese, nation and religious order has a proper calendar or at least some proper feasts related to the life of the community. Within parishes, the dedication of the church and the patron of the church are special proper feasts. A diocese has a patron and celebrates the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. Each nation has a list of saints and celebrations that are (USA’s calendar) important to the history or life of the country. Each religious order has a calendar of saints’ feasts that are celebrated. Exercising the Proper Calendars preserves the unique Catholic culture of different places and religious orders.

There are three examples of Proper Solemnities:

  1. Principal patron of a city or state or country (In the US the patroness is the Immaculate Conception),
  2. Dedication of a church and anniversary of that dedication
  3. Title, founder or patron of a religious order or congregation.

These solemnities are lowest priority of solemnities on the General Calendar, but would take precedence over any other feast day or Sunday in Ordinary Time or Christmas season.

Proper Feasts are another example following a proper calendar. There are six examples listed in the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar (GNLYC):

  1. Feast of the principal patron of the diocese.
  2. Feast of the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral.
  3. Feast of the principal patron of a region or province, or a country, or of a wider territory.
  4. Feast of the title, founder, or principle patron of an order or congregation and of a religious province, without prejudice to the directives in no. 4 regarding Sunday.
  5. Other feasts proper to an individual church.
  6. Other feasts listed in the calendar of a diocese or of a religious order or congregation.

I attended two Masses this June that illustrated how a celebration in a Proper Calendar can take precedence. The first was a Mass at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, DC for the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. The General Calendar includes St. Anthony as an Obligatory Memorial. Since this is a Franciscan shrine run by Franciscans, the St. Anthony celebration would have been elevated to a feast. But because St. Anthony is considered the “Patron of the Custody of the Holy Land” which is the work of this Monastery, the celebration was elevated to a solemnity.

June 22 is the Optional Memorial of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. My son chose Thomas More for his Confirmation saint this May and requested we attend Mass for his feast day in honor of his new patron saint. It wasn’t until I arrived that I remembered that the patron saint for our diocese is St. Thomas More. The celebration of the Mass was elevated to a Feast instead of an Optional Memorial. I enjoyed participating in the higher liturgical celebrations of both feasts and seeing the Proper Calendars in action.

Solemnities on Sundays and celebrating feasts of the Proper Calendar are an integral part of the Liturgical Calendar but are not a daily occurrence. These celebrations can help us grow in our Catholic Faith. It is not about being smug in the knowledge of the Calendar’s particulars but rather embracing opportunities to deepen our understanding and appreciation of why the Church provides a Liturgical Calendar with an order of precedence for Her feasts and seasons. We can push aside the view that these are just “regulations” and see with spiritual eyes the reasons for the order of precedence. Thus our familiarity with these patterns of our Faith and the central truths of reliving the Liturgical Year should penetrate our hearts and expand our spiritual life in Christ.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, mother, CGS catechist and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org’s liturgical year section. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: margaretinvirginia - Jun. 30, 2018 12:04 AM ET USA

    Very helpful, thank you. Our priest this morning (Sts. Peter and Paul) was wearing white vestments, instead of the red you mention for today's solemnity.

  • Posted by: jgmiller - Jun. 29, 2018 9:53 PM ET USA

    Thank you so much, James!

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 29, 2018 9:43 PM ET USA

    Glad to hear that you are feeling better. Thanks for this detailed explanation of the Church Calendar.