CATHOLIC HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
Confirmations and First Communions are often causes for big celebrations among Catholics. The Hebrew tradition of beginning the day at sunset allows modern Catholics to celebrate Sunday Mass on Saturday night.
For the most part Catholic holidays — listed below — are in conjunction with those of other Christian denominations (See Christianity). The ones discussed in this article are either particularly associated with Catholicism or have Catholic customs linked to them that are unique
Annunciation, March 25
The Easter period, in Spring (dates vary):
Ascension Day (40 days after Easter)
Pentecost (7th Sunday after Easter)
The Christmas period, late November to early January
Advent, the period leading up to Christmas: begins on the Sunday closest to November 30
Christmas Eve, December 24
Christmas Day, December 25
Epiphany, usually January 6
Some denominations of Christianity also celebrate Saints' days, which happen on fixed dates every year. |::|
Jubilees (celebration held on special Holy Years) are held every 25 years and features pious acts and the forgiving of sins. The faithful receive special indulgences if the fulfill certain conditions. Jubilees were invented by people to make money. Jubilee 2000 was a big deal. The Jubilees begin with Midnight Mass to welcome Christmas Day. The Pope, dressed in a multicolored cape, bangs on the Holy Door of St. Peters in Rome with a silver hammer and intones “Aperite mihi portas iustitiae” (Open for mer the doors of justice) and gently pushes the two parts of the door open. The Holy Door stands near the Pieta. It is kept closed except on Jubilee years.
World Youth Day was inaugurated in 1984. The 1995 event in Manila drew four million people. The one 2000, a six-day event in Rome, drew two million young people. It featured singing and dancing by smiling youths with no drugs and sex.
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Christian Denominations: Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory directory.nihov.org
“The Annunciation on March 25th marks the visit by the angel Gabriel's to Mary, who is told that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ. According to the BBC: “More importantly, since it occurs 9 months before the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, the Annunciation marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ - the moment that Jesus was conceived and that the Son of God became the son of the Virgin. The festival has been celebrated since the 5th century AD. The festival celebrates two things: 1) God's action in entering the human world as Jesus in order to save humanity; and 2) Humanity's willing acceptance of God's action in Mary's freely given acceptance of the task of being the Mother of God [Source: June 16, 2009 BBC |::|]
“The story of the Annunciation has produced three important liturgical texts, the Ave Maria, the Angelus, and the Magnificat. 1) The angel's greeting to Mary, which is traditionally translated as "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," (in Latin Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum) is the opening of the Ave Maria, and a part of the Rosary prayers. 2) The Angelus consists of three Ave Marias, together with some additional material. It is said three times a day in the Roman Catholic Church. 3) The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is the poem with which Mary responds to the Annunciation and celebrates the power of God. |::|
The story is the Annunciation is told in Luke's Gospel, 1: 26-38: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you." [Source: Luke 1:26-38, NIV, International Bible Society]
“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
“"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
According to the BBC: “The festival of Corpus Christi celebrates the Eucharist as the body of Christ. The name 'Corpus Christi' is Latin for 'the body of Christ'. This jubilant festival is celebrated by Roman Catholics and other Christians to proclaim the truth of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the actual body of Christ during Mass. In some countries in the world, Catholic churches still celebrate the festival, not only with a Mass, but also with a procession that carries the consecrated wafer through the streets as a public statement that the sacrifice of Christ was for the salvation of the whole world. |::|
“Corpus Christi falls between late May and the middle of June, on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday (60 days after Easter). In some countries the festival is celebrated on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday. In the Church of England this feast is also kept on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and known as the Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi). |::|
“It's worth noting that Christians already mark the Last Supper, when Christ instituted the Eucharist, on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). Because Maundy Thursday falls during the solemn period of Holy Week, it was thought necessary to have a separate festival of the Eucharist that would allow the celebration not to be muted by sadness. |::|
Corpus Christi Celebration
According to the BBC: “The main feature of Corpus Christi celebrations is the triumphant liturgical procession in which the sacred host (the wafer that has been consecrated during the Mass) is carried out of the Church "for the Christian faithful to make public profession of faith and worship of the Most Blessed Sacrament". The practice is no longer common in the UK, where traditional processions started to wane in the 1970s after the Second Vatican Council. Attempts have been made to revive the tradition in some UK towns and villages in recent years. [Source: June 23, 2009 BBC |::|]
“During his papacy, Pope John Paul II led an annual Corpus Christi procession from St Peter's Square in the Vatican to the streets of Rome. Many traditional Catholics are keen for such processions to be promoted everywhere in the world in the light of the late Pope's example. Since, for Catholics, the host contains the real presence of Christ, it is treated as Christ in human form would be treated, with reverence, ceremony and adoration.The host is displayed on a 'monstrance' and protected from the sun by a canopy. |::|
“The procession moves through local streets, either to another church, or back to the church where it began. The Church states that...the devout participation of the faithful in the eucharistic procession on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is a grace from the Lord which yearly fills with joy those who take part in it. — Redemptionis Sacramentum 143 |::|
“The structure of the procession is often designed to demonstrate the hierarchy of heaven in that the sacred host is followed in procession by various Church organisations carrying the banners of their patron saints. Churches may prepare for the festival in the days before by various smaller-scale ceremonies such as the Adoration of the Sacrament, and services which explore the 'eucharistic dimension' of various elements of parish work. |::|
Corpus Christi Liturgy
“Corpus Christi is marked by a service originally devised by Thomas Aquinas. It includes five great hymns, including Panis Angelicus (part of a longer hymn called Sacris Solemniis, 'At this our solemn feast'):
Fit panis hominum
Dat panis coelicus
O res mirabilis
Servus et humilis |::|
“Thomas Aquinas, Sacris Solemniis Juncta Sint Gaudia (Matins hymn for Corpus Christi), stanza 6
Thus Angels' Bread is made
the Bread of humankind today:
the Living Bread from heaven
with imaginings does away:
O wondrous gift indeed!
the poor and lowly may
upon their Lord and Master feed— Aquinas's English translation
and Pange lingua ('Sing, my tongue'):
Pange, lingua, gloriosi
quem in mundi pretium
fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit Gentium. — Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua (hymn for Vespers on the Feast of Copus Christi), stanza 1
Sing, my tongue,
The mystery of the glorious body,
And of the precious Blood,
Shed to save the world,
By the King of the nations,
The fruit of a noble womb. — Literal English translation
Pange lingua includes the Tantum Ergo:
Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua (hymn for Vespers on the Feast of Copus Christi), stanza 5
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail. — Aquinas's English translation
Aquinas also wrote a powerful prayer for the festival, that encompasses many aspects of the doctrine of the Eucharist: O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament left us a memorial of your Passion: grant, we implore you, that we may so venerate the sacred mysteries of your body and blood, as always to be conscious of the fruit of your redemption |::|
History of Corpus Christi
According to the BBC: “The festival was inspired by the religious experience of St Juliana (1193-1258), a Belgian nun, who dreamed repeatedly of the Church under a full moon with a black spot. According to legend, the dream was interpreted to her in a vision by Christ. The moon, she said, was the Church's calendar of festivals and the black spot was the lack of a festival to celebrate the holiest element of the Church - the Eucharist. Juliana shared this with her local bishop, who in 1246 issued a decree for such a festival to be celebrated in his territory. [Source: June 23, 2009 BBC |::|]
“The festival was instituted throughout the Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264. Before that there had been no universal festival to mark the sacrament of the Eucharist. Corpus Christi was made an obligatory feast for Roman Catholics by Pope Clement V in 1311 at the Council of Vienne. Corpus Christi was celebrated in England from 1318 onwards. |::|
“In 1551, the Council of Trent described the festival as a 'triumph over heresy'. They meant by this that when Christians celebrated the festival they affirmed their belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation, and thus the victory of the Church over those heretics who denied that the consecrated wafer became the real body of Christ during the Mass. |::|
“From the Middle Ages onwards, special Corpus Christi plays were staged to mark the occasion. The festival took an additional meaning in Spain, since it was always attended by the secular rulers of the area. The procession in Madrid was joined by the King and/or Queen, as well as senior nobles. This symbolised the unity of the sacred and secular powers, and linked both in victory over outsiders. |::|
“The Spanish Corpus Christi festival explicitly linked the state's political and military victories with divine triumphs; divine will and royal will were inextricably intertwined. Because the "defence" of Catholic Christianity legitimised offensive or "conquest" activity, the triumph of the Corpus Christi was understood as the triumph of those who celebrated Corpus Christi. |::|
“Many Spanish celebrations of this feast featured choreographed performances that were militaristic in nature. Dancers often appeared as combatants: angels and demons, Samson and the Philistines, and Christians and Moors are just a few of the warring factions presented in Spanish Corpus Christi festivals. By extension, the community of Christians participating in local ritual triumphs enlisted in this global war against non-papists.” |::|
Easter, Catholics and Orthodox Christians
Orthodox Easter is celebrated on a different day than Catholic and Protestant Easter. One of the reasons for the split between the Byzantine (Orthodox) Church and the Catholic Church was the controversy over which day Easter should be celebrated on.
The problem arose because the Jewish holiday of Passover falls on the 14th day of a lunar month on the Jewish calendar, which does not always fall on the same day of the week every year. Christians believed that Jesus died on Friday and in turn was resurrected on a Sunday. The Orthodox Byzantine and the Catholic church chose different methods for determining Easter based on predicting the phases of the moon in conjunction with the solar year. Things became even more complicated when the Catholics adopted the Gregorian calendar and the Orthodox Christians stayed with the Julian calendar.
Easter, Holy Week and the Pope
The Pope is technically a local bishop of the Roman church of St. John Lateran. During the Holy Thursday Lenten ceremony at St. John Lateran the Pope washes and kisses the feet of 12 parish priests, just as Christ had done with his 12 apostles. On Good Friday he dons the black robe on an ordinary priest and spends an hour and a half hearing the confessions of Catholics. On Friday night he bears a lightweight cross through the Coliseum and past the ruined temple of Venus.
The Lateran icon of Christ has been regularly used in church rituals at Lateran church in Rome since around A.D. 600. Encased in silver since the 13th century and repainted and repaired many times, it has two small doors over the feet which are opened on Easter Sunday by the Pope who kisses the feet of the icon and calls out three times, "The Lord is risen from the grave." The icon was reputedly made by St. Luke.
On Good Friday the red and white stole hangs from a confession booth in St. Peter's basilica meaning that the Pope himself is hearing confessions of randomly selected penitents. This is a tradition started by Pope John Paul II who has also set a record for papal travel since his election in 1978.
The Pope formally ends the period of mourning during Holy Week with an Easter vigil service at St. Peters, where a dark church is slowly filled with light while the congregation chants "Lumen Christi" ("Light of Christ") three times. At the end of the third chant the lights are fully turned on and bells ring, organs sound and candles are lit. He gives Easter greetings in 60 or so languages.
All Saints' Day
All Saints' Day is a feast day celebrated on 1st November. All Souls' Day, 2nd November, is a time to pray for departed souls. According to the BBC: “All Saints' Day (also known as All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas) is the day after All Hallows' Eve (Hallowe'en). It is a feast day celebrated on 1st November by Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. As part of this day of obligation, believers are required to attend church and try not to do any servile work. [Source: October 20, 2011, BBC |::|]
“Remembering saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD, but it wasn't until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV decided to remember all martyrs. Originally 13th May was designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs. Later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to remember all the saints, changed its name to Feast of All Saints and changed the date to 1st November. |::|
“We celebrate today the solemnity of All Saints. This invites us to turn our gaze to the immense multitude of those who have already reached the blessed land, and points us on the path that will lead us to that destination. — Pope John Paul II, All Saints' Day 2003 |::|
All Souls' Day
According to the BBC: “All Souls' Day is marked on 2nd November (or the 3rd if the 2nd is a Sunday), directly following All Saints' Day, and is an opportunity for Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholic churches to commemorate the faithful departed. They remember and pray for the souls of people who are in Purgatory - the place (or state) in which those who have died atone for their less grave sins before being granted the vision of God in Heaven (called Beatific vision). [Source: October 20, 2011, BBC |::|]
“Reasoning behind this stems from the notion that when a soul leaves the body, it is not entirely cleansed from venial (minor) sins. However, through the power of prayer and self-denial, the faithful left on earth may be able to help these souls gain the Beatific Vision they seek, bringing the soul eternal sublime happiness. |::|
“A 7/8th century AD prayer The Office of the Dead is read out in churches on All Souls' Day. Other rituals include the offering of Requiem Mass for the dead, visiting family graves and reflecting on lost loved ones. In Mexico, on el dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead), people take picnics to their family graves and leave food out for their dead relatives. |::|
“Whilst praying for the dead is an ancient Christian tradition, it was Odilo, Abbot of Cluny (France) who, in 998AD, designated a specific day for remembering and praying for those in the process of purification. This started as a local feast in his monasteries and gradually spread throughout the Catholic Church towards the end of the 10th century AD. |::|
“For the souls in purgatory, waiting for eternal happiness and for meeting the Beloved is a source of suffering, because of the punishment due to sin which separates them from God. But there is also the certitude that once the time of purification is over, the souls will go to meet the One it desires. — Letter of Pope John Paul II for Millennium of All Souls' Day |::|
All Hallows' Eve
“All Hallows' Eve falls on 31st October each year, and is the day before All Hallows Day, also known as All Saints' Day. According to the BBC: “The Church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows' Eve when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself. The name derives from the Old English 'hallowed' meaning holy or sanctified and is now usually contracted to the more familiar word Hallowe'en. [Source: October 20, 2011, BBC |::|]
“In the early 7th century Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, formerly a temple to all the gods, as a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, and ordered that that date, 13th May, should be celebrated every year. It became All Saints' Day, a day to honour all the saints, and later, at the behest of Pope Urban IV (d. 1264), a day specially to honour those saints who didn't have a festival day of their own. |::|
“In the 8th century, on 1st November, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel to all the saints in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Gregory IV then made the festival universal throughout the Church, and 1st November has subsequently become All Saints' Day for the western Church. The Orthodox Church celebrates All Saints' Day on the first Sunday after Passover - a date closer to the original 13th May. |::|
Catholic Christmas Season
Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God. Different denominations celebrate on different dates: Roman Catholics and Protestants on December 25, Orthodox Christians on January 7, and Armenians on January 6, or, in the Holy Land, on January 18. [Source: BBC]
Many Catholics build a manger scene on a table in a corner of the living room around Christmas time. When the sun goes down on Christmas Eve children light candles around the manger scene. They relight the candles every night for the twelve days of Christmas until Epiphany.
Midnight Mass welcome Christmas Day. According to the Washington Post: Midnight Mass, traditionally the first celebration of the Christmas liturgy, is also when Saint Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is read aloud. Recently, however, many churches have moved up their celebrations — first to 10 p.m., then to 8 p.m., and now as early as 4 p.m. Why? For one thing, churches are packed on Christmas Day. Second, the elderly and families with children may find it easier to attend services on the 24th, so as not to conflict with the following day’s festivities. As a result, some parishes are cutting back on Masses on Christmas Day. One parent recently told me: “We like to get Mass out of the way so that we can focus on the gifts.” (So, by moving Masses further from Dec. 25, churches may be contributing to the secularization of Christmas.) This trend prompted a pastor in New Jersey to send a missive this year noting that Christmas Eve Masses would be at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and midnight — “as in the real midnight.”“
The Epiphany, usually January 6th, closes the Christmas Season. According to to the BBC: “It is an ancient Christian feast day and is significant in a number of ways. In the East, where it originated, the Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It also celebrates Jesus' birth. “Other traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, observe Epiphany as a single day, with the Sundays following Epiphany counted as Ordinary Time. In the Spanish speaking world Epiphany is also known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day).” |::|
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “ Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018