There is a big difference between planning Saturday lunch for the kids, a dinner party for the neighbors, breakfast for overnight guests and Thanksgiving dinner for extended family. Although each of these events is a meal, each calls for a greater or lesser degree of simplicity, formality or festivity depending on the type of meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner); the participants (children, neighbors, guests, extended family); and the occasion (ordinary day, overnight visit, Thanksgiving Day). Lunch on Saturday is likely to be an informal affair at the kitchen table or even a simple peanut butter sandwich consumed between weekend chores, or like it was in my house as a kid, whatever leftovers we had in the refrigerator, heated up in the microwave. Thanksgiving dinner, on the other hand, might require the addition of extra tables and chairs, the use of cloth napkins, candles, seasonal decorations, fine china dishes and lovingly prepared traditional foods.
Preparing parish liturgies requires similar attention to the occasion and the participants. We are quite accustomed to the Order of Mass on Sunday, but if you are a daily Mass goer, you’ve probably noticed the Mass is simpler and shorter during the week than it is on the weekend. The reason for this is known as “progressive solemnity.”
The principle of progressive solemnity is not new. In the pre-Vatican II Church, we had “low Masses” and “high Masses,” and these degrees of festivity were clearly differentiated for virtually every day of the liturgical year. Throughout the Roman Church, it was quite common to find feasts ranked as principal feasts, duplex feasts, semi-duplex feasts, etc. These common designations were standardized after the Council of Trent (1545-63), and although officially this language of “duplex” or “semi-duplex feasts” was no longer used after Vatican II, the current liturgical calendar of the Church still distinguishes between solemnities, feasts, memorials and weekdays. Practically speaking, these distinctions translate into whether or not there’s a Gloria sung at Mass, if we profess a Creed and how many readings are proclaimed at Mass.
In order to understand how this affects the liturgy, we must first understand what the distinctions mean. Therefore, let’s work from the top down.
By definition, solemnity is the state or quality of being serious and dignified, or a formal, dignified rite or ceremony, such as Christmas, Easter, Epiphany and Ascension. A solemnity is the highest of all the days on the Church calendar. It often commemorates an event in the life of Jesus, Mary, Joseph or other important saints. For example, Dec. 8 is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, commemorating when Mary was conceived without sin. A parish’s patron saint is ordinarily celebrated in that parish as a solemnity, as is the anniversary of the day of dedication of the parish’s church. All Holy Days of Obligation are celebrated as solemnities. The Gloria is always sung or recited, there are two readings and a Psalm before the Gospel, and the Creed is recited by all. The only Mass permitted by the Church on these days is for the Solemnity, and the liturgical day officially begins the evening before with the celebration of a Vigil Mass or evening prayer.
Feast days are also special days, though not as “solemn” or “festive” as solemnities. Feast days usually commemorate a particular saint, like an apostle or evangelist, e.g. the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle on Nov. 30 or the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25. Feast days are also days which are celebrated in commemoration of the sacred mysteries and events recorded in the history of our redemption, e.g. the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on Sept. 14. On Feast Days, the Gloria is sung or recited, but the Creed is omitted, and there is usually only one reading and a Psalm before the Gospel. Feasts are also celebrated within the limits of the day; in other words, with the exception of when they fall on a Sunday during the season of Christmas, they do not begin with evening prayer the day before, nor do they carry a Vigil Mass.
Memorials are celebrations of other saints and events in the life of the Church. These are days in the calendar when the Church recognizes its universality and that not all individual saints are equally important to all members of the Church. For that reason, some memorials of saints are commemorated by the Universal Church, others by smaller groups for whom those saints have a special significance. Some memorials are obligatory while others are optional. Memorials are integrated into the celebration of the weekday Mass, with often the only uniqueness being a proper Collect (Opening Prayer) that makes mention of the saint or event being commemorated.
4. Weekdays/Ferial Days
Finally, weekdays, sometimes called Ferial Days, are days during the week when Mass is celebrated, but not in remembrance of any particular saint or event in the life of the Church.
Like the various types of meals we prepare, there are days of greater and lesser liturgical importance. Sundays are always celebrated as Feasts of the Lord, though not always with the same importance or festivity as a solemnity, like Easter or Christmas. For further reflection, consider the following questions:
- How does your parish designate a solemnity? A Feast? A Memorial?
- Does your parish celebrate all solemnities with the same kind of attention and care?
- Does the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception get the same attention as the Assumption? Does Easter get the same attention as Christmas? What about the Solemnity of Christ the King? How do you celebrate that?