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On the Church calendar, it really can be a movable feast

If you’re leafing through the 2024 calendar you got at your parish, you may be wondering what’s happened to Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. There are different reasons for their departure this year, but the same overarching answer behind each reason: a hierarchy of feasts and seasons that means that some feasts take precedence over others. 

Let’s start with St. Patrick’s Day. It’s being displaced by the Fifth Sunday of Lent. While this may make some Catholics unhappy, most Sundays in the Church year outrank saints’ feasts, according to Father Joseph Tyson Murphy, interim director of the Office of Worship for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. 

It could be worse. Easter can come so early that St. Patrick’s can get displaced by Holy Week. 

When Cardinal Gregory celebrated Mass on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, at St. Francis Xavier Church in Washington, D.C., he noted that the date is St. Francis Xavier’s feast day. But it, too, was superseded by the First Sunday of Advent, which marks a new liturgical year.

Father Joseph, a member of the Oratorian Community of St. Philip Neri at St. Thomas Apostle Parish in Washington, D.C., noted that saints’ feasts are considered “memorials” or “optional memorials” by the universal Church – but for the parish named after a saint, that feast rises to the order of a solemnity, although that will get eclipsed by Sundays not in Ordinary Time. 

Now to tackle Valentine’s Day. Feb. 14 this year also marks the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday. Even if you were to think of it as the feast of St. Valentine, it is no longer on the Roman calendar. Instead, you would see the feasts of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, known as the “Apostles to the Slavs” for having brought Christianity to Central and Eastern Europe 1,000 years ago. 

But even these two saints’ deeds can’t keep them from getting displaced by Ash Wednesday.

“It is not a solemnity, and it is not a feast. It is its own celebration,” Father Joseph said. “There is not another day of this significance that is not a solemnity or a commemoration. On the table of liturgical days, it is in the first category.” 

As for St. Valentine, the question of “which St. Valentine?” pops up. “In the Roman Martyrology, there are five or six St. Valentines in that book. Because there’s a question of which St. Valentine would be celebrated,” Father Joseph said, it has been dropped. 

Father Joseph said – and made the point frequently during an interview with the Catholic Standard – that the liturgical calendar is structured with “preparing us for the mystery of the resurrection of Christ.” 

The grandest, most glorious feast is that of Easter Sunday, he said. The other liturgical observances of the Triduum – starting with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday – are also key. “These global celebrations,” according to Father Joseph, “are fundamental to our faith; everything else is illumined and guided by them.” 

Christmas, Epiphany, the Ascension of Our Lord and Pentecost are of the next rank “because of the way they point to Christ risen from the dead in a way unique to the other feast days,” he noted.  

“The season of Easter is the overflowing of that mystery” and as such takes precedence over other feasts that might otherwise occur on a certain day, Father Joseph said. 

“Any solemnity that celebrates a mystery of the Lord, including the three Sundays following Pentecost – Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart – have their special place. So too does the Ascension of Our Lord in those countries whose bishops have chosen to celebrate it on a Sunday, and the feast of Christ the King on the Sunday preceding the First Sunday of Advent. 

Also in that group are solemnities that celebrate Mary, such as the Assumption on Aug. 15 – but not the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he said, because it falls in Advent. 

Then come solemnities of the saints: All Saints Day and All Souls on Nov. 1 and 2, St. Peter and St. Paul on June 29, and the birth of John the Baptist on June 24, plus the patronal feast of a parish when it falls on a Sunday in Ordinary Time. 

There are six solemnities that displace a Sunday in Ordinary Time. In chronological order, they are the Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 8; the Presentation of the Lord, Feb. 2; the Transfiguration, Aug. 6; Holy Cross, Sept. 14; the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, Nov. 9; and the Holy Family, on the Sunday between Christmas and Jan. 1 – or Dec. 30 if Christmas falls on a Sunday. 

Feasts that are particular to salvation history have their own place as well. In Mexico, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 is as important to Mexican Catholics – because it involves, as Father Joseph put it, “the action of Christ rising from the dead and sending his mother to Mexico” – as St. Patrick is to the Irish in Ireland and in the diaspora. 

Other saints on the calendar, including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John Neumann, “make known Christ risen from the dead…,” he added. 

Doctors of the Church have their feasts celebrated, including an obligatory memorial for St. Augustine, although St. Hildegard of Bingen, a German mystic, is an optional memorial on the calendar, according to Father Joseph. 

Some saints’ feasts are celebrated in some countries but not in others. “In England, they may not be able to relate to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton the way we can because she’s an American saint,” Father Joseph said. 

After that, you may see an entry in a calendar square marked “Ferial Day.” On that day, no feast is assigned. The Mass readings for those days are intended to buttress Catholics’ understanding of salvation history, especially during Ordinary Time. 

The U.S. bishops have selected readings to celebrate two national holidays: Thanksgiving and Independence Day. These secular holidays still offer “a profoundly religious theme; in thanksgiving to God for his many blessings,” Father Joseph said. 

This year, were it not for Leap Day, Easter would have been celebrated on April 1 – April Fool’s Day; while not a holiday, most everyone knows what it is, yet a skilled homilist can work that confluence into a sermon. It last happened in 2018, but before that it had last taken place in 1956. Its next occurrence will be in 2029.