Wednesday, May 27, 2020
A History of Holy Days of Obligation & Fasting for American Catholics: Part 1

Note: I would like to thank Tyler Gonzalez for helping considerably with the research for this article. This two-part article was rearranged and published in two pieces by Latin Mass Magazine and is also maintained here by their permission. For those pieces in LMM, see "The Forgotten History of Fasting for American Catholics" (Christmas 2020) and "Oases in Modern Life: The History of American Holy Days of Obligation" (Fall 2021).

The American Catholic Quarterly (ACQ) Review, Volume 11 offers an insightful series of reflections on Holy Days with a call for us to observe these as our forefathers in the life gladly did:
"The Church by one of her positive commandments requires the faithful to sanctify certain holydays in the year by taking part in the offering of the great sacrifice of the Mass and by abstaining from servile works. To many, it has doubtless seemed strange that the holydays thus prescribed were not the same throughout the world fixed irrevocably and known by all in every country on the face of the earth. Still more strange has it seemed that in a republic like our own where the Church though the oldest of all the institutions existing can boast of little more than three centuries and a half of history there have been diversities before the recently held Third Plenary Council of Baltimore [in 1884] made a step towards absolute uniformity.
"In the days of faith and fervor not only were the great festivals prescribed by the Church, those associated with the life of our Lord and His Blessed Mother, those intimately connected with the work of redemption, and the feasts of the holy apostles by whose ministry the Church was established and the channels of grace led through the world - not only were these kept reverently but the patronal feast of each country, diocese, and church, the days of the most famous local saints were similarly honored. The devotion was general, and whoso refused to lay aside his implements of trade or traffic on their days was so condemned by public opinion that custom made the law."
Interestingly, because the Church enjoined on the Faithful both the obligation to hear Mass as well as to refrain from servile work, the number of holy days, which included Sundays, was significant. Some people began to revolt against the Church claiming that these practices only increased poverty. But as the Journal notes, an interesting phenomenon occurred:
"Protestantism therefore at once swept away all the holydays and Christmas remained almost alone to represent the Church calendar, and the Puritans even punished those who kept Christmas.With men working all the year round except on Sunday, wealth was to be general, the poor would thrive and prosper and be happy and contented, no longer lured from great and ennobling labor by being called away every week to idle some days in church and prayer. It was again unfortunate that this excellent theory did not work well. The poor seemed to grow actually poorer with all these days of labor than they had been before."
The first catalog of Holy Days comes from the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234, which listed 45 Holy Days. In 1642, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull "Universa Per Orbem" which altered the required Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church to consist of 35 such days as well as the principal patrons of one's locality.
  1. Nativity of Our Lord
  2. Circumcision of Our Lord
  3. Epiphany of Our Lord
  4. Monday within the Octave of the Resurrection
  5. Tuesday within the Octave of the Resurrection
  6. Ascension
  7. Monday within the Octave of Pentecost
  8. Tuesday within the Octave of Pentecost
  9. Most Holy Trinity
  10. Corpus Christi
  11. Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3)
  12. Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  13. Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  14. Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  15. Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  16. Dedication of St. Michael
  17. Nativity of St. John the Baptist
  18. SS. Peter and Paul
  19. St. Andrew
  20. St. James
  21. St. John (the December feast day)
  22. St. Thomas
  23. SS. Philip and James
  24. St. Bartholomew
  25. St. Matthew
  26. SS. Simon and Jude
  27. St. Matthias
  28. St. Stephen the First Martyr (the December feast day)
  29. The Holy Innocents
  30. St. Lawrence
  31. St. Sylvester
  32. St. Joseph
  33. St. Anne
  34. All Saints
  35. Principle Patrons of One’s Country, City, etc.
Some of the Holy Days of Obligation removed between 1234 and 1642 included Holy Monday through Holy Saturday in addition to Easter Wednesday through Easter Saturday.

In 1708, Pope Clement XI added the Conception of the Blessed Virgin to the list in his papal bull Commissi Nobis Divinitus. Before the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, the feast was often referred to as the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary without the word "Immaculate."

Holy Days of Obligation in the Colonies:

Not long after the proclamation of this bull do we see changes occurring for those living in the colonies in the New World as American Catholic Review illustrates:
"The Diocesan Synod held in 1688 by Bishop Palacios of Santiago de Cuba fixed as holydays for that diocese in which Florida was then embraced and from 1776 to 1793 Louisiana also the following: All the Sundays of the year, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, St Mathias, St Joseph, the Annunciation, Sts Philip and James, the Finding of the Holy Cross, St John Baptist, Sts Peter and Paul, St James, St Anne, St Lawrence, the Assumption, St Bartholomew, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, St Matthew, St Michael, St Simon and St Jude, All Saints, St Andrew, the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, St Thomas, Christmas, St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, and St Sylvester, Easter Sunday and the two following days, Ascension, Whit Sunday and two following days, Corpus Christi. A bull of Pope Clement X added St Ferdinand, St Rose 'National Patroness of the Indies', and a bull of Innocent XI added St Augustine, August 28th."
Fasting & Abstinence Days in the South East Colonies:

The Church's Liturgical Year is a harmonious interplay of feasts and fasts interwoven in both the temporal and sanctoral cycles that define the rhythm and rhyme of Catholic life. Our ancestors in the New World in Florida and Louisiana would have known the following days of fast:
"The fasting days were all days in Lent; the Ember days; the of eves of Christmas, Candlemas, Annunciation, Assumption, All Saints, the feasts of the Apostles except St Philip and St James and St John, nativity of St John the Baptist; all Fridays except within twelve days of Christmas and between Easter and Ascension, and the eve of Ascension" (ACQ).
For abstinence from meat, they would have observed:
"All Sundays in Lent, all Saturdays throughout the year, Monday and Tuesday before Ascension, and St Mark's day were of abstinence from flesh meat" (ACQ).
It should be noted that in 1089 Pope Urban II granted a dispensation to Spain from abstinence on Fridays, in virtue of the Spanish efforts in the Crusades. After the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Pope St. Pius V expanded that privilege to all Spanish colonies. That dispensation remained in place in some places as late as 1951 when the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the last territory to invoke it, rescinded the privilege.

Fasting & Abstinence Days in the Western Colonies:

In Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California which were included in the ecclesiastical province of Mexico, the feasts and were regulated by the Third Council of Mexico in 1585, as American Catholic Quarterly Review states:
"In these parts besides those already [mentioned above for Florida], the faithful observed as holy days of obligation St Fabian and St Sebastian (January 20th), St Thomas Aquinas (March 7th), St Mark (April 25th), St Barnabas (June 1), the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin (July 2), St Mary Magdalene (July 22), St Dominic (Aug 4), the Transfiguration (Aug 6), St Francis (Oct 4), St Luke (Oct 18), St Catharine (Nov 25), the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin (Dec 18). 
"The fast days were all days in Lent except Sunday; eves of Christmas, Whit Sunday, St Mathias, St John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul, St James, St Lawrence, Assumption, St Bartholomew, St Matthew, St Simon and St Jude, All Saints, St Andrew, and St Thomas."
Holy Days & Fasting Days for Native Americans:

The papal bull "Altitudo Divini Concilii" of Pope Paul III in 1537 reduced the days of penance and those of hearing Mass for the Indians out of pastoral concern due to the physically demanding lifestyle that they lived and also largely due to the fact that they fasted so much already. As a result, the natives were required to only hear Mass on a much smaller number of days: Sundays, Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, Annunciation, Sts Peter and Paul, Ascension, Corpus Christi, the Assumption, and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. And the only fasting days were the Fridays in Lent, Holy Saturday, and Christmas Eve.

Holy Days in Canada & the Midwest:

Bishop François de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec, on December 3, 1667, set the required Holy Days for Canada in accord with the bull of Pope Urban VIII. To those he added St. Francis Xavier, and in 1687, he likewise added St. Louis IX. Bishop François de Laval was declared a saint by equipollent canonization in April 2014 and is known to us now as Saint Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval.

Quoting from the archives of Quebec, the American Catholic Quarterly Review lists the Holy Days in place as 1694:
"The holy days of obligation as recognized officially in 1694 were Christmas, St Stephen, St John, the Evangelist, Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, St Matthew, St Joseph "patron of the country," Annunciation, St Philip and St James, St John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul, St James, St Anne, St Lawrence, Assumption, St Bartholomew, St Louis "titular of the Cathedral of Quebec," Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, St Matthew, St Michael, St Simon and St Jude, All Saints, St Andrew, St Francis Xavier, the Conception of the Blessed Virgin "titular the Cathedral," St Thomas, Easter Monday and Tuesday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday and Tuesday, Corpus Christi, and the patronal feast of each parish."
These holy days were likewise in force in many current American states under Quebec's jurisdiction as the journal elaborates:
"These were the holydays observed in the French settlements in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as in Louisiana, Mobile, and the country west of the Mississippi till that district passing under the Spanish rule was reclaimed about 1776 as part of the diocese of Santiago de Cuba. East of the Mississippi they continued to be in force certainly till the Holy See detached those parts of its territory from the diocese of Quebec and annexed them to the newly erected diocese of Baltimore. 
Thus, we see that little more than 100 years after Universa Per Orbem the observance of various holy days and fast days in the life of Catholics in the New World was already significantly reduced from those observed in Rome.

Significant Changes Occur in the 1700s for the Universal Church:

In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV, who lamented the decline in the Lenten observance, issued Non Ambigimus on May 31, 1741, granting permission to eat meat on fasting days while explicitly forbidden the consumption of both fish and flesh meat at the same meal on all fasting days during the year in addition to the Sundays during Lent. The concept of partial abstinence was born even though the term would not appear until the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Changes likewise occurred for Holy Days. In 1750, little more than one hundred years after "Universa Per Orbem," Pope Benedict XIV extended to the Spanish American colonies the indult previously granted to Catholic Spain reducing the days of obligation to all Sundays of the year, Christmas, St. Stephen, the Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, Easter Monday, Annunciation, Monday after Pentecost Sunday, Corpus Christi, Ascension, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, the Assumption, St. James, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the patron of each locality.

In 1771, Pope Clement XIV abolished both Pentecost Tuesday and Easter Tuesday as days of rest, according to Weiser's Christian Feasts and Customs. In 1778, the obligation to attend Mass on these two days was abrogated by Pope Pius VI, although they were not observed as Holy Days in most places, including in America.

Holy Days in Ireland

Table is taken from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record

It must be stated that the gradual removal of Holy Days was not limited to the New World only. The Irish Ecclesiastical Record from 1882 describes a similar trend in Ireland:
"The full list of holidays of obligation as laid down in the Canon Law. This is the list drawn up by Urban VIII (Universa, September 13, 1642), with the addition of the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, instituted by Clement XI in 1708. The holidays thus enumerated are 35 in number. I have of course included in the list the feast of St. Patrick, as holding in Ireland the place of the [patron] mentioned by Urban VIII in the constitution of 1642." 
There was a distinction between days of single or double precept. Days of double precept required hearing Mass and restraining from servile works, while days of half precept only required hearing Mass. Pope Benedict XIV in 1755 removed 18 feasts from double precept and reduced them to single precept. Shortly thereafter in 1778, Pope Pius VI reduced the number of holy days to 13. And as the Record states, "On this occasion, the obligation of hearing Mass was removed, as well as the obligation of abstaining from servile works."

Regarding fasting, we likewise see a reduction: "The number of those Vigils to which the obligation of fasting had been attached [as of 1778] was in fact but eight - these being the Vigils of the feast of St. Laurence the Martyr (August 9th), and of seven of the nine suppressed feasts of the Apostles." No fasting was observed beforehand on the Vigil of St. John on December 26 or the Vigil of Ss. Philip and James on account of them always falling in Christmas and Pascaltide respectively.

This reduction was likewise occurring in the British Colonies.

Holy Days & Fasting Days in England and Her Colonies:
"The Catholics of the British Isles, after the reform of Pope Urban VIII kept as obligatory: Christmas, the feasts of St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, and St Sylvester, Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, the feasts of St Mathias and St Joseph, Annunciation, Sts Philip and James, Finding of the Holy Cross, St John the Baptist, Sts Peter and Paul, St James, St Anne, St Lawrence, the Assumption, St Bartholomew, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, St Matthew, St Michael, Sts Simon and Jude, All Saints, St Andrew and St Thomas, and one of the principal patrons of the city, province, or kingdom. These were the holydays of obligation observed by the Catholics in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania."
Unfortunately, the practice of the Catholic Religion was illegal in England. Catholicism was made illegal in 1559 under Queen Elizabeth I, and for 232 years, except during the reign of the Catholic James II (1685-1688), the Catholic Mass was illegal until 1791. Yet most Catholics could not hold any public office and had few civil rights even after 1791. It took the Emancipation Act of 1829 to restore most civil rights to Catholics in England. To these souls, most were unable to observe the Holy Days. The penalty of observing the Catholic Faith was death as the English Martyrs bear witness to. Likewise, due to persecution from the protestants, concessions were made for Catholics under the yoke of Protestantism in the British Isles.

On March 9, 1777, Pope Pius VI "dispensed all Catholics in the kingdom of Great Britain from the precept of hearing Mass and abstaining from servile works on all holydays except the Sundays of the year, the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, St Peter and St Paul, Assumption, and All Saints." The feast of the patron was likewise kept. These were the holy days in place at the time of the American Revolution though not all areas observed them, as was seen in the special dispensation for Catholics in Maryland from 1722.

The fasting days were also reduced at the same time to consist of the Ember Days; the forty days Lent; Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent; and the vigils of Christmas, Whitsun Sunday (i.e. Pentecost), Sts Peter and Paul, and All Saints. As the Catholic Dictionary of 1861 states in regards to the changes made in 1777: "The Vigils of the Feasts thus abrogated his Holiness transferred to the Wednesdays and Fridays of Advent, on which he ordered that fast should be kept as in Lent or Embertide, 'although it is an English custom to keep fasts and vigils on Friday.' The pope adds a power to the Vicars Apostolic to dispense from the precept of abstaining from servile works on SS. Peter and Paul falling in the hay-harvest, and the Assumption in the wheat-harvest, provided Mass has been previously heard, if possible."

Part II will cover the history of holy days and fasting from America's foundation to the present. Click here to read Part 2.

2 comment(s):

del_button June 12, 2020 at 2:25 PM
Patricius Oenus said...

Excellent post! Thank you for writing it.

I was so shocked to read that "All Sundays in Lent," were observed for abstinence from meat that I checked your references. That is very surprising.

However, Benedict XIV's encyclical is not entitled "Non Ambiginius" but "Non Ambigimus".

del_button June 16, 2022 at 5:31 PM
Mid-Century Millenial said...

So, I am a little confused, and I would like to know exactly which holy days were being celebrated in the 1000-1400 time period. Especially in England. Where would I find that information?

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