Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Feasts of Single vs. Double Precept
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Saint Wenceslas and Saint Ludmila during the Mass is a painting by Frantisek Tkadlik

Sadly, few Catholics observe Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation as days not only of obligatory Mass attendance but also as days of abstinence from all servile works. What is servile work? Mowing the lawn, shopping, painting the house, and other manual works are forbidden on these days by virtue of the Third Commandment. Looking at the Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas, there are only four exceptions to the prohibition on servile work on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation:
“We ought to know, however, that servile work can be done on the Sabbath for four reasons. The first reason is necessity. Wherefore, the Lord excused the disciples plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, as we read in St. Matthew (xii. 3-5). The second reason is when the work is done for the service of the Church; as we see in the same Gospel how the priests did all things necessary in the Temple on the Sabbath day. The third reason is for the good of our neighbor; for on the Sabbath the Saviour cured one having a withered hand, and He refuted the Jews who reprimanded Him, by citing the example of the sheep in a pit (“ibid.”). And the fourth reason is the authority of our superiors. Thus, God commanded the Jews to circumcise on the Sabbath.”
But, the Church's history on Holy Days of Obligation reveals an interesting distinction between full and half holy days, or feasts of double and single precept. In times past, Holy Days would often be referred to as days of single or double precept, with those of double precept requiring both hearing Mass and abstaining from servile works, whereas days of single precept would permit servile work.

The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a concise, high-level overview of Holy Days of Obligation from 1150 to 1791:
The Decree of Gratian (about 1150) mentions forty-one feasts besides the diocesan patronal celebrations; the Decretals of Gregory IX (about 1233) mention forty-five public feasts and Holy Days, which means eighty-five days when no work could be done and ninety-five days when no court sessions could be held. In many provinces eight days after Easter, in some also the week after Pentecost (or at least four days), had the sabbath rest. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth century there were dioceses in which the Holy Days and Sundays amounted to over one hundred, not counting the feasts of particular monasteries and churches. In the Byzantine empire there were sixty-six entire Holy Days (Constitution of Manuel Comnenus, in 1166), exclusive of Sundays, and twenty-seven half Holy Days. In the fifteenth century, Gerson, Nicolas de Clémanges and others protested against the multiplication of feasts, as an oppression of the poor, and proximate occasions of excesses. The long needed reduction of feast days was made by Urban VIII (Universa per orbem, 13 Sept., 1642). There remained thirty-six feasts or eighty-five days free from labour. Pope Urban limited the right of the bishops to establish new Holy Days; this right is now not abrogated, but antiquated. A reduction for Spain by Benedict XIII (1727) retained only seventeen feasts; and on the nineteen abrogated Holy Days only the hearing of Mass was obligatory. This reduction was extended (1748) to Sicily. For Austria (1745) the number had been reduced to fifteen full Holy Days; but since the hearing of Mass on the abrogated feasts, or half Holy Days, the fast on the vigils of the Apostles were poorly observed, Clement XIV ordered that sixteen full feasts should be observed; he did away with the half Holy Days, which however continued to be observed in the rural districts (peasant Holy Days, Bauernfeiertage). The parish priests have to say Mass for the people on all the abrogated feasts. The same reduction was introduced into Bavaria in 1775, and into Spain in 1791; finally Pius VI extended this provision to other countries and provinces.
The trend of removing this distinction between feasts of single and double precept accelerated under Pope Pius VI. As illustrated in the Irish Ecclesiastical Review, the reduction in Irish Holy Days, along with the distinction of double vs. single precept, led to a significant reduction in the rest that characterized Holy Days of Obligation. Days of Full Obligation were days of double precept:


Alas, this trend in the relaxation of discipline continued in America as well, ultimately leading to the 1911 changes under St. Pius X that reduced universal Holy Days to only 8, before they were increased to 10 under his successor. Gone was the distinction between feasts of single and double precept by the time of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

If more priests could encourage their parishioners to observe former Holy Days of Obligation, even devotional, as feasts of single precept, this could go a long way to helping rediscover the Catholic liturgical life. And for those able to do so, the observance of both Mass attendance and the sabbath rest on these former holy days (see here for the full list), should be commendable.

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